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Edgar Allan Poe, Crank Scientist

The great discoveries of the age captivated his imagination. He almost always misunderstood them.

James Hill/Bettmann/Getty

There’s never been a more curious work in Edgar Allan Poe’s oeuvre than his 1848 epic, Eureka: A Prose Poem. A freewheeling attempt to describe the origins of the cosmos, filled with lofty abstractions and often turgid prose, it got a lukewarm reception at the time and has since largely been dismissed by both readers and critics. Too slapdash to be legitimate scientific inquiry, and too self-serious to be good writing, it seems, at best, an overeager misstep and best left forgotten. Indeed, given Poe’s propensity for hoaxes and passing off fiction as fact (including The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), scholars have been unsure, as Susan Manning noted in 1989, about “the degree but also the quality of the seriousness” with which they should approach Eureka. Treating Eureka without irony, Manning continued, was “an appalling prospect.” It would mean scholars would “have to follow his arguments, test his analogies, weigh his conclusions—and all with a similarly ponderous solemnity.”

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., $30.00

Poe, however, thought the poem more than serious—he saw it as nothing less than his greatest work. He told friends he believed Eureka would “revolutionize the world of Physical & Metaphysical Science. I say this calmly—but I say it.” Though he wasn’t even 40 years old when he wrote it, Poe nonetheless saw it as his crowning achievement; as he told his mother-in-law after its publication, “I do not wish to live. I could accomplish nothing more since I have written Eureka.

More known for ever-popular works like “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe saw his real, unique contribution to American letters in a cosmological and philosophical treatise that is now rarely read or discussed. The fact that he saw it as the culmination of his entire life’s output suggests that we might have been missing something in Poe’s work this whole time. John Tresch’s new biography, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, is the rare study that does not see Eureka as an aberration. Tresch suggests instead that the poem can offer a key to much of Poe’s more famous writing—lacking the svelte frisson of his great horror tales, perhaps, but offering an insight nonetheless into the obsessions that spawned them.

As Tresch explains in the introduction, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night “tells the full story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life, but it does so from a new angle. It returns Poe’s cosmology to its place at the summit of his life and thought and shows his work as a singular expression of the tumultuous ideas and passions of his age, thoroughly bound up with the emergence of modern science.” Rather than feeling like a dive into minutiae or a specialist’s niche, Tresch’s approach manages to open up the world of Poe’s writing in an unexpectedly fascinating way. What emerges is how Poe’s interest in—and sometimes misunderstanding of—science drove some of his greatest works of horror.

Anyone already familiar with Poe’s life will see all the same beats hit here: his peripatetic moves from Richmond, Virginia, to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York City; his endless struggles with money and alcoholism; his marriage to his young cousin Virginia and her tragic early death. Unlike earlier accounts, though, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night highlights several underexamined episodes in Poe’s life, including his years in the Army and at West Point. Enlisting when he was 18, Poe quickly rose to the rank of artificer, in charge of his battalion’s ammunition supply—a highly technical and demanding job that required precision calculations and a head for numbers. His first year at West Point ended with him ranked seventeenth (out of 87 students) in math, and third in French. Had his foster father not cut him off financially, it’s possible that Poe could have had a distinguished career in the military as an officer or engineer.

While biographers have tended to see his four years in the military as an interruption to the longer arc of his career, Tresch argues instead that West Point “decisively shaped” Poe’s writing. In his career, “he would make constant use of his knowledge of mathematics, geometry, and astronomy—as well as the techniques of analysis and careful reconstruction he learned at the school, with a drive to excel, strategize, and command.”

Already evident at this young age was an interest in the idea that the laws of the world might obey some mathematical precision. Even after Poe chose to be a writer, his interest in science never left him; in fact, it became an obsession that drove his writing. From our current vantage point, it can be sometimes easy to forget that Poe was writing during a massive scientific revolution. Many of his works that read now as archaic and gothic were infused with cutting-edge scientific discoveries. Indeed, much of the horror in his best works derives from the darker ramifications of such new discoveries.

The story “Berenice,” for example, his early grotesquerie of dentistry gone awry, revolves around the newly coined psychiatric diagnosis monomania. Another new, if poorly understood, psychological concept—mesmerism—informs another of his most haunting works. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was presented not as fiction but an actual case study; it details the postmortem life of a man put under hypnosis at the exact moment of death, the procedure keeping him “alive” in an eerie stasis for months. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” probes the line between human and animal, a question that was to become increasingly fraught as Darwin’s nascent theories of evolution began to gather steam. “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather” suggested unsubtly that there was little difference between cutting-edge psychiatry and madness itself. Again and again, Tresch shows in Poe an almost methodical program to take scientific and psychological advances, and wring horror from them by pushing them to their limits.

Despite his obsession with science and his aptitude in understanding it, Poe’s peculiar focus did not quite align with that of the scientific milieu of his age. The word scientist itself was new, having only been coined in 1833, the result of a newly professionalizing discipline that was moving away from an older model of natural philosophy. But Poe cleaved to this older model, one where, in Tresch’s words, we are bound by “a nature sublimely animated by polarized forces: attractions and repulsions, positive and negative energies, light and dark, in constant movement between order and chaos. Poetry and intuition, as much as observation, calculation, and reason, could be methods for deciphering its design.” Poe borrowed from evangelical millenarianism, the writings of Swedenborg and Mesmer—even, Tresch suggests, early translations of Hindu cosmologies.

While Emerson was diving into nature to become a transparent eyeball, forging the new, homegrown American philosophy of transcendentalism, Poe was cobbling together a myriad of sources in a wild patchwork. One can see why Eureka failed as a project, then and now, and why, when Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn asked Albert Einstein about it in 1940, Einstein replied that it bore “a striking resemblance to the scientific crank-letters I receive every day.”

Accordingly, Eureka targeted contemporary science, with what Tresch calls “a scorched-earth attack on the narrowness of professional ‘men of science.’” At the same time that professional men of science were forming the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Poe was lambasting professionals in favor of splendid amateurism and personal ratiocination. Poe’s Eureka was, naturally, “precisely the kind of public oriented, freewheeling, generalizing, idiosyncratic and unlicensed speculation that the AAAS was created to exclude.”

Ever unsatisfied with the standard conceptions of reality, Poe kept seeking. He was, Tresch writes, “convinced that the universe escapes our attempts to frame it. Nevertheless, he kept building models.” The result, a shifting and semi-sentient view of the cosmos, informed Poe’s worldview as it powered his fiction: including the house of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a building that responds to the death of its inhabitants by spontaneously crumbling into the swamp. Through Tresch’s bio it becomes clear how Poe’s confusing but eerie mishmash could leave his philosophical musings wanting, even as his fiction leaves readers wanting more.

Poe’s interest in science inflected not just the topics of his writing but his ideas about writing itself. A lifetime of tenuous freelancing and the nonstop grind of magazine hackwork disabused him of any mythologies of art. Writing, too, was ultimately a science. As he laid out in “The Philosophy of Composition,” writing did not happen through magic, but rather according to formulae. The essay breaks down his landmark poem “The Raven” into an almost brutally emotionless anatomy of how to make a bestseller. The poem must not exceed 100 lines, it should focus on “Beauty” (and, Poe contends, “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”), and involve a sonorous and adaptable refrain. He ruthlessly strips bare his own masterwork of any possible sense of inspiration, insisting instead that he cobbled it together as the only possible solution to a set of predetermined rules. “By insisting on the rule-bound, mechanical aspects of his creation,” Tresch notes, “Poe was denying the romantic definition of poetry, advanced by Wordsworth and Coleridge and defended by [James Russell] Lowell and [Margaret] Fuller, as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’” Poe saw writing less as the work of the sudden genius and more the work of the careful, dogged scientist. New ideas did not arrive magically from inspiration but were instead wrought from preexisting ideas, in new combinations, and in the slow accretion of existing material that would occasionally burst forth into something new and striking.

Poe approached horror with a mathematician’s precision, and this remains the true wonder of his work. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, with Poe the seams are almost always visible. You can see the ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration that drove him, see the methodical way he borrowed from other writers and built up his stories through imitation and pastiche. You can see the way he waded into scientific controversies by ginning up a series of fictional mechanisms by which to test ideas or explore unintended consequences. Often in a Poe story, the mechanism by which he contrived and formed the work is so baldly transparent that it’s a wonder that his writing works at all.

And yet, it does. Somehow despite all this, Poe’s work continues to hum with mysterious despair and tenuous horror—a trembling unknown that keeps us evermore coming back.