A Cosmological Romance

In 1848 the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) went into the publisher George P. Putnam’s (1814-1872) office on Broadway and told him that as of that day he could abandon all of his other projects and dedicate his business to the production and distribution of Poe’s newest work: Eureka: A Prose Poem. The poet first looked upon his publisher with a “glittering eye” and announced, “I am Mr. Poe”. The work was to be his magnum opus, beside which “Newton’s discovery of gravitation was a mere incident”. It would revolutionize the way that humanity understood its place in the world, and as such an initial print run of fifty thousand copies may have been sufficient.

There is no comparable story surrounding Robert Chambers’ (1802-1871) 1844 publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Yet despite this, Chambers’ work has been applauded for bringing an “evolutionary vision of the universe into the heart of everyday life”, with its widespread popularity and influence. In its first print run Poe had difficulty selling five hundred copies of his masterpiece, and his publisher concluded that: “It has never, apparently, caused any profound interest either to popular or scientific readers”. In comparison, Chambers’ work ran into twelve editions at around twenty nine thousand copies. Insofar as it laid the groundwork for the acceptance of the evolutionary theories of the latter half of the nineteenth century, it could be said that Vestiges, rather than Eureka accomplished what Poe had claimed for himself. Charles Darwin’s tombstone in Westminster Abbey, resting just a few meters away from the exalted monument to Isaac Newton, would seem to corroborate this account.

Yet however dissimilar they were in influence and content, there was something in Poe’s Eureka that caused contemporary commentators to link the two works together in the popular press. In examining the similarities and differences of these works and their reception, the question of authority serves as the distinguishing feature that allows us to make sense of their puzzling relationship. Whereas Chambers’ anonymity, and appeals to acceptable theological, logical and scientific sources of authority allowed him to win the hearts of his bourgeoisie audience, Poe had no such support. Instead, he infamously and systematically attacked the very foundations of respectable logic and scientific discourse, and opted for a pantheistic theological underpinning to his cosmology, which flew in the face of all but the most radical of artistic and moral sentiments.

In a February 29th 1848 letter to George E. Isbell, Poe inquired about the substance of Vestiges, of which he admitted he was only partially aware. As he commented:

’The Vestiges of Creation’ I have not yet seen; and it is always unsafe and unwise to form opinions of books from reviews of them. The extracts of the work, which have fallen in my way, abound in inaccuracies of fact: — still these may not materially affect the general argument. One thing is certain; that the objections of merely scientific men—men, I mean, who cultivate the physical sciences to the exclusion, in a greater or less degree, of the mathematics, of metaphysics and of logic – are generally invalid except in respect to scientific details. Of all persons in the world, they are at the same time the most bigoted and the least capable of using, generalizing, or deciding upon the facts, which they bring to light in the course of their experiments. And these are the men who chiefly write the criticisms against all efforts at generalization – denouncing these efforts as ‘speculative’ and ‘theoretical’.

After laying out his own key positions in Eureka, Poe went on to state that: “I would be obliged to you if you would let me know how far these ideas are coincident with those of the ‘Vestiges’”. Here we see Poe indirectly answering criticisms against Vestiges by merely scientific men in much the same way that he criticized those who found fault with his own work. Implicitly, he praises its power of generalization, suggestion, and is willing to forgive the abundance of “inaccuracies of fact” in what he does know about the work, provided that the core of the argument rings true.

While scholars have justifiably focused on the compositional relationship between Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos and Poe’s Eureka, there is still much to be learned from examining the parallel and divergent paths that it traveled along with Vestiges in the cultural context of America in the 1840s. The sensation caused by Vestiges in Britain was echoed across the Atlantic, and part of this echo resonated with both the style and content of Eureka. Both works were the children of the popular press, but one found its audience to spectacular effect, while the other struggled to receive recognition from its intended public. What then can be said about this difference? In large part, they can be attributed to the extreme personality behind Eureka. Impoverished and desperate, Poe could not benefit from the ambiguous authority provided by literary anonymity in the same way as Chambers. Clearly linked to his identity, many suspected a hoax, not in spite of this connection, but because of it. Despite his knowledge of the popular press, he never sought to appeal to the same reform minded and utilitarian principles that made Chambers’ work so appealing to his bourgeoisie audience. What was perhaps more unacceptable to his American audience, Poe’s pantheistic cosmology was clearly and abundantly anathema to traditional religion, while critics of Vestiges were forced to argue instead that its author’s religious platitudes were disingenuous. Furthermore, while both Chambers and Poe drew criticisms for their lack of scientific rigor, Chambers overall project was not as blatantly antagonistic to the authority of the sciences. Yet at the heart of all three of Poe’s problems with traditional modes of authority remains the question of his individual personality and its relationship to the emerging “mass public” that grew out of the communication technologies of the early nineteenth-century. In this context what it evinces, in its most powerful form, is the message that the most successful profits of a new cosmology are those who can afford to remain nameless.

As a side note, not everyone was ambivalent to Eureka. The french loved it, particularly the eminent polymath Paul Valéry and the poet Charles Baudelaire. Its emphasis on the crucial role of inspiration and intuition resonated with Albert Einstein’s approach to science, who also found the work intriguing, and the analytical philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine stated that it was one of the most influential works in his early life that made him interested in philosophy and the philosophy of science.

For More Information See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Chambers

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poe

Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Assessments. Vol II. Ed. Graham Clarke. Helm Information: Mountfield, 1991.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. (Cooper Square Press: New York, 1992)

“New Publications”. In the Broadway Journal (1845-1846); Jan 18, 1845; American Periodicals Series Online. 45.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ‘Dream-land’, in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. J. A. Harrison. T. Y. Crowell: New York, 1965.

—. Eureka: A Prose Poem. Ed. Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2004.

—. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. John Ward Ostrom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.

Secord, James A. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000.

Thompson, G.R. “Unity, Death, and Nothingness: Poe’s ‘Romantic Skepticism’”. In PMLA. (Vol. 85. No. 2. 1970) 297-300.

Tresch, John. “The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude: Edgar Allan Poe within the Mechanical Age”. In The British Journal for the History of Science. (Vol. 30. No. 3. 1997) 275-290.

Welsh, Susan. “The Value of Anological Evidence: Poe’s ‘Eureka’ in the Context of a Scientific Debate”. In Modern Language Studies. (Vol 21. No. 4. 1991) 3-15.

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 3 Vols. Ed. Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Redfield: New York, 1849.

Yeo, Richard. “Science and Intellectual Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain: Robert Chambers and ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’”. In Victorian Studies. (Vol. 28. No. 1. 1984) 5-31.

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