The Divine Edgar - scientist?

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan PoeCourtesy Original by W.S. Hartshorn
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe. Best known for his poems, The Raven, and Annabel Lee, and certainly for his many Gothic tales of terror and the macabre, Poe was born January 19, 1809 in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, and is probably the last guy you’d expect to see mentioned on Science Buzz. Well, that’s exactly what I thought, until about two weeks ago, when I came across an interesting book entitled, The Conchologist’s First Book written by none other than E. A. Poe!

How could this be? How could the author of such wonderfully crafted prose as The Telltale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado be the same guy who responsible for a textbook about sea mollusks?

Probably because he was broke most of the time. Poe lived a somewhat short, miserable life. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died of tuberculosis, all the siblings were split up and the young Edgar was taken in by the family of John Allan in Richmond. The Allans never officially adopted Edgar, but christened him with their surname as his middle name. The family moved for a while to the United Kingdom, where Edgar attended school in Scotland and England before returning to America. He enlisted in the army for the steady paycheck and some stability, but after his enlistment was terminated, he became determined to support himself solely from his writing. Not a great decision, considering the financial Panic of 1837, and dismal state of international copyright law at the time (American publishers found it much cheaper to rip-off European writers than pay American ones).

Despite the difficult times and his own demons, Poe was a prolific writer. He published books of poetry, short fiction, essays, and literary criticism for several literary magazines and periodicals, but the poor guy was always strapped for cash and struggling to stay afloat. A good example is his masterful narrative poem The Raven, published in 1845. Although it was hugely popular and made him a household name, Edgar made a grand total of only $9 from the poem. That alone was probably enough to push anyone into depression, madness, alcoholism, or attempted suicide – all conditions Poe himself experienced.

Facimile of frontpiece from Conchologist's First Book
Facimile of frontpiece from Conchologist's First BookCourtesy Public Domain
So it’s hardly a surprise, when a few years earlier Poe had been offered $50 to write the preface to Thomas Wyatt’s new schoolbook on conchology, he jumped at the chance. Wyatt was looking to expand into the schoolbook market with a shorter and cheaper rewrite of his earlier book titled Manual of Conchology. But there was concern Wyatt’s name on the new book could lead to copyright trouble with his previous publisher, Harper & Brothers, so both Wyatt and his new publisher were looking for a writer of Poe’s (at the time) lesser status under which to publish the book - meaning someone whom the old publisher “would be idle to sue for damages.”

Poe saw it a little differently.

“I wrote it in conjunction with Professor Thomas Wyatt, and Professor McMultrie... my name being put to the work, as best known and most likely to aid its circulation,” he said.

Unfortunately, Wyatt had lifted much of the material in his first book from British naturalist Thomas Brown’sThe Conchologist’s Textbook published in 1837. In the end, Poe was hounded by charges of copyright infringement and plagiarism, but oddly the book was a big success and the only volume printed under Poe’s name to go into a second edition during his lifetime.

Poe certainly wasn’t a scientist, but his writings did influenced science fiction writers such as Jules Verne in France, and later the American H. P. Lovecraft. And Poe is considered the patron saint of detective fiction. His stories such as Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter led Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to say this:

"Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed.... Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?"

Poe’s own life ended tragically and mysteriously in 1849. After missing for three days, he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, delirious, and wearing someone else’s clothes. He died shortly after in the hospital on October 7th.

One plagiarized book on mollusks doesn't a scientist make, but it wasn’t Poe's only dabbling with the subject. He wrote a sonnet entitled To Science (1829), and a prose poem titled Eureka (1848) that among other things contains the following interesting passage:

"The assumption of absolute Unity in the primordial Particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive the Particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by diffusion into Space. From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically -- in all directions -- to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space -- a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms."

Sounds strikingly like the Big Bang Theory doesn’t it?

Poe biography
The Cask of Amontillado
The Telltale Heart
The Purloined Letter
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Annabel Lee

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