Future Fears

How a 19th-century writer and polymath anticipated the modern world

Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek (Mathew Brady/National Archives via Wikipedia; NASA)
Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek (Mathew Brady/National Archives via Wikipedia; NASA)

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

If you’re anything like me, your knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe is sketchy and cartoonish.

He was a writer of scary tales in the 19th century who had a drinking problem, married a cousin when she was 13, lived in poverty in many East Coast cities, and died young—age 40, actually—under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore. He had sad eyes and a cetacean forehead. The French love him. Someone leaves a bottle of cognac on his grave (also in Baltimore) every January 19, his birthday.

Nobody whose stories and poems are read nearly two centuries after they were written deserves a biography like that. It’s obviously wrong. How wrong is clear in the latest and most unlikely biography of the writer: The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science.

Poe, it turns out, was a polymath of the first order—poet, essayist, fiction writer, science journalist, beloved editor, failed entrepreneur, fluent speaker of French and Latin, math whiz, military veteran, parodist and hoaxer, lecturer who could fill a lyceum hall, and strange predictor of scientific theories formulated long after his death, such as relativity, the Big Bang, and the quantum multiverse. On top of that, he displayed our age’s favorite trait: resilience.

Poe’s life (1809­–1849) spanned what today seems an obscure period of American history. When he was a child, veterans of the Revolutionary War still walked the streets. (His paternal grandfather had been Lafayette’s quartermaster). As a young adult he spent four years in the army, and was briefly a West Point cadet, as the nation flexed its hemispheric muscles. In the fat part of his adulthood, invention and industry—powered by immigration and slavery—turned the country into an economic prodigy. Meanwhile, the intellectual class was hashing out what it meant to be an American in books and lecture halls, and especially in magazines, the main vehicle for Poe’s writing.

All that, however, is mere backdrop for the main story of this book—the rise of American science and Poe’s role in it—by John Tresch, Mellon Professor in Art History, History of Science and Folk Practice at the University of London’s Warburg Institute. As he writes of the age in which Poe lived and worked,

American science was being forged. A new profession was staking its claim in public life, dutifully extending the American empire and putting nature under universal law, standard methods, modest personal habits, and central administration. It had a vast future. It would map new territories and advise on telegraphs, railroads, factories, ports, and lighthouses. It would assist in piling up munitions and building defenses … Poe foretold much of this.

In fact, it was an epochal time in science.

Government-sponsored voyages of discovery—Lewis and Clark in North America, and the South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838—produced huge collections of objects. The birth of geology threatened the biblical view of the world. Bigger and better telescopes found new cohabitants of the universe, such as Neptune (1846) and the nebulae of Orion. Advances in chemistry and physics—and especially the discovery of electromagnetism, an ethereal but undeniable force—thrilled the educated world.

It was also a time when even the experimentalists believed in God, and had to include him in their explanation of reality. The central insight of biology—natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and its atheistic implications—had not yet arrived. The best minds of the age teetered on a knife edge, with a Creator and teleology on one side, and “chance and necessity” (in 20th-century French biochemist Jacques Monod’s felicitous formulation) on the other.

Things came down on the latter, at least if you’re a believer in evidence. Poe didn’t live long enough to see it. What he did see was the struggle preceding the resolution. What he—curious mind, starving opportunist, facile writer—also saw was a subject for fiction and commentary. The Reason for the Darkness of the Night is really two books, one about the history of science and the other about Poe’s life, artfully interwoven.

So what was Poe’s role in the scientific revolutions of the first half of the 19th century?

One of his first published poems was “Sonnet—to Science” (1830), in which he ponders the threat scientific materialism poses to myth and imagination—“Why prey’st thou thus upon the poet’s heart, / Vulture! whose wings are dull realities!” Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket—a weird faux-account of a South Seas voyage—was full of “precise details about currents, weather, and creatures of the sea and air,” Tresch writes.

Philadelphia, where Poe moved in 1838 and spent much of his adult life, “was the nation’s most active center for scientific research.” It was home to the Franklin Institute, dedicated to educating workers about science, and the American Philosophical Society, the nation’s oldest scientific organization. Alexander Dallas Bache, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was helping measure variation in the earth’s magnetic field around the world. Joseph Saxton, an instrument maker at the Philadelphia Mint, was soon to become the first superintendent of the U.S. Office of Weights and Measures. Joseph Henry, who described magnetic induction independently of Michael Faraday, was a frequent visitor from Princeton, where he taught. The three were also critics of “humbug”—the collective term for popular pseudoscientific enterprises, such as phrenology.

Poe observed them all.

In a regular column for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, “Poe made himself one of America’s first science reporters,” Tresch writes, “weighing in with equal ease on atmospheric pressure, steam engines, roller skates, and astronomical sunglasses.” He championed the creation of a national research institute, which is what the Smithsonian Institution became, with its first director Joseph Henry. He also wrote some of his best-known stories during this period. Many make show-offy use of scientific knowledge and references—fluid mechanics in “A Descent into the Maelstrom” and “nebular cosmogony” (the role of interstellar dust in the evolution of the universe) that’s mentioned in passing in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

And so it went, as he moved from Philadelphia to New York and back to Richmond, Virginia, where he grew up, writing stories that referenced emerging concepts (probability in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”) and occasionally masqueraded as scientific reports (“Mesmeric Revelation”). This culminated in “Eureka,” a 40,000-word prose poem in which Poe declares (anticipating Einstein) that “time and space are one,” and lays out his theory that the universe started from a kernel of matter, exploded outward to form stars and planets, and would eventually collapse on itself. The title of Tresch’s book comes from Poe’s observation that the universe must be bounded (as astrophysicists now believe), because if it were infinite, with an infinite number of stars, the night sky would be light.

The book’s subtitle suggests (at least to me) that Poe was one of the blacksmiths in the “forging of American science.” But of course he wasn’t a scientist. While some 20th-century physicists found Poe’s writing prescient, it seems unlikely it gave them ideas they didn’t already have. What is clear is that Poe saw the science of his day (including emerging ideas in psychology) as a way to give weird stories verisimilitude—to make them better, scarier, more memorable.

One of the many compelling aspects of this book is its treatment of the first half of the 19th century as a distant mirror of our own times. In defense of a story about fatal dentistry, “Berenice,” that he offered to the just-launched Southern Literary Messenger, Poe argued that it would create lots of buzz. Tresch notes that “Poe was describing the conditions of success—for magazines, for authors—of his place and time … In a logic familiar from today’s social media economy of clicks, likes, and retweets, the value of a text lay in how many other texts talked about it, excerpted it, or reprinted it.”

What’s more impressive is that Poe did all this in conditions of immense hardship. Forget his binge drinking (“sprees” they were called back then) for a minute. Poe was an orphan. The millionaire uncle who raised him never adopted him and left him no money. Magazines were like websites and podcasts today—not really capable of providing a living. He spent his life in debt, living in rented houses with an invalid wife and helpful mother-in-law. But he was never discouraged enough to stop working and remained intellectually ambitious to the end. His misfortune outlived him. An obituary in the New-York Daily Tribune—Horace Greeley’s paper—was widely reprinted. Its author, a now-forgotten literary light named Rufus Griswold, wrote that “but few will be grieved” by Poe’s death as “he had few or no friends.”

It’s taken a long time to set things right. This book helps to do that. A reader comes away not only with admiration for Poe but affection, too.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

David Brown, a journalist and a physician, was a staff writer for The Washington Post from 1991 to 2013.


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