John Limon argues that Poe was one of the first American writers who was important both to the fields of literature and science because he engaged in literary mediation, or “negotiation with science.” Limon notes that Poe’s works provide abundant examples that he anticipated forecasted several future developments in technology, e.g., exploration of the Poles, astronomy, physics, space travel, photography, electronic communications, and the forensic sciences. He wrote about these technical subjects in imaginative ways that captured the public’s interest and concludes that lay writers like Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, or those who wrote “without “letters,” also struggled with the professional class to establish their authority to speak on emerging scientific issues “(19).
Poe had not received any formal training as a scientist. However, he had considerable exposure to scientific ideas in his education, in his training, and in his investigations of science. He believed that an interested, observant, and skilled writer did not need credentials from any official accreditation organization before he was qualified to write about scientific topics. Therefore, in the present column, I will discuss Poe’s early technical preparation, activities, and some of his experiences that likely inspired his interest in writing about science as a poet, journalist, fiction, and non-fiction writer.
Poe’s early schooling and military training inspired and shaped his interest in science. According to Kenneth Silverman, Poe’s secondary education started after his foster parents moved from England to Richmond. In 1821, “Edgar attended the private academy of Joseph H. Clarke,” which served to prepare young gentlemen to obtain “an honorable entrance in any University in the United States.” One of his classmates wrote a testimonial that Poe was one of the top students in the class (23). Thomas and Jackson list the classes that students typically enrolled in while at that school. They included English, Languages (French, Latin, and Greek), Arithmetic, Geometry, Trigonometry, Navigation (using celestial observations), Gunnery and Projectiles, Optics, Geography, Maps and Charts, and Astronomy (41, 48). Continuing a description of Poe’s education and experiences, Silverman writes that in February 1826, Edgar Allan Poe was among the first group of students enrolled at the University of Virginia. School records there indicate that he was a bright and dedicated student. Despite not being able to afford to pay for his college textbooks, he was one of the top students in several of his classes. However, hefty financial and gambling debts to the University and to his classmates left him hopelessly in debt. When his foster father refused to continue paying for Poe’s college expenses, he was forced to drop out near the end of his first term (Silverman 29-34).
Major William F. Hecker, the author of Private Perry and Mister Poe, writes that Poe enlisted in the United States Army on May 26, 1827, under the alias of Private Poe. He spent three years as an artilleryman stationed for the longest period at Fort Moultrie, in a coastal area outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Poe spent much of his Army service learning cannon drill and maintenance. This task needed to be performed by a soldier who had extraordinary expertise and skill in the areas of measurement, logistical planning, and design. Army records indicate that Poe “was the most technically competent artillerist in his battery.” He was assigned to “oversee the ammunition supply of the battery.” He was quickly advanced to an artificer, a technical job concerning the “weights and measures of iron and chemicals” (xxxiv). According to Army records, “Poe was the army’s expert bomb artisan, carefully designing, preparing and constructing inter-connected systems of iron and chemicals with the ultimate goal of explosively destroying his creation” (xxxv-xxix). It was extraordinary for that time that Poe was promoted to a Sergeant Major in less than two years after he enlisted (xxix), and then enrolled in the United States Army Officer’s School at West Point. At the military academy, he took some classes in French, astronomy, math and navigation, but decided to get himself expelled in 1831 so he could pursue his interests in being a writer. Once again, lacking the necessary financial support from his foster father, Poe wrote: “The army does not suit a poor man—so I left abruptly,” and “threw myself upon literature as a resource” (Poe).
Hecker concludes that Poe’s four years in the Army did not detract in the least from his future career as a writer. On the contrary, it exposed him to many disparate subjects to write about, such as Cryptography, Geography, Oceanography, and Astronomy (xii). Also, he was able to incorporate many of his experiences relating to science into the themes of his poetry, journalism, fiction and non-fiction works. In the next column, I will explore Poe’s earliest published writing on science, a poem entitled, “Sonnet—To Science.”
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Memorandum in Poe Manuscript, May 29, 1841. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. www.eapoe.org/works/misc/poeautobiogrpahy.
Hecker, William F. Private Perry and Mister Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar Allan Poe: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
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.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech 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. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine.”He also serves as a board member, volunteer, tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Poe Museum in Richmond. See picture blow: