The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science

Farrar. Jun. 2021. 448p. ISBN 9780374247850. $30. biog/sCI
Tresch (history of art, science, and folk practice, Warburg Inst.; Romantic Machine) situates Poe’s work within the 19th century’s science in flux. Poe hadn’t the time nor the money to pursue extensive scientific study, but he did receive practical scientific training at West Point and kept up with the latest developments via general magazines, several of which he wrote for. In these magazines, phrenology and mesmerism flourished alongside astronomy and electricity, and Tresch proves that Poe wasn’t above penning provocative hoax science articles, whether as ironic critique or to earn money. Tresch focuses on Poe’s texts about exploration, medical curiosity, and the relationship between science (reason) and nature (imagination). These culminated in Poe’s little-read cosmological work Eureka, which applied his theory of fiction (every work should have a singular effect) to the universe. Poe has been painted as an extraordinarily prescient man who foresaw much of quantum theory and cosmogony, but Tresch makes the more modest claim that Poe posited a unification of humankind, imagination, and the physical universe.
VERDICT Fans of the literary Poe will be intrigued by this lesser-known side of the author, and scientists will appreciate an accessible biography.
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