Museum News


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 to comment on many of the ways that the emerging technological trends of the nineteenth-century effected everyday citizens. My study of 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 shows that he was excited about many of the new developments of nineteenth-century science, they also express an uncertainty and a cautionary attitude about the value he placed in technology, and the ways that writers, including himself, sometimes misrepresented the ‘facts of science.’ 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 he 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 column, 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 “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 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).