Poe’s Importance in the History of Nineteenth-Century Science

I first published this article two weeks ago in the Poe and Science Blog (found under the tab, Museum News) for the Richmond Edgar Allan Poe Museum (www.poemuseum.org). Under an agreement I have with the Museum, which I am also a volunteer and tour guide, I can re-publish this article after ten days on my Blog, Litchatte.com.

As my two Blogs on Poe and Science advance, I will be documenting the process I undertook and my findings on Poe and Science, which, in December 2015, led to my Master’s Thesis in English Literature at Virginia Commonwealth University. After regular visits to the Poe Museum in early 2013 to conduct research on the last 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 to not 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 how people received science information from Poe then we can from professional science writers who wrote during that period. This idea is also supported by newer writing that has come 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.

Selected References:

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.

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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 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 ellisonms2@vcu.edu. You can also receive automatic postings from www.Litchatte.com by submitting your email in the tab to the right of this blog.

Murray Ellison at the Poe Museum
Murray  at the Poe Museum
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