The Scientific Poe
As we know from John Donne, no man is an island. Likewise, no writer is separated from his place and his time. The idea may seem obvious – who would doubt the importance, say, of Georgian England to Jane Austen? – but readers who discover books that are centuries old often have little appreciation for the context in which they were written.
The Reason for the Darkness of Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forge of American Science, by John Tresch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 p., $ 30.
An example is the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), whose most famous works including the classic stories “The Fall of House Usher” and “The Revealing Heart” and the time-honored poems “The Raven And “Annabel Lee” are frequently seen through hazy Gothic glasses. Perhaps due to the infiltration of these works into popular culture – filmmaker Roger Corman made a cottage industry out of his spooky adaptations of Poe’s stories, while “The Raven” was dramatized on The Simpsons and gave the name of the professional Baltimore football team – it’s easy to think of them as nifty bits of hokum.
In an invigorating new work that blends elements of biography, criticism and cultural history, John Tresch offers a whole new perspective on Poe. In The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, Tresch postulates that the writer, despite all the mysticism in which his writings were steeped, benefited from living through a particularly rich period of scientific progress. .
“With precise measurement and calculation methods, researchers consolidated the programs of the 17th century – the first ‘scientific revolution’, identified with Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, Galileo and Newton – as scientific fields diversified and developed” writes Tresch, professor of the history of art, science and folk practice at the Warburg Institute in London. It’s a mouthful, but if there has ever been a man to write a book in which the scribe of “Ulalume” shares space with discussions of astronomy, daguerreotypes, natural history and the mesmerism, Tresch is that man.
When someone writes a book about a character as famous as Poe from such a seemingly narrow perspective, it suggests one of two things: that the author has discovered a legitimately new perspective, or that the field is exhausted. Fortunately, Tresch’s book falls into the first category, but he covers his bets by deciding to tell what he calls “the full story of the life of Edgar Allan Poe”. All the milestones are given from the space, including the almost simultaneous disappearance of Poe’s parents, Eliza and David, the adoption of Poe by the rich and bombastic Virginian, John Allan, and his marriage to his teenage cousin, Virginia. Clemm.
Tresch convincingly argues that the atmosphere Poe inhaled was full of naive wonder, genuine discovery, and lots of flimflam. It is a book that evocatively recreates a time when audiences marveled at both Halley’s Comet (visible in 1835, the year Poe turned 26) and Mechanical Turk, an automaton of fraudulent failures apparently able to make moves of their own will.
“The senses of Poe and his contemporaries were bombarded with new technical effects: electromagnetic signals, brilliant play of light, musical innovations, lapping of city streets, hypnotic emanations, machine-printed words,” writes Tresch. And Poe, far from being a passive observer of the wonders of his day, was an active commentator on them. As early as 1830 he wrote a rather extravagant sonnet which functioned as a hymn to the very concept of science: “SCIENCE! you are the daughter of the old days / Who alters all things with your scrutinizing eyes! One wonders what he would have done with Anthony Fauci.
In Tresch’s account, Poe’s interest in science was cultivated at West Point, where he briefly studied after a failed stint at the University of Virginia and a short term in the U.S. Army (it would ultimately be translated court martial and dismissed for failing to attend class). The curriculum and teaching methods of the military academy imparted to young Poe “a very modern and mechanical way of thinking and living”, which was expressed in his journalistic writings. Drawing on 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 considers him “one of the earliest science reporters in the world. ‘America “. Poe was stunned by the daguerreotypes – “The most careful examination of the photogenic drawing reveals only a more absolute truth, a more perfect-looking identity with the thing depicted,” he wrote – and, influenced by scientist and writer David Brewster, debunked automaton failures in the Southern Literary Messenger.
Tresch derives considerable mileage from reading Poe’s famous fiction through a scientific prism, arguing that “The Unprecedented Adventure of a Hans Pfaall” “used scientific facts to increase the realism of a large, light tale “and praise” The Revealing Heart “for using” the language and imagery of science, “including its famous depiction of a beating heart. The book opens and ends with Poe’s lengthy accounts of Eureka : an essay on the material and spiritual universe, a discourse on both scientific and speculative cosmology.
Because Tresch knows his subject matter so well and promotes his angle so persuasively, this book rarely wears out. On the contrary, it suggests that the “two cultures” that CP Snow said had been torn apart in our common life, science and the humanities, once coexisted quite productively under 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 almost two centuries ago.
Peter Tonguette writes for numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and the American Conservative.
Washington Examiner Videos
Original author: Pierre Tonguette
Original location: The Scientific Poe