On 25 August 1835, the New York Sun ran a sensational scoop: the ‘Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D., F.R.S., &c, at the Cape of Good Hope’. Herschel – former president of the Royal Astronomical Society and son of William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus – had sailed from Britain to South Africa two years before with a giant reflecting telescope, on a mission to map the southern skies and observe the return of Halley’s Comet. Now, the Sun reported, he had trained his telescope on the Moon, with astonishing results. The lunar surface wasn’t merely a cratered desert after all. He could also see wooded areas with strange quadrupeds roaming about in them: bison-like creatures with a single huge horn, and species of goat-antelope cavorting through the glades. Herschel named the region ‘The Valley of the Unicorn’. Subsequent instalments in the Sun piled wonder on wonder. There were lunar prairies with bipedal beavers living in crude huts, wisps of smoke visible from their chimneys. On the crags above, Herschel discerned the silhouettes of winged figures; switching to his most powerful lens, he identified them as gliding primates, covered in orange fur like orangutans. Further specimens were observed lounging by the side of a lake, making conversational gestures with their hands. Herschel named this species ‘Vespertilio-homo’, or man-bat.
By now the newsboys of New York were selling out every edition of the paper and clamouring for more. On 29 August a special pamphlet edition of the series sold twenty thousand copies almost as soon as it appeared. The Sun’s circulation jumped to an unprecedented 19,360, larger even than the Times of London, a city six times the size of New York. A lithograph print of the man-bats swooping over a picturesque lake followed, priced at 25 cents. Within weeks a giant diorama was installed on Broadway, illustrating the entire lunar landscape across a thousand feet of rotating canvas. It was only when a New York reporter tracked Herschel to his hotel in Cape Town and told him the story – to the astronomer’s great astonishment and amusement – that it was conclusively refuted.
The Great Moon Hoax, once exposed, provoked much debate about the state of American science, the responsibilities of the popular press and the credulity of its readers. The Sun denied it had been duped, without ever quite claiming that the story was genuine: it had published in good faith, it claimed, out of a proper respect for Herschel’s scientific eminence. But the most indignant response came from a young journalist at the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. This was Edgar Allan Poe, who had just weeks earlier published a short story, ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall’, about an accidental voyage to the Moon in a hot air balloon. It was a knockabout yarn in the vein of Baron Munchhausen’s adventures but presented as reportage, much of it devoted to scientifically detailed descriptions of the Earth’s surface as viewed from the upper atmosphere, the curvature of the globe illuminated by sunrise, and the gradual diminution of gravity as the balloon was slowly but surely tugged towards the lunar surface. There was a brief, playful paragraph describing the ‘wild and dreamy regions of the Moon’ and their curious inhabitants: tiny, earless humanoids who communicated by telepathy. This must have been the inspiration, as Poe saw it, for the Sun’s plagiarised account.
John Tresch introduces Edgar Allan Poe as a sixteen-year-old astronomer, mapping the heavens with his telescope at his foster father’s mansion in Richmond and reading deeply in the mathematics and astronomy of Herschel and Pierre-Simon Laplace. In 1830, aged 21, after spells at the University of Virginia and in the army, he enrolled at the West Point military academy, the foremost scientific college in the antebellum United States, which drew its teaching principles and extensive library from the French École Polytechnique. Poe spent less than a year there – enough time, it seems, to have gained a solid grounding in science and mathematics, and enough French to read the latest researches – before he deliberately got himself court-martialled and dismissed. Disowned by his foster father, he began his published career as a poet but was soon supporting himself with journalism. At the Messenger, alongside short fictions such as ‘Hans Pfaall’, he was writing about the latest works on chemistry and physiology, along with a regular column of useful and surprising facts. He had a notion of fusing all these genres together to create a scientifically informed literature in the manner of Erasmus Darwin’s didactic nature poems.
Poe wasn’t surprised by the popularity of the Moon Hoax, or by how widely it was believed: he reckoned that ‘not one person in ten’ discredited it until it was challenged. It was evidence, if more were needed, that ‘the potent magic of verisimilitude’ could persuade the general public to entertain the most outlandish impossibilities. The illusion of science, for a writer in the embryonic American marketplace, sold better than the real thing. But Poe had grand scientific ambitions, with which he persisted in the teeth of indifference from both the reading public and the scientific establishment. During his career he was by turns an advocate and a debunker of science, its satirist and saboteur. Yet his masterpiece, as he saw it, was his final work, a visionary theory of the cosmos.
In focusing on Poe through the lens of science, Tresch isn’t so much rewriting his life as recovering the view of his contemporaries. Poe’s reputation as a master of the gothic and the macabre took root only after his death, in large part because of Charles Baudelaire’s elevating him to the canon of ‘accursed’ poètes maudits. But during his lifetime he was equally prominent as a science writer: in the words of one journalist in 1848, at the end of his life, ‘Mr Poe is not merely a man of science – not merely a poet – not merely a man of letters. He is all combined; and perhaps he is something more.’
In the 1830s, as James Secord has shown, scientific literature had become hugely popular with the reading public. In fiction, it was an interregnum between the age of poets, such as Poe’s hero Lord Byron, and the full flourishing of the 19th-century novel. Popularisers of science such as Herschel, Humphry Davy and the phrenologist George Combe sold in cheap mass market editions, printed on a new generation of steam presses with mechanised stereotyping and distributed through a rapidly expanding network of lending libraries and mechanics’ institutes.
Hybrids of science and adventure story such as ‘Hans Pfaall’ aimed to please readers of both fact and fiction, and Poe was alerted to the coming trend for novels by editors who turned down his short tales on the grounds that ‘people want something larger and longer.’ His response was the book-length Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the purported manuscript of a shipwreck survivor carried on ocean currents to the South Pole, where he fetches up on an unknown island with a temperate climate and an ancient civilisation. Poe was inspired by the real-life adventurer John Symmes, who was fundraising at the time for an expedition to the North Pole, which he believed to be the entrance to a subterranean hollow earth. Like the Moon stories, these polar tales were the end product of an era of exploration in which the search for new territories had extended to the most remote peripheries of the globe. The first edition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in 1838 played it entirely straight: Poe’s name didn’t appear even on the title page, and the book was read by many as non-fiction. The publisher George Putnam confessed that it ‘misled many of the critics as well as ourselves’, and several sources reported it as ‘sober historical truth’. The Gentleman’s Magazine filed it under ‘Literary and Scientific Intelligence’; others, with the Moon Hoax still fresh in the mind, called it ‘a very clever extravaganza’ and an ‘impudent attempt at humbugging the public’.
At the same time, Poe was winning a reputation as a defender of science by vigorously uncovering impostors such as the supposed chess-playing automaton the ‘Mechanical Turk’. In 1839 he wrote an illustrated taxonomy of seashells, The Conchologist’s First Book, a school textbook that sold better in his lifetime than any of his subsequent works. By the age of thirty he was a full-time writer – a rare thing at a time when Nathaniel Hawthorne still worked in a customs house and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as a lawyer – with a unique set of specialisms spanning science, poetry, short stories and novels. His literary models were all in Britain, where he had spent five formative years between the ages of six and eleven: the saturnine dash and poetic fluency of Byron, and the racy ‘tales of sensation’ in Blackwood’s Magazine.
The ups and downs of Poe’s mature career were a consequence not only of the shifts in public tastes between fiction, science and poetry, but the mixture of self-sabotage and terrible luck that had him producing his best-remembered work at moments of personal and professional disaster. His first flush of suspense tales – ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ – were written in 1842, just as his beloved young wife (and cousin), Virginia, was diagnosed with consumption and he spiralled into a period of drinking and depression. By 1845 he had recovered to produce the one palpable hit of his lifetime, the poem ‘The Raven’; critics called him ‘the American Shakespeare’. But Virginia’s worsening health and the strain of overwork drove him back to drink, unleashing a wildly erratic and belligerent alter ego that cost him dearly in work and friends. He was forced to claw back a career by taking on editorial roles in ‘the magazine prison house’, a soul-destroying grind of fifteen-hour days that paid miserably and left little scope for his own creative endeavours.
American science, meanwhile, was attempting to defend itself from the hucksters and mountebanks who had made the Moon Hoax so credible to the public. ‘We are overwhelmed in this country with charlatanism,’ claimed Joseph Henry, professor of natural philosophy at Princeton. ‘Our newspapers are filled with the puffs of quackery and every man who can burn phosphorus in oxygen and exhibit a few experiments to a class of Young Ladies is called a man of Science.’ The US had a thriving network of local clubs and societies dedicated to astronomy, mathematics, chemistry and natural history, but lacked a unified, authoritative scientific voice. Fortunately, the resources were available to create one: since 1835 a huge bequest of 104,960 gold sovereigns from the British chemist James Smithson for the ‘increase and diffusion of knowledge’ had been awaiting allocation by Congress. In 1844 Washington DC hosted a public convention under the aegis of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science; in 1846 the Smithson bequest was used, at last, to launch the Smithsonian Institution with Joseph Henry as director; and in 1848 the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia created an American Association for the Advancement of Science after the British model.
Poe, however, was moving in the opposite direction. His attempts to establish himself in Philadelphia, ‘the Athens of America’, were scuppered by his drinking binges, and he relocated to New York, where the booming market for hucksterism was fed by the likes of P.T. Barnum’s collections of freaks, prodigies and scientific forgeries. Within a week of arriving in 1844, Poe wrote an article for the Sun describing the first balloon flight across the Atlantic, following it up a month later with the confession that it had been a hoax. For Poe, it was a valuable exercise. ‘The more intelligent believed,’ he wrote, ‘while the rabble, for the most part, rejected the whole with disdain.’ Science had been colonised by arrogance and ‘the heresy of didacticism’, believing itself superior to the products of the imagination, of which it was in reality just another instance. ‘The highest order of the imaginative intellect is always pre-eminently mathematical or analytical,’ he wrote in 1845, ‘and the converse of this proposition is equally true.’
In 1847, Virginia died and Poe suffered a ‘brain fever, brought on by extreme suffering of mind and body’. The project that gripped him now was a cosmological treatment of the grandest subject of all: the origins, present condition and fate of the universe. It was to be a riposte to the professional ‘men of science’, a theory that encompassed not only mathematics, natural history and astronomy but also art, poetry and beauty. It first took form as a lecture, ‘The Universe’, at the Society Library in New York, and emerged in 1848 as a compact book titled Eureka: A Prose Poem.
Tresch’s narrative heads inevitably towards a reckoning with this notoriously difficult final work, which he admits is ‘punishingly digressive and lopsided … a mess: a serious mess, a glorious mess, but a mess’. Some have interpreted it as a deliberate spoof or ‘humbug’, like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket before it. In the lecture, Poe read out a letter purportedly from the year 2848 ridiculing the backward scientists of the 19th century. Others have diagnosed it as a symptom of the alcoholic degeneration that would kill him the following year. As the reviews – which were overwhelmingly savage – pointed out, it contains no actual scientific research: Poe reaches his conclusions by ‘ratiocination’, the method also favoured by his fictional detective Auguste Dupin. In its grandiose and disorientating shifts of perspective, it bears a closer resemblance to the diorama shows of New York’s entertainment palaces than it does to a scientific treatise.
Yet Tresch finds method in the madness of Eureka. Poe conceives the universe in terms of an eternal flux between the forces of attraction and repulsion. Matter and soul, time and space are all manifestations of the same essence. Attraction is the force that manifests in matter and gravity, while repulsion imbues electricity, life and spirit. The universe began in a spasm of repulsion, diffusing outwards to create multiplicity out of unity, before the forces of attraction – as described by Newton’s theory of gravity and Laplace’s nebular hypothesis – drew it back into clumps of matter. The process cycles constantly through microcosm and macrocosm, at every scale from the microbial to the galactic. It is the breath of life, the heartbeat of the universe, and will continue until a final collapse in which all life and consciousness will merge into the unity from which they arose.
Solipsistic and extravagantly overreaching, Eureka was nonetheless a sincere attempt to formulate a holistic science in opposition to the narrow specialisms that Poe saw hardening around him. It built on the anonymous and scandalous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which had proposed a universe evolved out of diffuse clouds of matter, dispensing with a divine creator in favour of universal mechanical laws. It took inspiration from Alexander von Humboldt’s magisterial Cosmos, the first volume of which appeared in English in 1846, with its ambition to weave all the sciences, indeed human culture altogether, into a grand panorama. (Humboldt’s roots were in German Naturphilosophie, involving a dynamic conception of nature as an energetic process that shapes both the material world and the architecture of the human mind.) Eureka also echoed transcendentalist philosophy – to a surprising extent, considering Poe’s withering opinion of Emerson and Thoreau – and its ancient parallels in Vedanta and Hindu cosmology. Stylistically, it recalled Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, both epic verse treatments of the universe as matter in flux.
Poe was, as he well knew, swimming against the tide. Eureka, Tresch writes, was ‘precisely the kind of publicly oriented, freewheeling, generalising and unlicensed speculation that the AAAS was created to exclude’. The 1840s were the decade in which American science came of age, its newly constituted establishment accompanied by the world-famous scientific breakthroughs of the telegraph and surgical anaesthesia. The term ‘scientist’, coined in Britain in 1833 but not widely adopted there until the end of the century, was swiftly taken up by a new generation of American professionals in laboratories, observatories, factories and patent offices. The future that was being forged had no use for ‘scientific romances’ such as the Vestiges or Humboldt’s all-encompassing views of nature, let alone an impenetrable prose poem by an unreliable fabulist that claimed to collapse the distinctions between science, art and philosophy. Poe dedicated Eureka to ‘dreamers and those who put faith in dreams’. It was, he insisted, his final word. ‘It is no use to reason with me now,’ he wrote shortly before his death. ‘I must die. I have no desire to live since I have done Eureka. I could accomplish nothing more.’