Generalism isn’t what it used to be—and, in America, it probably never was. In 1832, the year before “scientist” entered the lexicon, replacing the unspecialized “natural philosopher,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who dabbled in medicine, poetry, and politics, and coined the term “New England Brahmin,” professed it odd “that many men should devote themselves so exclusively to the study of their own particular callings. It seems as if they thought a mind must grow narrow before it can come to a focus.… [But] the knowledge of a man, who confines himself to one object, bears the same relation to that of the liberal scholar, that the red or violet ray of a prism does to the blended light of a sunbeam.”
Edgar Allan Poe, though no friend of Cambridge intellectuals, would have agreed. In The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, John Tresch gives Poe the wide-ranging, all-rounder’s biography he deserves.
Poe’s gloomy childhood was like something out of, well, Poe. Born in Boston in 1809, he was orphaned at two in Virginia, where his actress mother, Eliza Arnold, and abject father, David—who had by then run off—died within days of each other. John Allan, who traded tobacco and later inherited one of Richmond’s landed fortunes, and his wife, Frances, took Poe in.
Allan’s love was, unfortunately, highly conditional. Allan refused to adopt his foster son, behaving, Tresch laments, “condescendingly, dismissively, and angrily,” alternating between munificence and miserliness. Poe’s disinterest in business rankled, as did Frances’s softhearted doting. Poe, in turn, played the part of moody adolescent to perfection, growing “competitive, even combative, convinced that he was exceptional, unique.” His studies at the University of Virginia were clouded and cut short by drink and debt. By age 17, Poe’s break with Allan was unmendable.
Poe’s gloomy childhood was like something out of, well, Poe.
Poe toiled briefly on the Boston waterfront and for “an obscure paper” prior to joining the army. At West Point, he dreamed of becoming an officer and engineer—and of writing poems. While Poe scored high in his exams, he skipped enough lectures, drills, and church services to be dismissed. As one soldier remarked, he “was the wrong man in the wrong place—although, from an intellectual point of view, he stood high there.”
Poe’s aborted training in mathematics and astronomy would not be wasted, however. The era’s twin fascinations with scientific progress and quackery suffused Poe’s essays, magazine work, verse, and fiction. He was among the most strident and persuasive detractors of “the Turk,” Johann Nepomuk Maelzel’s chess-playing automaton. His takedown—he correctly surmised that there was someone hidden inside Maelzel’s machine—was, Tresch notes, plagiarized from David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832).
Nor was Poe himself above hoaxing. His novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), which drew on an expedition to the South Seas inspired by John Cleves Symmes’s “hollow earth” theory—yes, it’s what it sounds like—presented itself as an authentic travel account. A measure of Poe’s unstudied brilliance lies in the book’s intricate structure. The 25 chapters, Tresch relates, are divided in half, with events in the first and latter 12 mirroring one other. At the midpoint, in Chapter 13, Pym’s ship crosses the equator and flips over.
Naturally, I recognized none of this when I read—and loved—the novel in my teens. A copy of its French translation can be found at the base of the mirror in René Magritte’s La Reproduction Interdite (1937).
Perhaps too versatile—certainly too headstrong and unsober—for his own good, Poe shuffled between cities, jobs, and literary forms. His material circumstances were increasingly precarious. A visitor to his home in 1842 recalled, with considerable understatement, “an air of pecuniary want.”
Perhaps too versatile—certainly too headstrong and unsober—for his own good, Poe shuffled between cities, jobs, and literary forms.
Poe remained undaunted. At the end of 1844, he would proclaim, “I have just written the greatest poem that ever was written.” Poe was, of course, referring to “The Raven,” for which he received $10 from the Whig Journal. “It was both a technical feat and an insightful marvel,” Tresch observes, “a novelty suited to an age of invention.”
Whatever one thinks of its greatness, “The Raven” validated Francis Bacon’s ideal of uncommon, exquisite beauty, which for Poe was an article of faith: “Take away [the] element of strangeness—of unexpectedness—of novelty—of originality—call it what we will,” wrote Poe, “and all that is ethereal in loveliness is lost at once. We lose—we miss the unknown—the vague—the uncomprehended, because offered before we have time to examine and comprehend. We lose, in short, all that assimilates the beauty of the earth with what we dream of the beauty of Heaven.”
Tresch’s narrative is studded with the colorful and colorfully named: Poe’s onetime antagonist, mechanics lecturer Dionysius Lardner; geologist Lardner Vanuxem; transcendentalist Orestes Brownson. For all I know, Brownson’s middle name was Lardner. Poe shared their shallow idiosyncrasies; his genius set him apart.
A “punishingly digressive and lopsided” cosmological tract, Eureka, capped Poe’s varied output. He died, poor, widowed, and mostly unmourned, in 1849. Obituaries were decidedly uncharitable: “Edgar Allan Poe is dead … few will be grieved by it … he had few or no friends.”
Poe had suffered from what he termed “the great barrier in the path of an American writer,” namely negative comparison with more established European models. How could he contribute meaningfully to the American canon if no such canon existed? The Boston Evening Transcript remembered his “talents, with which he might have done great things, had he united to them stable principles, earnest purposes and self-denying habits.” What, in hindsight, could be more American than that?
There is something familiar and unsettling in the early 19th century’s incongruent celebrations of fact and fraudulence. The Turk, for one, was an ingenious fraud. Others were not. Yet parallels between our time and Poe’s have their limits. He contended, as we might not, that the “whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward.”
Max Carter is the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s New York