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Is Poe the most influential American writer? A new book offers evidence.

Michael Dirda 6-8 minutes 6/2/2021

There are many, many biographies of Edgar Allan Poe, the most exhaustive being Arthur Hobson Quinn’s, first published in 1941, the most concise Peter Ackroyd’s 2009 “Poe: A Life Cut Short.” Nearly all of them, however, are written by literary scholars, poets or novelists. By contrast, John Tresch’s “The Reason for the Darkness of the Night” situates our nation’s most influential writer, as I would claim Poe to be, against the backdrop of what its subtitle calls “the forging of American science.” Tresch himself is a distinguished historian of science, now at London’s Warburg Institute, and author of the prizewinning study, “The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon.”

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Is Poe really the most influential American writer? Note that I didn’t say “greatest,” for which there must be at least a dozen viable candidates. But consider his radiant originality. Before his death in 1849 at age 40, Poe largely created the modern short story, while also inventing or perfecting half the genres represented on the bestseller list, including the mystery (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Gold-Bug”), science fiction (“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”), psychological suspense (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado”) and, of course, gothic horror (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” the incomparable “Ligeia”).

That’s just the fiction. W.B. Yeats once named Poe “the greatest of American poets,” which does sound absurd. Still, few poems are more famous than “The Raven” with its dolorous tocsin, “Nevermore.” Among my own earliest memories is hearing my steelworker father, not a bookish man, regularly murmur the first stanza of “Annabel Lee”: “It was many and many a year ago/ In a kingdom by the sea . . .”

Finally, Poe — like several of his characters — haunts us from beyond the grave. When we peer at the mournful figure in those familiar daguerreotypes, we seem to glimpse the emblematic image of the modern artist as misunderstood genius, prey to melancholy, drawn to self-destruction.

That morose view of Poe, still widespread, isn’t precisely accurate. As Tresch reminds us, Edgar grew up coddled by the wealth and status of his Richmond stepparents, excelled in many of his courses at the University of Virginia and, during his time at West Point, was well liked by his fellow cadets (over half of whom helped underwrite a volume of his poems). While it’s hard to imagine him in any uniform but a severe black suit, Poe actually served in the Army for four years, rising to the rank of sergeant major.

Though punctilious about his honor, in civilian life Poe normally comported himself with genteel courtliness. Professionally, he worked with astonishing diligence. By his early 30s, Poe had already edited major periodicals (the Southern Literary Messenger, Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine), interviewed international celebrities (such as the visiting Charles Dickens), written a respected guide to, believe it or not, seashells (“The Conchologist’s First Book”), earned notoriety as the “Tomahawk Man” for his savage reviews of Emerson, Longfellow and other literary pooh-bahs, and even gone on the lecture circuit with a talk modestly titled “The Universe.” During these same years, Poe had also married his consumptive, teenage cousin, occasionally drunk peach brandy to excess (he chugged rather than savored) and regularly hobnobbed with the era’s intelligentsia.

As a lifelong “Magazinist,” Poe could write anything: humorous squibs, book reviews, parodies, articles about the latest scientific discoveries, exposés of quackery (most notably of Maelzel’s chess-playing automaton), critical essays on “the philosophy of composition,” an almost unreadable cosmological prose-poem called “Eureka” and, of course, those unforgettable stories of self-justifying murderers and shrill psychopaths: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” . . . “True — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

In “The Reason for the Darkness of the Night” (available June 15), Tresch emphasizes how much Poe infuses scientific discourse into his most fantastical imaginings. For example, in “A Descent Into the Maelstrom,” a sailor, whose boat has been sucked into a gigantic whirlpool, rather improbably saves himself by thinking like a physicist: He observes that cylindrical objects fell more slowly into the whirling vortex than other objects of the same size, so he quickly lashes himself to a barrel to escape from a watery grave. In another story, “The Man That Was Used Up,” Poe describes a highly decorated army officer who, because his body parts have been replaced by various prostheses, is actually a steampunk cyborg.

Poe’s fiction and journalism lead Tresch to discuss all sorts of scientific and pseudoscientific topics: code-breaking, phrenology (the once-popular belief that the bumps on your skull reveal your character), the naturalist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt, 19th-century astronomy, the popularity of hoaxes, P.T. Barnum, the vogue for mesmerism, theories of the universe, the birth of the Smithsonian Institution and, not least, the careers of the important early American scientists Joseph Henry and Alexander Dallas Bache.

Obviously, Tresch packs quite a lot into his book — there’s even an ingenious deconstruction of the title page of Poe’s nautical novel, the macabre and tantalizingly enigmatic “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” Still, prospective readers of “The Reason for the Darkness of the Night” should be aware that it isn’t a sustained, detailed exposition of Poe’s life so much as a rich assemblage of biographical vignettes, brief story analyses and mini-essays on the era’s scientific beliefs.

In general, Tresch’s overall thesis — that Poe’s “deep familiarity with science was the fulcrum on which his thought balanced” — seems unarguable, given the presence of the “ratiocinative” in so much of what he wrote. Yet, ultimately, it is Poe’s other aspect, his ability to convey monomaniacal intensity, verging on hysteria, that we are drawn to, his gift for expressing what D.H. Lawrence floridly called “the prismatic ecstasy of heightened consciousness.”

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

THE REASON FOR THE DARKNESS OF THE NIGHT: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 448 pp. $30