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.