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Local Students Speak at International Conference

In the photo: Wes McMasters (left) and Jeff Sexton review literature together during a recent meeting.
10/29/2009 —

DuBois – Two Penn State DuBois students had the honor of being the only undergraduate students to make presentations at an international conference in Philadelphia in October.  Senior Wes McMasters and Junior Jeff Sexton both made presentations at the Third International Edgar Allan Poe Conference.  Their fellow presenters included everyone from graduate students to tenured faculty from around the world.  Those invited to speak presented research they have done about the works of Poe, and then were invited to discuss their work with panels of other experts.  An invitation to present at the conference came only after each of the 120 speakers presented an abstract that was reviewed by a committee of scholars, who then decided who should present.  Penn State DuBois Professor of English and renowned Poe Expert Richard Kopley encouraged both Sexton and McMasters to submit their work.


"The experience was Awesome.  To be able to present my work, and not just be there, is more than I ever could have asked for," McMasters said.  The paper McMasters presented at the conference could be groundbreaking in the world of literature.  He is possibly the first person ever to write a biographical document on Morton McMichael, one of Poe's contemporaries. 


"I was on the Poe Connections Panel," McMasters explained.  "We picked out a figure connected to Edgar Allan Poe, and explained the connections."  McMasters found that while it is known that McMichael was a friend of Poe's, and may have had a large part in Poe's early publications, history has not recorded much additional information about him.  "He's the man without a biography.  No one has ever written anything on him," said McMasters.


McMasters set out to be the person who would write about McMichael.  He dug through archives at the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia, conducting mostly primary research using documents nearly two centuries old.


"I found that he was very influential in the Philadelphia area," said McMasters.  "He was mayor, he was sheriff, he was a really influential figure at the time."


McMaster's work was well received, and it may lead to more work on the same topic.  He's considering following up his research and eventually publishing the first complete biography of Morton McMichael. 


Sexton researched and presented information on the influence Poe has had on the genre of Detective Fiction.  He explained, "Poe laid down the rules for Detective fiction in his three stories about detective Auguste Dupin.  They are the unbreakable standards we follow today." 


Sexton researched other writers who were inspired by Poe, and even outlined the story of one writer who tried to one-up Poe and failed.  That, Sexton said, is Argentinean writer, Jorge Borges.  "I talked about how Borges was deeply influenced by Poe and wrote the short story, Death and the Compass.  The story compares Borge's detective to Poe's Dupin, then another Sherlock Holmes inspired character is used to kill Dupin. The connection is ultimately a failed attempt to destroy the rules for the detective story that Poe established," he said. 


The two students say it was an honor, if not a bit overwhelming, to present their research at an international conference among seasoned scholars.  It could also be a glimpse into the future for McMasters and Sexton who both plan to attend graduate school and eventually teach in higher education.


"The experience itself was enlightening, and if I'm headed into an academic career, an event like this is what my life will hold, so it's nice to experience that," McMasters said.


Sexton said making the presentation was extraordinary, but having Kopley's encouragement was the first thing that struck him.  "I was truly honored.  Opportunities like this don't happen often.  When you have someone as well respected as Dr. Kopley saying that what you're doing is worth telling people about, that's really special."


"They both did great jobs at the conference," Kopley said. "I was impressed and proud."

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