The Simpsons have mocked or referenced literature over its 27 (!!) seasons, usually through a book Lisa was reading, or with guest appearances (e.g., Michael Chabon & Jonathan Franzen, Maya Angelou and Amy Tan). And it has referenced Edgar Allan Poe in both title (“The Tell-Tale Head” from the first season) and in passing (in “Lisa’s Rival” from 1994, the title character builds a diorama based on the same Poe tale.)
But on the first ever “Treehouse of Horror” from 1990–the Simpsons’ recurring Halloween episode–they adapted Poe’s “The Raven” more faithfully than any bit of lit found in any other episode. The poem, read by James Earl Jones, remains intact, more or less, but with Dan Castellaneta’s Homer Simpson providing the unnamed narrator’s voice. Marge makes an appearance as the long departed Lenore, with hair so tall it needs an extra canvas to contain it in portrait. Maggie and Lisa are the censer-swinging seraphim, and Bart is the annoying raven that drives Homer insane.
Castellaneta does a great job delivering Poe’s verse with conviction and humor, while keeping the character true to both Homer and Poe. It’s a balancing act harder than it sounds.
Suffice it to say that this foray into Poe was good enough for several teachers guides (including this one from The New York Times) to suggest using the video in class. (We’d love to hear about this if you were a teacher or student who experienced this.) And it’s the first and only time that Poe got co-writing credit on a Simpsons episode.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.