During the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century, there was a need for a new class of writers who could write about emerging scientific information in a way that the new consumers of science information could understand. The emerging class of professional scientists in the United States was neither equipped nor interested in communicating about science with the public. Lightman refers to the nineteenth century literary writers who did attempt to communicate to the public as the “popularizers of science.” He also suggests that “Their success was partially due to their ability to present the huge mass of scientific fact in the form of compelling stories” (188). He contends, therefore, that it is essential for our current understanding of nineteenth-century culture to explore writers like Edgar Allan Poe, who skillfully and prolifically commented on many of the most significant scientific trends of his lifetime. Many other scholars (Gewirtz, Hoffman, Willis, and Tresch) acknowledge that Poe was one of the most important leaders in developing both the genres of science fiction and detective fiction. Similarly, John Limon writes that Poe engaged in literary “negotiation with science,” asserting that his works both foreshadowed and critiqued several emerging scientific developments and trends of the future (19). As such, Paul Faytor argues that “there was a two-way traffic between science and science-writers in the nineteenth century. He notes that many of the inventions and writings of professional scientists helped to shape science fiction and that many ideas imagined by science fiction writers found their way into actual scientific inventions. (256). His works in those areas provide abundant example that he anticipated forecasted future developments in technical areas such as exploration of the Poles, astronomy, physics, space travel, photography, electronic communications, and the forensic sciences. Limon argues that lay writers like Poe and Hawthorne, or those without “letters” who were interested in writing about science, struggled with professional scientists to establish their authority to speak about the newly emerging scientific issues (19). Poe had not received much formal training as a scientist but had considerable exposure to technical subjects in his early education, in his technical experiences in the military, and through his exposure to science news as a journalist. He believed that an observant and skilled writer did not need professional science training or to be sanctioned by an official science accreditation organizations before writing about science.
Poe,however, looked not only to the events of his era to inform his view of truth in his science writing, but he was also inspired and informed by several of the most renown philosophers and science writers of antiquity. In his 1848 culminating science narrative, Eureka: A Prose Poem, he outlined the development of scientific thinking from antiquity through his era. A list of the ancient writers of science and the philosophy of science he commented on in Eureka includes Archimedes, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Newton, Kepler, and Francis Bacon. Also in Eureka, he discussed the works of philosophers and scientists closer to Poe’s lifetime such as Auguste Comte, Sir John Herschel, John Stuart Mill, Pierre Simon La Place, and Friedrich Heinrich Humboldt – to whom Poe dedicated Eureka. This culminating work of Poe’s science narratives will be discussed in a blog that will be written in the future. However, there are several important contextual influences pertaining to science and literature that were in place by the early nineteenth century that likely influenced Poe’s choice to embark on a career that focused on science narrative writing. These influences will be discussed in the upcoming monthly Poe in Science Blogs.
Partial List of Sources:
Faytor, Paul. “Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction.” Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Barnard A. Lightman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Gewirtz, Isaac. Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul. New York: New York Public Library, 2013.
Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.19C Printing Press
Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1990
Tresch, John. The Romantic Machine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.