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In the strangest 19th-century American novel you’ve never been assigned – Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee, from 1836 – a ne’er-do-well digs for ghostly treasure at midnight while saying the Lord’s prayer backwards. Such unholy doings anger up the universe, and Sheppard Lee gains what might be American lit’s first blessing/curse superpower: the ability to hop into and possess dead bodies. Sheppard Lee becomes a miser, a dandy, even a slave who dispiritingly prefers captivity to freedom. The book’s funny, dark, infuriating, and unforgettable; the current edition is blurbed by no less than Edgar Allen Poe. Tonight Tiffany DeRewal, a PhD candidate at Temple University, discusses Bird’s curious novel, the gothic imagination in early America, and the grim business of grave robbing corpses for the benefit of med students and doctors – a class that included author/physician Robert Montgomery Bird.

Tue., Aug. 12, 8 p.m., 2014