The scientific Poe

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As we know from John Donne, no man is an island. By the same token, no writer is separate from their place and time. The insight may seem obvious — who would doubt the significance of, say, Georgian England for Jane Austen? — but readers who discover centuries-old books often have little appreciation for the context in which they were written.

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pp., $30.

A case in point is the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), whose most famous works, including the classic stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the time-honored poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee,” are frequently perceived through foggy Gothic spectacles. Perhaps due to these works’ seepage into popular culture — filmmaker Roger Corman made a cottage industry out of his creepy adaptations of Poe stories, while “The Raven” was dramatized on The Simpsons and provided the name for Baltimore’s professional football team — it is easy to regard them as artful pieces of hokum.

In a bracing new work that blends elements of biography, criticism, and cultural history, John Tresch offers an entirely new perspective on Poe. In The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, Tresch posits that the writer, for all of the mysticism in which his writings were drenched, benefited from living during a particularly rich period of scientific advancement.

“With methods of precise measurement and calculation, researchers were consolidating the programs of the seventeenth century — the first ‘scientific revolution,’ identified with Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton — while scientific fields diversified and expanded,” writes Tresch, a professor of the history of art, science, and folk practice at the Warburg Institute in London. That’s a mouthful, but if ever there was a man to write a book in which the scribe of “Ulalume” shares space with discussions of astronomy, daguerreotypes, natural history, and mesmerism, Tresch is that man.

When someone writes a book about a figure as famous as Poe from such an apparently narrow perspective, it suggests one of two things: that the author has uncovered a legitimately fresh perspective or that the field has become exhausted. Happily, Tresch’s book falls into the first category, but he hedges his bets by deciding to recount what he calls “the full story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life.” All of the signal events are given space, including the near-simultaneous demise of Poe’s parents, Eliza and David, Poe’s adoption by the well-off, bombastic Virginian, John Allan, and his marriage to his teenage cousin, Virginia Clemm.

Tresch convincingly argues that the atmosphere Poe inhaled was one full of naive wonder, genuine discovery, and plenty of flimflam. This is a book that evocatively recreates a time when the public marveled at both Halley’s comet (visible in 1835, the year Poe turned 26) and the Mechanical Turk, a fraudulent chess automaton seemingly capable of making moves of its own volition.

“The senses of Poe and his contemporaries were bombarded with new technical effects: electromagnetic signals, brilliant light shows, musical innovations, clattering city streets, mesmeric emanations, machine-printed words,” writes Tresch. And Poe, far from being a passive observer of his era’s marvels, was an active commentator on them. As early as 1830, he penned a rather extravagant sonnet that functioned as a paean to the very concept of science: “SCIENCE! meet daughter of old Time thou art / Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes!” One wonders what he would have made of Anthony Fauci.

In Tresch’s telling, Poe’s interest in science was cultivated at West Point, where he briefly studied following a failed stint at the University of Virginia and a short term in the U.S. Army (he would eventually be court-martialed and dismissed for failing to attend class). The military academy’s curriculum and teaching methods transmitted “a thoroughly modern, mechanical way of thinking and living” to the young Poe, which found expression in his journalistic writing. On the strength of Poe’s science columns in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, in which the writer highlighted topics ranging from electroplating to a machine that recycled rags into books, Tresch deems him “one of America’s first science reporters.” Poe was thunderstruck by daguerreotypes — “The closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented,” he wrote — and, influenced by the scientist and writer David Brewster, debunked the chess automaton in the Southern Literary Messenger.

Tresch gets considerable mileage out of reading Poe’s famous fiction through a scientific prism, arguing that “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” “used scientific facts to heighten the realism of a light-hearted tall tale” and praises “The Tell-Tale Heart” for using “language and imagery from the sciences,” including its famous description of a thumping heart. The book opens and closes with extended accounts of Poe’s Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe, a discourse on cosmology equal parts scientific and speculative.

Because Tresch knows his subject so well and promotes his angle so persuasively, this book seldom wears thin. To the contrary, it suggests that the “two cultures” that C.P. Snow said had been torn asunder in our common life, science and the humanities, once quite productively coexisted in the pen of Edgar Allan Poe. This book will reward Poe novices, Poe experts, and those interested in science as it was practiced and imagined nearly two centuries ago.

Peter Tonguette writes for many publications, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the American Conservative.

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Tags: Book Reviews, Books, Literature, History, Science, American history, Summer Reading

Original Author: Peter Tonguette

Original Location: The scientific Poe

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