By Murray Ellison
First, I am going to propose what a researcher might have to do to conduct a comprehensive study of Poe’s 1848 book, Eureka: A Prose Poem. Then, I am going to tell you why I decided not to make Eureka the sole focus of subsequent research on Poe and Science. As I noted in my previous Poe and Science Blogs, in 2012 and 2013, I attempted to design a prospectus on Eureka for my M.A. Thesis in English Literature for the Virginia Commonwealth University on Eureka. To that end, I worked with Chris Semtner at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond and several professors at VCU putting together a few draft versions of my proposal. I spent hours in libraries and at home reviewing articles and even books that scholars had written about Eureka. I transcribed Moon-Notes, a scientific manuscript that Poe had written to assist him with several works he was writing. And finally, I took a trip to New York, to the noted collector, Susan Jaffe Tane’s home, to examine Poe’s personal copy of Eureka. This book is now the most valuable first-edition since it contains hand-edited notes by the Poe indicating that he had intended to revise and expand his work in a later edition. It is hard to determine conclusively why Poe decided to attempt to write a comprehensive poetic, historical, scientific, and metaphysical treatise after having established a highly recognizable career as a poet and fiction writer but there are some clues.
In 1847, after recovering from a serious illness, the death of his wife, and facing the prospects of his own imminent mortality, Poe decided to conduct research on astronomy and cosmology. Perhaps he hoped he might be able to unify the differing theories about the universe that were being advanced by competing disciplines and publish his conclusions in a single book. By that period, astronomers had developed more powerful telescopes than had been available at any previous time. These instruments could discern details of celestial bodies which were at the far edges of the Solar System and beyond. Poe was attempting to gain a greater understanding of the most credible theories about the origins and operational details of the Universe. However, he was also seeking answers to the mysteries surrounding the greater meaning of life and existence. As if those questions weren’t comprehensive and mysterious enough, he also decided to address what happens to humans after they died, a topic he had often explored in great detail in his previous poetry and science fiction writing.
After he finally published Eureka: A Prose Poem in 1848, he suggested that his book should not be evaluated until after he died (Preface of Eureka). Prior to its publication, he informed his publisher, George P. Putnam, that Eureka would one day found to be “of greater importance than Newton’s discovery of gravitation.” He considered it the culmination of his life’s work” (Broussard 52). Once Eureka was published, Poe resumed a lecture tour and promoted his book until his death in 1849. In the Preface, he suggested that though his book is “True,” it should only be read for the “Beauty that abounds in Truth.”
Eureka remains for us as Poe’s most enigmatic work. Even the most ardent Poe experts are baffled when trying to read or understand the book. Literary critic, Charles Baxter, in Burning Down The House, writes about a literary device that has often been employed by fiction writers, called defamiliarization. In this technique, everyday scenes take place in an unexpected setting; or unfamiliar scenes takes place in everyday settings (21). Avid readers of Poe are very familiar with his writing style and literary themes but are often unfamiliar with the subject matter of Poe’s culminating poetic-science treatise. Some critics have noted that Eureka is too scientific for literature and too literary for science. Scientists have generally not considered Poe sufficiently qualified to write on complex scientific subjects and literary scholars are often too baffled to attempt to apply the tools of literary criticism on Poe’s science book. Prominent nineteenth-century scientist, Alexander von Humboldt (to whom Poe dedicated Eureka), wrote that “he enjoyed Poe’s latest satire on science” (Levine 118). Henry Lee (Hal) Poe is a descendant of E.A. Poe’s cousin, William Poe, and a prominent E.A. Poe researcher stated that, until the last quarter century, many researchers were quick to dismiss Eureka as being too difficult to understand. As evidence to that assumption they concluded that, in Eureka, Poe had “gone around the bend.” Hal Poe contended that the easiest course, both for Poe enthusiasts and detractors, has been to dismiss the work in its entirety. However, during the modern era, there has also been another growing group of literary and scientific researchers who have been willing to take a fresh look at the work (H.L. Poe, ix).
After more than a year of Eureka research, I concluded that to gain a fuller understanding of Poe’s culminating book, I would need to determine whether Poe’s interest in science in Eureka was an anomaly or a continuation of his previous interest in that topic. Therefore, I shifted my research priority to trace the development of Poe’s science-based themes throughout his pre-Eureka, poetic, non-fiction, and fictional writing. I wondered if an understanding of Poe’s previous works might help me to better understand Eureka. Although I was still enthusiastic about conducting research on Poe and Science, I did not believe that I was ready or able to accept Poe’s challenge of evaluating Eureka– even after almost 170 years after Poe published his book. Several previous researchers had attempted to use traditional methods of critiquing literary or scientific research with Eureka and had produced inconclusive results. Using the pitfalls of these previous research studies as cautionary guidelines, I decided to conduct some questions that I or perhaps other scholars might need to consider before claiming to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Eureka. I delineated these questions in 2013 at the William & Mary Literature and History Conference and the Positively Poe Conference at the University of Virginia.
Research Questions about Eureka
- What are the major scientific themes embedded in Poe’s poetry, non-fiction, and fictional writing?
- Were Poe’s previous science themes continued in Eureka or was his book an anomalous work?
- Would an understanding the historical, cultural, and scientific contexts of the nineteenth-century to help modern researchers to better understand Eureka?
- How does Eureka help modern scholars to understand how the nineteenth-century public received and interpreted news about science and technology?
- What are the major scientific theories that informed Poe as he was writing Eureka?
- How did critics respond to Eureka in and after Poe’s lifetime, and what is the validity of their responses?
- What are the literary techniques Poe used in writing Eureka and does he follow his own standards?
- What are the theories and conclusions that Poe reached in his treatise?
- What is the significance of Eureka in Poe’s Canon, in English Literature, and in science history?
Re-Assessment of Eureka Needed?
The conclusion I reached after considering these research questions is that for me to complete a comprehensive evaluation of Eureka, I would need to conduct a multi-perspective study, requiring a combination of literary analysis, historical, and scientific research. I concluded that I would not be able to complete such a study within the time that I had left in my M.A. program. Anyone conducting such a study would need to employ the ingenious inductive, deductive, and ratiocinative methods of Poe’s Detective C. Auguste Dupin to unravel the many seemingly unsolvable puzzles of Eureka. Poe defines ratiocination as the process of reasoning or forming accurate conclusions from known and observed premises as a method of solving complex and seemingly irresolvable mysteries. Ratiocination combines the use of considerable intellect, intuition, and creative imagination. Poe’s previous detective writing and columns on cryptography demonstrate that he was interested in posing and resolving complex problems. He created Dupin as a literary figure to solve the most complex enigmas and conundrums by using the highest form of human discovery available to the human mind. It is possible, then, that Poe wrote Eureka as a puzzle, and left obscure clues for his readers to solve like he done in his earlier cryptography newspaper columns. However, solutions to the puzzles and mysteries Poe posed in Eureka have evaded researchers and readers for almost one hundred and seventy years. In my next Poe and Science column, I will explain why I decided not to focus my research on evaluating Eureka but, instead, on the general topic of Poe and Science.
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2008.
Broussard, Louis. The Measure of Poe. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Daniels, George. American Science in the Age of Jackson. NY: Columbia UP, 1968.
Levine, Stuart and Susan F. Levine. Eureka. Eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Ostram, John, Ed. The Notes of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Guardian Press, 1966.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Eureka A Prose Poem. New York: George P. Putnam, 1848.
____ “Moon Notes,” Scanned copy of eight un-numbered and unordered pages handwritten by Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond, VA: MS (Museum Catalogue # 2012.2.44). Manuscript
Poe, Henry Lee. Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: A Biography. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
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.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at [email protected]
Murray at the Richmond Poe Museum
As m Blog on Poe and Science advance, I will be documenting the process I undertook and my findings on Poe and Science, which led to my Master’s Thesis in English Literature in December 2015, at Virginia Commonwealth University. After regular visits to the Poe Museum in early 2013 to conduct research on Eureka: A Prose Poem, the final work that the Poe published under his own supervision, I started reading what other scholars had to say about Eureka: A Prose Poem. I will be discussing their conclusions in detail in a future blog. As my reading advanced, I conceived of the idea of writing a thesis which would propose to evaluate Poe’s scientific treatise, even though Poe had warned critics not to try to evaluate his book in his lifetime. I wondered why he would issue such a disclaimer. Perhaps, he thought that if he warned critics not to evaluate it, they would take it as a challenge and pay closer attention to his book than they might have done otherwise.
After about two decades of his poetry, newspaper reporting, essays, fictional works, and journalistic hoaxes, most people who were paying attention to Poe could not even begin to anticipate what he might do next or understand his ulterior motives. After Eureka was released in 1848, he proved, again, that he was correct. Responses to his book came in from many major newspapers and literary journals in the United States and Europe. Early reviews, before most critics had a chance to study the book in full, were mostly positive. After Eureka had been out for several months, critics were all over the map with their opinions. I will also discuss these reviews in a future blog. Suffice it to say that some critics thought it was brilliant and others ridiculed both Poe and his scientific treatise. During my spring, 2013 Semester as a Master’s student at VCU, I began to formulate some proposals on what type of research on Poe and Science to conduct. Within the next two semesters, I had put some of my ideas and gave workshops at the VCU Graduate Writers Workshop, The William and Mary Humanities, History, and Literature Symposium, the Positively Poe Society Workshop in Charlottesville, and the Young Poe Writers Workshop. The last major workshop I delivered was to the members of the International History of Science in Society (HSS) Annual Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. It was fully funded by the VCU English Department and HSS. I feel very appreciative that VCU professors Karen Rader (History and Science) and Joshua Eckhardt (English Literature) made the funding support possible. I felt excited that Poe was finally being recognized as an important figure in the early history of science in the United States. I was even more encouraged by the enthusiastic report that I received after I delivered my talk. One history professor from Oklahoma showed me positive remarks and comments he had posted on Twitter during my talk. Also, Bernard Lightman, one of the top authorities in the history of science during the Victorian Era, was in my audience. It is a good thing that I did not know this or it would have made me extremely nervous. When he came up to me after my presentation and gave me affirming feedback, I was thrilled. I asked him if I had quoted and interpreted his writing properly. He said, “Absolutely!” I talked again to the Oklahoma professor (I wish I could remember his name) and Bernard Lightman several times during the conference. Both agreed that Edgar Allan Poe needed to be given more credit for being an important early contributor to the History of Science in the Nineteenth Century. The conclusion I reached after my preliminary studies is that we can learn more about the history of nineteenth-century science and about how people received science information from Poe than we can from professional science writers who wrote during that period. This idea is also supported by newer writing that has been coming out in the field of the history of science, which offers four major conclusions about early to mid-nineteenth-century science:
- Science was branching off into many new and highly specialized fields.
- There was much disagreement among scientists about which fields were and were not legitimate.
- The public was amazed at the emerging nineteenth-century technologies but often couldn’t differentiate between the legitimate sciences and the mysterious pseudo-sciences.
- “Popularizers,” like Poe, wrote about how science affected people in ways that the public understood.
My research after the first year and my experiences giving presentations at the above conferences influenced my decision to shift the focus of my thesis away from evaluating Eureka (which I had determined was an almost impossible task) and towards studying how the public’s interest in science influenced Poe’s decision to concentrate on writing about this topic. Conversely, I also decided that, as Poe got more popular, his decision to incorporate scientific topics in his writings further inspired the public’s interest in science. In my next Poe and Science Blogs, I will discuss the conclusions I presented at the Positively Poe Conference about why evaluating Eureka has been, and will continue to be such a difficult challenge.
Levine, Stuart and Susan F. Edgar Allan Poe: Eureka. Eds. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2004.
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.
Thomas, Dwight and David Jackson, Ed. The Poe Log- A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849. Boston: G.B. Hall and Company, 1987.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member and occasional volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, or at [email protected]. You can also receive automatic postings from www.Litchatte.com by submitting your email in the tab to the right of this blog.
Murray at the Richmond Poe Museum
Stairs to Poe’s Childhood Home in Richmond-now located in the Poe Museum
On a cold, but sunny day in February 2013, Poe Museum Curator, Chris Semtner, took down the golden fabric rope from its old and long railing. Chris said that the staff of the museum moved the stairs and incorporated them into present building many years ago. The Memorial Building, where they now stand, commemorates Poe’s outstanding contributions to literature. The conference room and repository at the top of these stairs stores many of his rare manuscripts and books, and materials. I looked up and down the old hardwood stairs and experienced a momentary chill. At the front of the steps, I saw a Raven banner (see my photo above), acknowledging his most famous poem. I felt like the illustrious bird was cheering me on to walk up the stairs and enter the game of studying Poe-like I was a football player on the famous Baltimore football team. I felt very privileged to be allowed to walk up these stairs with Chris because I was transitioning from being a retired person to a literary researcher. A month before this visit, I had enrolled in a Master’s program of Literature Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University(VCU), which is only a few miles west of the museum. In my first class, English Scholarship, Professor, Joshua Eckhardt, assigned his students to find a rare book and to prepare a research term paper related to its publication history and contents. I decided to try to meet this class requirement at the Poe Museum because of a memorable guided tour I had taken a few years ago. I, then, researched the resources available at the museum on the internet. Like many avid readers, I had a working knowledge of many of Poe’s more notable poems and short stories. However, I had never heard of, what I thought, was the most interesting listing in the catalog, a book called, Eureka: A Prose Poem.
The catalog noted that Eureka was the last work that Poe wrote under his own supervision. It described the book as a poetic, metaphysical, and scientific treatise on the Universe. This text appeared completely different from anything else that Poe had ever written. Or was it? That question turned out to be one of the main focuses of my inquiry for the next four years, as I worked on my Master’s thesis on Poe and Science. When I asked Chris about Eureka, he said he would have one or more copies first edition copies of that book available for my examination during a research visit that he later scheduled for me.
A week later, I arrived at the museum and started my journey up Poe’s Stairway, and into his research room. I looked around and saw that there were piles of boxes on a large oval-shaped hardwood table, containing books and folders that the Registrar, Jennifer Camp, was cataloging. She worked in an adjacent room that served as a heavily locked and secure storage room for the files and rare first edition books Some of these books were estimated to be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars! Jennifer came out to meet me and then went right back to work. On the walls, there were some paintings of Poe and busts of him and of Pallas-the Greek statue that the Raven landed on. On a corner of the table, I saw three copies of Eureka. Chris informed me that the museum generally kept one first edition copy of Eureka on display in a locked case and two others stored at the Virginia Library. He had checked two of these books out of the State Library for my inspection. I looked at all three of these books with a reserved excitement, like they were fossils from a distant time and place.
Rare first Edition Versions of Eureka: A Prose Poem, Published in 1848
Based on my experiences at the VCU Special Archives Library, I thought I would have to wear gloves to examine these precious books. Instead, Chris said that I would only need to wash my hands and handle the pages carefully. He noted that only 500 copies of the book were printed and less than 50 are still accountable. According to Stuart and Susan Levine’s annotated version of Eureka (2004), other known first editions of Eureka are stored at the following locations:
- Library of Congress, Washington, DC
- New York City Public Library
- Henry Huntington Library (San Marino, CA
- Yale University Library, New Haven, CT
- Boston Public Library
- Chapin’s Library- Williams College, Williamstown, MASS
- New York State Library
- William K. Keister
- Peabody Institute, Baltimore, MD
- University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA
- Boston Athenaeum
- Owen D. Young, NY
- K. Lilly, Jr., Indianapolis, IND
- Howe Estate, Cincinnati, OH
- Carroll A. Wilson, NY
- University of Chicago
- University of Texas, Austin, TX
- Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
- Viscount Esher, England
- New York University Library, NYC
- H. Rindfleisch, Richmond, VA
- Gabriel Wells (several copies with manuscript annotations throughout by Po
I know that this list is not complete since I found one first edition copy of Poe’s last book at the VCU Library. I went back to Dr. Eckhardt and got his approval to prepare my term report on Eureka. When I told him that I made connections with the Poe Museum, and was scheduled to go there once per week to conduct my study, he was very pleased. On my next visit to the museum, Chris said that Jennifer would be available to secure the materials that I needed and to answer my questions. During the Spring 2012 semester and the subsequent summer, I conducted research at the Poe Museum and at VCU on Eureka.
On one of my subsequent visits, Chris informed me that the museum was in possession of rare facsimile of a Manuscript that Poe wrote in his own handwriting. These notes likely helped him to prepare research on Eureka and some of his other science fiction tales. Chris called the manuscript the “Moon Notes” because they discussed the moon and the planets orbits around the Sun. The original manuscript, he said, were donated to the Poe Museum in 1942 by the family of Rufus Griswold, the literary executor of the Poe Estate. In 1948, the Poe Museum (then called the Poe Shrine) gave the originals to the Harvard University Houghton Library in Boston, which also houses a Eureka first edition. The “Moon-Notes” consists of eight un-ordered and, we thought, previously un-transcribed pages. They start and end in the middle of sentences, indicating that there were other pages; however, no others have been found. Chris thought that it would be a good project for me to try to transcribe the document to see if Poe made some direct or indirect references to Eureka. Jennifer scanned a sample page for me to start my project. I worked on this projects a few hours per week during my first semester at VCU, and also for about half of the summer. I attempted to faithfully transcribe Poe’s writing without attempting to explain the seemingly obvious abbreviations or informal writing. Although Poe’s handwriting was fairly clear and consistent, I needed to have several difficult words cross-checked by Ms. Camp.
The “Moon Notes were ritten by Poe, likely to research Eureka and other science-fiction tales
The supposition of D. de Mairan is that the hemisphere of the moon next to the earth is more dense than the opposite one, + hence the same face w necessarily be kept toward the earth.
Juno is free from nebulosity in appearance yet, according to Schroeter, it has an atmosphere more dense than that of any of the old planets of this system-variable atmosphere.
Vesta no nebulosity.
A telescope wh: magnifies only 1000 times will show a spot on the moon’s surface 122 yds diameter.
Prof. Fraunhofer of Munich recently announced that he had discovered a lunar edifice, resembling a fortified cabin, together with several lines of roads.
Schroeter conjectures the existence of a great city on the east side of the Moon, a little north of the equator an extensive canal, in another place, and fields of vegetation in another. Herschel found since shown this to be false.
It may be demonstrated from the laws of optics that there exists no physical impossibility of the introduction of instruments sufficiently powerful to settle the question of the moon’s being inhabited. The difficulty which prevented the great telescope of Herschel from revealing this secret is not so much the x want of power in the lens, as of light in the tube under objects distinct under such an exposure of the visual rays.”
On the sample transcribed page shown above, Poe writes on theories from several scientists who lived slightly before his time. These notes are scribbled, sometimes in a shorthand style, that is much like the way that modern scholars might take notes on a topic of investigation. Poe writes on the density of the of the moon, the capabilities of modern telescopes, speculation and rejection of the discovery of possible life on the Moon. The following scientists and asteroids are discussed on the single page of “Moon Notes” transcribed by the present researcher:
Jean di Ortous Marian (1678 to 1771) was a French astronomer. In 1719 he discussed the varying obliquity of light. In 1731 he observed nebulosity around a star near the Orion Nebulae (Westfall). Johann Heteronymous Schroter (1745-1816) was an aspiring astronomer, and friend of the Herschel family (Sheehan and Baum 171). Scientists became more interested in distant planets and stars after Wallaston Franenhofer (1787-1826) discovered a powerful telescope with a focal length of thirteen feet and an aperture of nine feet. This telescope made possible the analysis of invisible gasses in the universe such as helium, neon, krypton and argon (Kantor).
Juno’s formal designation is now known as 3 Juno. It was the third asteroid discovered. It is now thought to be about the tenth largest in size (Coffey). Vesta is still considered as one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System, and named after Vesta, the virgin goddess of home and health in Roman Mythology. Sir William Hershel (1738-1822 was “the founder of modern stellar astronomy.” His discovery of Uranus in 1781 was the first identification of a planet in modern times. He developed the theory of nebula’s and described details about the evolution of stars. He cataloged many binary stars and made important modifications to the reflecting telescope. William Herschel also demonstrated that the solar system and the stars move through space, and he discovered infrared radiation, which detected this movement” (Millman 134,141).
It seems clear from my study of this page that Poe was preparing research on scientific principles which could have been used to prepare for his Eureka lecture and/or book tour. It also appeared, after I looked at a summary of Poe’s theories in Eureka, that the topics presented on this single page may have been both relevant and important to his book. Whether he did or didn’t refer to these documents when he wrote Eureka, they certainly confirm that Poe studied the theories of important scientists who made significant discoveries in astronomy. Additionally, from this single page of transcription, I concluded that it would be useful to also transcribe the other seven known pages of the “Moon-Notes.”
When I completed transcribing all eight pages of the “Moon-Notes,” Chris suggested that I send a photocopy of my work to Jeff Savoye, the Director of the International Poe Society in Baltimore, the official repository of the most complete electronic collection of Poe materials in the world. You can access these materials at www.eapoe.org. It did not take very long for Jeff to write me back stating that my transcription was fairly accurate but that it had been transcribed in 1902, and included in the Appendix of the Eureka section, in James A. Harrison’s, the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume XVI. Though I was disappointed that I would not be able to claim that I had made an original transcription, I was delighted that Savoy had connected the “Moon-Notes” to Eureka. In my next Poe and Science Blog, I will discuss the preliminary information and questions I discovered about Eureka and the difficulties that previous researchers have had in conducting evaluations of Poe’s final, and most enigmatic work. I plan to write at least one future Blog per month on my MA Thesis on Poe in Science.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member and occasional volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write him at [email protected]
Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum
Rare first Edition Versions of Eureka: A Prose Poem, Published in 1848
On Being Guided by Edgar Allan Poe—A Re-Introduction to the “Poe and Science Blog,” by Dr. Murray Ellison
Most people would most likely associate Edgar Allan Poe as a writer of some of the world’s scariest horror stories. At least, some of Poe’s short fictional stories must have sent shivers up many readers’ spines and caused others to have sleepless nights. His most famous poem, “The Raven” is unsurpassed in literature in creating moods of terror, as the hapless narrator begs the dark bird bring back his lost love, Lenore. However, the raven can only taunt him and endlessly repeat, “Nevermore.” It is inevitable that many have been terrified as they thought about the chopped-up man, and his beating heart, under the floor boards in the “Tell-Tale Heart.” For me, Poe’s most frightening tale is the “Premature Burial.” I don’t know of anything scarier than the thought of waking up and realizing that you are buried alive in a coffin? Do you?
As horrifying as several of Poe’s’ tales are, I am not frightened one bit by any of them. On the contrary, I am inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s works and his life story, and strongly believe that, though he is no longer living, he has been a significant personal guide and inspiration for me. His writing and life story helped lead me out of the shock of a forced early retirement and guided me, step by step, to my new identity as a lover, teacher, and writer of literature. Although, it may sound like the language spoken at séances that were popular in his lifetime, I believe that I have increasingly felt his direct and indirect presence in my life each step I have taken since I became aware and involved with the Poe community. These experiences have also helped me to gain a clearer understanding of his writing and life struggles. There too many details illustrating my positive experiences with Poe to include in this essay. However, I plan to elaborate more on my experiences with Eddie in my future columns on the Richmond Poe Museum’s, “Poe and Science” blog. In the present forum, I will also discuss why Poe in Science is important and why this topic has been particularly interesting to me.
Perhaps a few readers may remember that I introduced the “Poe in Science Blog” more than a year ago. I wrote several columns explaining why the nineteenth century, the period when Poe wrote about science, is often considered by historians, as one of the most important times in the world in the development of technology that we utilize today. Around Poe’s lifetime, electricity, and photography were invented. Improvements in the range of the telescope greatly expanded humanity’s awareness of the vastness of the Universe. The invention of the telegraph started the boom (or curse) of around the clock communications. Babbage’s mechanical computer was first introduced in in England and then displayed in the United States. Improvements in the printing press increased its capacity from dozens of books, newspapers, or journals a day to hundreds or thousands per hour. Improvements in rail and trans-Atlantic transportation helped to spread people, books, and literary trends faster around the world than it had ever been done in the past. Poe benefited by these trends first as student and then later a writer known all across the United States and Europe. He spent five very influential school years in London learning about literature, European languages, philosophy, science, and literature. As Poe’s fiction, poetry, and journalistic works became more well-known, they were spread all across the United States and Europe in a matter of days or weeks rather months and years. I realize that I would not have had the opportunity to write and distribute an article, such as this one, throughout the world in a few seconds if not for the benefit of these important nineteenth-century technologies. Most important to the present topic is that my friend and guide, Eddie Poe, lived and wrote about several of these seminal technological developments, and that they are still preserved in museums, libraries, bookstores, and perhaps in many of our homes. Today, we can learn a great deal about how nineteenth-century people experienced scientific trends. Some historians even believe that we can learn more about nineteenth-century science by reading Poe’s works than by reading the works of the notable scientists of that period. He lived at the perfect time in history to reflect on how science significantly changed the culture and lifestyles of America and Western culture. It may be easy to see how some of his fictional works reflected several emerging scientific trends. However many readers may not know that Poe’s interest in science is also reflected in his poetry, his journalistic works, and his technical and scientific writing. Some readers may already be wondering how my personal interest in Poe, or his science writing has improved the quality of my life. I will, at least, begin to explain how it all started in the present column and continue in the future.
A few years before I “retired” from my full-time job, my wife and I hosted an international exchange student, Aurora Dallalio, from Bologna Italy to live with us for a year. Our youngest daughter, Leah, had requested that we try to locate and offer an exchange student the opportunity to share our home and to attend James River High School with her in both of their senior years. Right after the process was arranged and Aurora was settled, she asked us if she could visit the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. I understood that Aurora was excited about living with a new host family and having a same-age female to bond with. But I was surprised that visiting the museum was even more important to her than seeing the Confederate statues all around town or the battlefields of our various wars, or the home of Thomas Jefferson not too far from Richmond. But not! She said she and her friends and family considered that the Poe Museum was the most notable feature in Richmond. Although we agreed to take her to the museum on our first international family outing, I had to concede that I had never been there before; that I knew only a little about Poe; and that I knew nothing about the museum. Our visit was very interesting informative, as Aurora engaged in most of the most discussions and asked the majority of the questions to our tour guide. The year was very productive and inspiring for our family and Aurora, as we have visited her and her family in various locations of Italy. We visited with her and her family for the second time last summer. On the last visit she reminded me that many people in Italy, and throughout much of Europe, consider Poe one of the most important American writers.
After Aurora had returned to Italy, I started reading more of Poe’s stories and getting more interested in both his life and what he had to write about. Although I was never an orphan, the fact that Poe’s father left his family and was never seen again, and that his mother died when he was about two years old, resonated very strongly with me. I was also deeply disturbed when I read that he sat in the same small and dark room of a boarding home to watch his mother slowly suffer from extreme poverty and tuberculosis. Several other of Poe’s loved ones died of this dreaded disease. It is, then, easy for me to understand how he had the inspiration to write horror stories. My natural mother abandoned me when I was about seven and “dropped” me off in the care of a loving set of grandparents. Since then, I never saw or heard from her again, or got any word about her whereabouts. Based on the fact that she would be well over a hundred years old now, I can only assume that she died many years ago. Eventually, I went to live with my natural father, Mark and his new wife Ethel (my step-mother) until I started college. I am thankful that they raised me and brought me up in a caring environment and encouraged me to go to college and strive to be successful. Attaining wisdom was, and still is a very big part of the Jewish culture that they raised me in. Consequently, I cringed even more when I read that young Eddie was a foster child who was never legally adopted by his foster parents, John and Frances Allan. This callous slight disturbed me more than reading any of Poe’s horror stories. I was also very upset when I heard that John Allan refused to pay for Eddie’s college expenses at the University of Virginia, even though records show are available at the Poe Museum that document that he was a brilliant student at that university.
In 2012, I decided to take a major step forward in hopes of finding some future direction in my new life as a retired man. I enrolled as a graduate student in English Literature at Virginia Commonwealth University. In one of my first classes, English Scholarship, I was assigned by the Professor, Joshua Eckhardt, to locate and prepare a report about a rare and first edition literary book; I thought about the Poe Museum. In looking at their website I noted that they had some rare copies of a Eureka: A Prose Poem. This book was listed as a treatise on science and philosophy that Poe had written in 1848. I found out that it was the last work that he wrote and published in his lifetime. Although the book is rare and almost unknown today among most Poe readers, he wrote that he thought that it was one of the most important science treatises in the history of the world. My exploration of Poe’s world, his life, and his interest in science had started with my exploration of Eureka. He wrote that his discoveries in Eureka were even more important than Newton’s discovery of gravity! But, it was a long road that took me from my initial research on this book to the completion of my Master’s Thesis on Edgar Allan Poe and Science: Unraveling the Secrets of the Universe. I hope you will accompany me on this journey as I attempt to write a monthly column on Poe and Science for the Richmond Edgar Allan Poe Museum.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is also an editor of the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic and meditation teacher. Murray also serves a board member and occasional volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write him at [email protected]
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 [email protected] or [email protected]
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
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 [email protected] or at [email protected]
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.
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 [email protected] or [email protected]
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).