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Poe as a Popularizer of Nineteenth-Century Sceince


Sir Isaac Newton Working on Geometric Problem – 1795 Ink and Water Color by William Blake (Public Domain Image from www.blake.archive)

Poe as a Popularizer of Nineteenth-Century Science

Several important modern-day science historians have conceded that their present understanding of how Industrial Age technologies affected society is limited, and some have started to focus their research on this period. Bernard Lightman argues “Scholars have barely scratched the surface in their attempts to understand the popularization of Victorian [nineteenth century] science” (206). He writes, “As scientists became professionalized [during the nineteenth century] and professional scientists began to pursue specialized research highly, the need arose for non-professionals, who could convey the broader significance of many new discoveries to a rapidly growing…reading public” (187). He proposes that the nineteenth century “popularizers of science” may have been more important than that of Huxley or the Tyndall [important nineteenth-century scientists] in shaping the understanding [of science] in the minds of the reading public…” (188).

During this period, there was a need for a new class of writers who could write about emerging scientific information in a way the new consumers of science information could understand, and in ways that was relevant to their daily experiences. The newly emerging class of professional scientists in the United was neither equipped nor interested in communicating with the public. Lightman refers to those writers who did attempt to communicate to the public about science as the “popularizers of science,” and suggests that “Their success… was partially due to their ability to present the huge mass of scientific fact in the form of compelling stories…” (188). Therefore, he suggests that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth-century culture to explore writers like Edgar Allan Poe, who skillfully and prolifically commented on many of the important popular scientific trends of his lifetime. John Tresch asserts, “Poe’s writings force us to reconsider the relationship between science and literature” (The British Journal of Science, 275-276). Also, in Between Science and Literature, Peter Swirski argues that Poe’s “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth-century society… and that he threw “literary bridges over to the scientific mainland,” These bridges, he concludes, were just as important in helping is to understand how scientific changes influenced society as they are in helping us to understand how literature started to change to reflect scientific developments (X-XI). John Limon, writing in The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science writes that Poe engaged in literary “negotiation with science,” asserting that his works both foreshadowed and critiqued several emerging scientific developments and trends of the future (19). Faytor also argues “there was a two-way traffic between science and science-writers in the nineteenth century. He notes that many of the inventions and writings of professional scientists helped to shape science fiction and that many ideas imagined by science fiction writers found their way into actual scientific inventions. (256). Most scholars acknowledge that Poe was one of the most important leaders in developing both the genres of science fiction and detective fiction. His works in those areas provide abundant examples that he anticipated and forecasted future developments which are accepted today in a variety of technical areas such as exploration of the Poles, astronomy, physics, space travel, photography, electronic communications, replacement of body parts, and the forensic sciences.

During Poe’s lifetime, lay writers or those without “letters” who were interested in writing about science struggled with professional scientists to establish their authority to speak about the newly emerging scientific issues. Poe had not received much formal training as a scientist but had considerable exposure to science ideas in his early education, in his technical experiences in the military, and through his exposure to science news stories as a journalist. He believed that an observant and skilled writer (like himself) was more qualified to interpret and discuss the meaning and impact of the newly emerging sciences and technologies than most professional scientists.

Poe looked not only to the events of his era to inform his view of truth in his science writing, but he was also inspired and informed by several of the most renown philosophers and science writers of antiquity. In his 1848 culminating science narrative, Eureka A Prose Poem, he outlined the development of scientific thinking from antiquity through his era, and provided his own unique theories about the creation, operations, and destiny of humanity and the Universe. A list of the ancient writers of science and the philosophy of science he commented on in Eureka includes Archimedes, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Kepler, Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton. Also in Eureka, he discussed the works of philosophers and scientists closer to Poe’s lifetime such as Auguste Comte, Sir John Herschel, John Stuart Mill, Pierre Simon Laplace, and Friedrich Heinrich Humboldt – to whom Poe dedicated Eureka. Several contextual influences in the areas of literature and technology likely influenced Poe’s subsequent choice to embark on a career that emphasized science narrative writing. These will be discussed in the November 2014 posting. For comments, contact murray@poemuseum.org or ellisonms2@vcu.edu

Sources:
Faytor, Paul. “Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction.” Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Barnard A. Lightman. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997.
Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Science in Context. Ed. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Tresch, John. “The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mechanical Age.” The British Journal of Science 3.3 (1997): 275-90. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.
_______. The Romantic Machine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Sir Isaac Newton Working on Geometric Problem




Edgar Allan Poe in Science # 2—September 2014 by Murray Ellison


Illustration courtesy of an M.S Office Royalty Free Clip

Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe’s most overlooked contribution to English literature is that he is one of the earliest American writers who commented on many of the ways that the emerging technological trends of the nineteenth-century effected everyday citizens.  Poe’s science writing reveals the relationships between a writer who was looking for an audience interested in expressing his attitudes about science writing, and an audience that was looking for a writer who could explain the emerging developments of nineteenth-century science to them. Thus, there was an important relationship between Poe’s science writing and the public: The topics that Poe chose to write about were often influenced by the public’s interests in science, and his writing inspired their continued interest in science. His works, then, not only reflect the range of scientific topics that the public was most enthusiastic about, but they also document their concerns about the ways that technology was changing their lifestyles. Although Poe’s science narratives show that he was excited about many of the new developments of nineteenth-century science, they also express an uncertain attitude about the value he placed in technology. He was also warned readers about the ways that some writers misrepresented the ‘facts of science.’ Interestingly, later in his career he became known as the king of scientific hoax writing. Despite his concerns and ambivalent attitudes, Poe became a significant nineteenth-century professional journalist who had immediate access to the most popular science news stories of the day, and wrote about science in each of his major writing styles, i.e., poetry, non-fiction, and fiction. Despite the existence of these factors, Poe’s importance as a nineteenth-century science writers has not been acknowledged even by his present-day followers, or by many scholars of literature or science history.  Therefore, the present blog will examine the themes and attitudes of Poe’s science narratives in each of his major styles of writing. My hope is that this series will provide both interested readers and scholars of Poe’s work, a clearer understanding of the complex ways that technology effected the lifestyles and culture of the nineteenth-century public.

I will consider a science narrative to be a work of Poe’s poetry, non-fiction, or fiction in which Poe provides an account of scientific inventions or issues, or where he tells a story that highlights popular scientific themes which he presented in journals or newspapers. For example, in his earliest published work of fiction, “MS Found in a Bottle,” Poe recounts a narrator’s experiences during a sea expedition. His vessel is dramatically propelled to the then unexplored waters of Antarctica and the South Pole. He records the scientific details of this story in the realistic style of a technical journalist assigned to the voyage, and at the same time explores issues of the uncertainties of this voyage and of the unexplored spaces between reality and imagination. Poe also added a touch of suspense and Gothic-style horror in his story, which likely helped help to generate additional strong public interest in this already popular topic. “M.S. Found in a Bottle” was first published in 1833 by the Baltimore Saturday Visitor Newspaper. This story first thrust Poe into national notoriety after it won the paper’s first place prize for fiction writing. This recognition undoubtedly encouraged him to write many other science narratives in each of his major styles of writing. In this Blog, I will explore Poe’s themes and attitudes about science as he expressed them in each of these styles, i.e., poetry, non-fiction, and fictional works. In addition, I plan explore: Poe’s educational background; his little-known experiences in the United States Army related to science; the scientific and literary contexts which were in place at the beginning of his writing career; his experiences as a journalist in Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston; and the extraordinary culminating and enigmatic science book he wrote at the end of his career and life—entitled, Eureka A Prose Poem. Poe believed that Eureka was the most important work of his career, and considered it “the culmination of his life’s work” (Broussard 52). He boasted that “Newton’s discovery of gravity was a mere incident compared to the discoveries revealed in this book” (Thomas and Jackson 731). He also wrote a letter to his aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, on July 7, 1848 stating, “I have no desire to live. Since I have done Eureka, I could accomplish nothing more” (Ostram 820). Ironically, Eureka also turned out to be the last work he published under his own supervision. There have been several attempts to evaluate the complex language and puzzles posed in Eureka, but most have come up short because the work is written in a complex, and almost cryptic language. When I get around to discussing Eureka, I plan to use some of the “code-keys” provided in several of Poe’s other writings to help unravel some of its mysteries. Please send comments and suggestions to me about this blog through murray@poemuseum.org or at ellisonms2@vcu.edu

Works Cited:
Broussard, Louis. The Measure of Poe. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Poe, Edgar A. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. John Ward Ostram. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1948.
Thomas, Dwight, and David Jackson, Eds. The Poe Log- A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849. Boston: G.B. Hall and Company, 1987.




Poe and Science by Murray Ellison


Edgar Allan Poe lived at the perfect time in history to be able to observe and to write about many of the most dramatic technological changes that had taken place in world history. Scientist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace called the nineteenth century “The Wonderful Century” because of its “marvelous inventions and discoveries,” which he regarded as immensely superior to anything which had been developed up until that time by “our comparatively ignorant forefathers”(1). Suddenly, within the span of a few decades, the introduction of new Industrial Age technologies such as electricity, telegraphic communications, cross-country railroads, photography, astronomy, and high- speed printing presses dramatically altered the culture and lifestyle of the American public in ways in which few people who lived at the time could ever have expected. In 1903, Sir Norman Lockyer, the then President of the British Association echoed Wallace’s remarks, stating that, “The nineteenth century will ever be known as the one which the influence of science was first fully realized in western countries; the scientific progress was so gigantic that it seems rash to predict that any of its successors can be more important in the life of a nation” (Nature). By the time that Poe started writing professionally (in the early 1830s), the literacy rate was higher than it had previously ever been in America, and the average person could read and understand most articles written in the newspaper. A person could travel to distant parts of the country by rail, and communicate almost instantly via the telegraph to almost anyone in the United States. Through the development of the daguerreotype (an early prototype of photography), people could obtain realistic and long lasting images of their family members to remember for generations. Many of those taken at that time may still be clearly visible today. The introduction of a new class of highly powerful telescopes and microscopes also demonstrated that the Universe of space and the unseen space within objects are much more expansive than anyone had previously imagined.

Peter Swirski argues that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth century culture to explore popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe because his “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth century society. Poe’s science narratives are perhaps most important because he was the first American authors who was able to distill the important information and ideas that were developed by professional scientists and publish them to a national and international audience in the form imaginative poems, non-fiction essays and journalistic stories, fiction, and science fiction stories.

The next entry of the “Poe and Science” blog will discuss how a studying the stories of the non-professional science writer helps us to have a better understanding of nineteenth-century society. Please send comments or questions to murray@poemuseum.org or ellisonms2@vcu.edu
Sources Used
Lockyer, Sir Norman. “Inaugural Address as President of the British Association.” Nature. 10 September 1903: 439.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Failures. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1898 (digital reproduction).