Walking with Eddie: Edgar Allan Poe and Science—Part I

This article was originally written by Murray Ellison and is being republished by him here with the generous permission of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia (www.poemuseum.org). The daguerreotype image of Poe is also from the Poe Museum’s files.

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 the spines of many readers and caused others to have sleepless nights. His most famous poem, “The Raven” is unsurpassed in literature for creating dark moods of terror as the hapless narrator begs the dark bird to bring back his lost love, Lenore. However, the raven can only taunt him and endlessly repeat, “Nevermore.”  It is inevitable that many have been almost scared to death in thinking about a chopped-up man and his beating heart, under the floor boards, in the “Tell-Tale Heart.” But, for me, Poe’s most frightening fictional 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?

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As horrifying as some of Poe’s’ tales are, I am not frightened, one bit, by any of them. On the contrary, Edgar Allan Poe’s works and his life story deeply inspire me. I 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 to 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, I may sound like I am speaking in the language of 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 international 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 Poe and Poe and Science in my monthly column on LitChatte.com.

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 much of the fundamental technology that we use today.  Around Poe’s lifetime, electricity, and photography, then known as the daguerreotype, were invented. Improvements in the range and powers 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 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 ever been observed Poe benefited by these trends first as student and then later a writer known all across the United States. He spent five very influential early school years in London learning about literature, European languages, philosophy, and science.  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 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 a record of his writings and history are still preserved in museums, libraries, bookstores, and homes. Through these sources, 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 findings of the notable scientists of that period. He lived at the perfect time in history to write about 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 may 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 find and offer an exchange student the opportunity to share our home and to attend James River High School (west of Richmond) 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 was surprised that visiting the museum was even more important to her than seeing the Confederate statues all around town or the battlefields of wars, or the home of Thomas Jefferson not too far from Richmond. But not! She said she and her friends and family, back in Italy, considered that the Poe Museum was the most notable feature in Richmond. Although we agreed to take her to the museum on our first family outing, I had to concede that I had never been there before and that I knew only a little about Poe. Our visit was very interesting informative, as Aurora engaged in most of the discussions and asked most 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 two times ino Italy. On our 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, Poe’s father left his wife, Eddie and two other young children, and was never seen again by them. Learning that his mother died when he was about two years old also 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 and die from extreme poverty and tuberculosis. Several other of Poe’s loved ones also died of this dreaded disease. It is, then, easy for me to understand how Edgar Allan Poe had the motivation to write such eloquently stated 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 and his new wife 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 be a learned man. 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. Eventually, Mr. Allan wrote a note saying that he never wanted to have anything to do with his foster-son. This callous slight disturbed me more than reading any of Poe’s horror stories. I was also very upset when I read that John Allan refused to pay for Eddie’s college expenses at the University of Virginia, even though records 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 class there, Professor Joshua Eckhardt assigned his students to find and prepare a report about a rare and first edition literary book; naturally I thought about the Poe Museum. In looking at their website I noted that they had some rare copies of a rare Poe book— Eureka: A Prose Poem. This book was listed in the museum’s catalog 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 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. He wrote that he thought his revelations in Eureka were even more important than Newton’s discovery of gravity! But, it was a long road that took me from my first 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 that you will go with me on this journey as I write a monthly column on Poe and Science and his culminating work, Eureka a Prose Poem.

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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 ellisonms2@vcu.edu

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