Edgar Allan Poe’s Other Obsession

Known as a master of horror, he also understood the power—and the limits—of science.

Animation of Edgar Allan Poe's face distorted into a spiral
Illustration by Kensuke Koike; Bettmann / Getty

This article was published online on June 11, 2021.

In the early and macabre days of coronavirus shutdowns, Edgar Allan Poe was trending. “The Masque of the Red Death,” his Gothic tale from 1842, became in March of 2020 a go-to source for allegory: A prince whose state is overrun with something like hemorrhagic fever invites 1,000 noble friends to stay inside his well-stocked keep. They amuse themselves for months in quarantine with dancers and buffoons until, one night, a ghost appears and kills them all. This parable felt apropos during the early phase of COVID-19’s spread, when billionaires were hiding on their super-yachts and posting pics on Instagram. “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” the record producer David Geffen captioned one such photo. “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.”

A Red Death wish for the ultrarich soon gave way to other, less parochial concerns, and “Masque” turned out to be less apt than some of Poe’s other writings on disease. Take “The Sphinx.” The story is set “during the dread reign of the Cholera in New York” in 1832, and the narrator has just bolted to a rustic cottage in the Hudson Valley. That summer, Manhattan was indeed abandoned to a morbid silence, according to Charles E. Rosenberg’s history The Cholera Years. Church bells went unrung, pedestrians disappeared, and tufts of grass sprouted from the streets. “By the end of the first week in July, almost everyone who could afford to had left the city,” Rosenberg writes.

Poe’s narrator is one of these well-heeled refugees, holed up for several weeks and hosted by a relative. The pair are pleasantly occupied inside and outdoors, but horrid news keeps wafting into their retreat: “The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death,” the narrator says. “That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of anything else.”

Then, one day, he is seated by the window, a book in his hand, musing on the epidemic’s toll as he gazes out across the Hudson River. On the far, denuded bank he sees something terrible: a “living monster of hideous conformation,” darting toward the trees. It’s the size of a great ship, he says, with a proboscis sprouting from a mass of shaggy hair and two giant, gleaming tusks below; it has two pairs of wings, each nearly 100 yards in length and clothed in metal scales. When the monster opens its jaws and shrieks across the valley, the narrator collapses in a faint.

The vision recurs a few days later, and the narrator takes it as an omen of his coming death. His relative, a scientific man, tells him not to worry. The narrator, the host explains, has been the victim of “the principle source of error in all human investigations”: namely, the tendency to lose one’s sense of proportion. Rather than a giant beast scuttling along the banks of the Hudson, the narrator must have spotted something small and near at hand, and then misjudged its “propinquity.”

The relative pulls a natural-history book from his shelf to make his point. He reads aloud a scientific description of Acherontia atroposthe death’s-head hawk moth. It matches the vision: four membranous wings covered with metallic scales, downy palpi, a proboscis, and so forth. Then he steps over to the window and, like Sherlock Holmes, plops down in the chair, mimicking the narrator’s posture and position. “Ah, here it is!” he cries. He’s found the moth in question—wriggling along the window sash, just about a 16th of an inch away, he says, from the pupil of his eye.

This reads, at first, as a triumphal tale of science in which phantasmal fear is tamed by cool and calculating method. But on closer look, the story’s message is ambivalent. While its final line pretends to be the culmination of a careful proof—elementary, my dear Watson—that’s not the case at all: If a hawk moth had really spread its wings two millimeters from the narrator’s pupil, he wouldn’t have perceived a monster. He wouldn’t have been able to distinguish anything at all. The vision that’s ascribed to him is instead the microscopic view—a dissector’s terrifying, supernormal closeness to the facts. (Think of a dust mite, captured at 300x: a dimpled, pincered blob on hairy stilts.) This is a specimen, not an omen—one that illustrates the rival modes by which science changes our perception. It may help us organize and simplify the world, but it also has the power to derange us with its details.

Poe, a master of horror (and detective) fiction, is far less well known for his fascination with empirical methods, and the mysteries they reveal. As he wrote in another context, his era’s brand-new tools of image-making represented the “most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science.” Technology revealed hidden facts at “inaccessible elevations,” he wrote—it ginned up propinquity—and cast a light on “truth itself in the supremeness of its perfection.”

So the story of the terror on the riverbank leaves us with a puzzle: Is the vision of the moth—this massive microbe creeping up the waterway from cholera-stricken New York City—really just an error of inflation, as the relative suggests? Or might it be some message sent from hidden elevations, a scientific signal of its own?

A war on science raged across America in the early 19th century. Poe, as a writer, critic, and thinker, battled for both sides. A new biography—The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by the historian John Tresch—situates its subject in a maelstrom of competing tides, as a new class of engineers and experimentalists splashed up against philosophers, theologians, and cranks. “Understanding his life and work,” Tresch maintains, “demands close attention to his multiform engagements with” scientific thought and discoveries.

Poe certainly had a scientific cast of mind: In 1830, at the age of 21, he was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—a scientific school, modeled on the École Polytechnique, in France, and meant to be a training ground for top-flight engineers. Poe showed promise, too. Before dropping out, he placed 17th in math out of 87 cadets. A few years later, he helped produce a textbook on conchology that sold more copies during his life than any other volume bearing his name. Among its selling points were several hundred color illustrations of seashells.

By 1840, Poe was working at a men’s magazine, where he launched a feature called “A Chapter on Science and Art,” consisting of the sorts of squibs on innovation later found in Popular Mechanics. (“A gentleman of Liverpool announces that he has invented a new engine,” one entry started.) With this column, Tresch suggests, “Poe made himself one of America’s first science reporters.” He also made himself one of America’s first popular skeptics—a puzzle master and a debunker, in the vein of Martin Gardner. Poe wrote a column on riddles and enigmas, and he made a gleeful habit of exposing pseudoscience quacks.

D. H. Lawrence once said that Poe engaged in “an almost chemical analysis of the soul and consciousness.” It’s true that his art was scientific, in a way. At times this was explicit, as in his science-fiction tales that took the form of medical case histories, or travelogues and news reports about ballooning. But as a critic, too, Poe searched for meaning in mechanics. He often railed against Romantic verse and the Boston clique of transcendentalists with their Yoda-like adherence to the sanctity of nature. In print, he called Ralph Waldo Emerson (one of this magazine’s co-founders) a “mystic for mysticism’s sake” and James Russell Lowell (this magazine’s first editor) “a fanatic for the sake of fanaticism.” Poe also provoked his readers with disquisitions on the technological basis for his literary work, laying out how he would take a poem “step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.”

Yet promoting and defending science, as Poe often did, could be a tricky matter. The word scientist wasn’t coined until 1833, Tresch notes, and the American research community lacked formal leadership and guidance. Some of Poe’s contemporaries—including another former student from West Point, Alexander Dallas Bache—aimed to fix this problem. Science should be standardized and federalized, Bache insisted, and put to public use. To this end, he and his colleagues drafted scientific safety regulations for boilers and flues; they established networks for observing weather and the stars; they tried to strengthen science education.

Central to their project was the invention of a new, rational elite—an authority for science. Bache and his peers saw a landscape of untamed infotainment in America, where charlatans gathered paying crowds for old-timey TED Talks with magic-lantern slides. “We must put down quackery or quackery will put down science,” Bache told the electromagnetism expert Joseph Henry. So the two devised an “aristocratical” (Henry’s word) regime of oversight, which in 1848 became the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Poe subscribed to their endeavor on the whole, and supported its particulars in print. But he also chafed at the strictures of empiricism and its delimited scope. Tresch describes his tendency to champion research at the quackish margins—claiming, in one case, that phrenology had “assumed the majesty of a science; and, as a science, ranks among the most important.” He seemed just as taken with the life-force theories of the mesmerists. He was as obsessed as they were, Tresch writes, with “the shadowy relations between matter and spirit, observation and imagination.”

Indeed, the dialogue between the two men in the cottage of “The Sphinx” plays out across Poe’s work—in his fiction and essays alike. In places, he will take the part of the relative, debunking and dismissive—the sort of guy who’d write a book about more than 200 types of seashells. Elsewhere, he’s instead that story’s narrator, hitching flights of fancy—and mystical revelations—to the scientific method.

Often he played both parts at once. His paeans to the scientific method, as in the essay likening poetry to mathematics, dangled weirdly on the edge of spoof. They can be read in earnest, or as caricature. Or, Tresch suggests, they can be seen as endorsements of a synthesis of science and Romanticism, in which perfect, sublime laws of nature—and perfect, sublime laws of verse—are set in motion (in the manner of the divine watchmaker) by an all-supreme creative force.

This same interpretation helps illuminate one of Poe’s final works, an esoteric treatise on cosmology called Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe. Scholars have long debated whether this, like many of his other writings, was meant to be a hoax. Certainly it’s ironic, satirical, and silly. (The essay starts with fragments of a letter written in the year 2848.) But it also holds some striking scientific intuitions—Poe describes a collapse of space and time, for instance, and a universe that begins with a “primordial particle” exploding in all directions. Poe himself insisted that the essay should be taken as a “poem,” and he believed that it was a work of genius. “I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka,’ ” he wrote to his aunt Maria in the summer of 1849. “I could accomplish nothing more.”

By that point, though, Poe’s wretched tendency to “sip the juice” had derailed his every opportunity, and he found himself in Philadelphia, deranged and destitute, as a second wave of cholera crashed across the Eastern Seaboard. His debunker aspect was no more. Around this time he had an evil vision, not unlike the one he’d given to the narrator of “The Sphinx” just a few years earlier: He told a friend he’d seen a monstrous black bird flying above the city, spreading its wings so wide that a shadow fell upon the streets below, and from this bird’s feathers, big, inky drops began to fall in a pestilential rain. The bird turned its beak toward Poe and screeched, “I am the Cholera.” Poe was dead, from unknown causes, a few months later.

For cholera in the 1830s and ’40s, as last year for COVID-19, even basic scientific facts were in dispute. The disease was new to North America and Europe, and scientists had yet to spot its causal agent on a slide. One prominent clinician pictured a swarm of “poisonous, invisible, aerial insects.” Only later did others find the bacterium Vibrio cholerae with their microscopes.

And what about contagion? Did the plague fan out through vapor, as Poe’s story hints with “the very air … redolent with death,” or was it waterborne instead? Should the sick be doused with brandy, or rubbed with cayenne pepper, or given enemas of tobacco smoke? Even efforts to self-isolate—flights of terror to the Hudson Valley—were dismissed by certain scientific journals of the time as needless and irrational, and the source of much more harm than good.

Doctors, leading doctors, disagreed on all these details, and when public-health officials tried to suss out the consensus view—when they deferred to expertise—many of their policies were wrong.

It was Poe’s contemporary, and in temperament his mirror image, who brought some light to this confusion. In 1854, the British physician John Snow demonstrated, through a stunning feat of epidemiological reasoning, that cholera was spread through tainted water. Now he’s taken as a scientific hero. Last autumn, when a coterie of academic experts—today’s aristocratical elite, speaking for science as an institution—attacked the Trump administration’s view of herd immunity, they called their statement of dissent the “John Snow Memorandum.”

But Snow’s own views about disease, and the theory that he proved with data, were guided by his passions too. If he blamed polluted water for the cholera pandemic, it was at least in part because he was so pious, mystical—even quackish—in his faith in water’s healing power. While Poe dissolved in alcohol, Snow became a fervent teetotaler, preaching about “the water which comes gurgling from the hills in unrivalled softness and purity.” In speeches, he would frame this notion in Romantic terms, linking water to “the unassisted powers of nature inherent in the body.”

Snow was right about the source of cholera; his work saved countless lives. But this science couldn’t have happened by itself. It did not proceed, like Poe’s imagined poem, “step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” Nor, of course, has the science of our pandemic proceeded that way. We’re still responding to impressions of the data, and crude measurements of propinquity. Witness all the experts’ flip-flops and mistakes since the spring of 2020: on face masks, dexamethasone, asymptomatic and aerosol transmission, convalescent plasma, and the rest.

“The Sphinx” reminds us that scientific revelation distorts and magnifies in equal measure, and that it must be understood, in part, through intuition. What, then, does it mean to “follow the science,” as we like to say today? That’s the riddle of Poe’s story, and it hasn’t yet been solved.

This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “The Weird Science of Edgar Allan Poe.”

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