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Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, the year before his death. An 1848 daguerrotype by W. S. Hartshorn.

When talking about Edgar Allan Poe, it is the horror we most remember: those tales of murder, revenge, mutilation, and madness; of the vulture-eyed old man, the swooping pendulum, teeth clattering onto the floor. It was these macabre masterpieces that were most celebrated, as the United States remembered Poe on his bicentennial in January this year.

However, there is more to Poe than a cleverly devised murder. Outside of the Norton Classic regulars like "The Raven," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," his other writing encompasses the speculative fiction spectrum, including works that defined the detective story and cultivated science fiction.

There were very few early nineteenth-century American writers dabbling in the supernatural and the scientific. There was of course Washington Irving's Headless Horseman, Nathaniel Hawthorne's haunting New England, and Charles Brockden Brown's post-revolutionary sleepwalkers, but none of these authors moved as freely as Poe from murder and madness to moon voyages, trans-Atlantic ballooning, the Flying Dutchman, sea voyages, scientific experiments on the afterlife, future seeing, and past bashing, as well as metaphysical musings that anticipated Einstein's relativity theories.

His versatile repertoire alone merits Poe the title of SF's founding father. Still, it is not his subjects, but rather his themes and how they were conveyed, that influenced speculative fiction. Before the 1830s (when Poe began writing tales), accounts of ballooning, moon voyages, and the apocalypse had been published, but were often written as tall tales or satire. Poe took these absurd themes and manipulated them into Herschel lenses that saw beyond the universe and deep within the human soul.

In Articulo Mortis

Born January 19, 1809, Poe came of age during the birth of American letters, the decline of German Gothicism, the peak of British Romanticism, and the transformation of the Industrial Revolution. Orphaned at three, Poe was informally adopted by a rich Virginian merchant, John Allan, who indulged Poe in education, modern books, and a telescope, through which the young Poe gazed at the stars and fantasized about life in space.[1]

Poe was a child of the Romantics, and devoured works by Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley. Under these Romantic influences, Poe cultivated a natural philosophical appreciation for the metaphysical possibility and potential that scientific inquiry implied. However, distrusting any claim of "progress" that science offered to material man, he worried that it threatened the imagination, as the juvenilia "Sonnet—To Science" expressed: "Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart, / Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?"

Despite his distrust of the Industrial Revolution, he could not help but study science and join his contemporaries in looking to it for answers. If science could put man on locomotives and harness electricity, who knew where man could go next—perhaps to the moon, or to a higher plane?

The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe

It is this unknown terrain that appealed to Poe, and became more pertinent as he grew older and watched more loved ones die. Within his forty years, Poe would witness the demise of his mother, foster mother, brother, and wife. Without religion, the uncertain hereafter gnawed at him. While a few of his science fiction pieces treated "man's progress" with moon voyages ("The Unparalleled Adventures of Hans Pfaall") and ballooning across the Atlantic ("The Balloon Hoax"), the majority of his SF pieces concentrated on man's fallibility and of the afterlife.

Science fiction soon became a format in which Poe could use deductive reasoning to deal with death and the uncertainty of the future. As Harold Beaver writes, "Something of this ambivalence, ever since, has haunted science fiction. Itself an offshoot of Gothicism, the new genre was to evoke a horror both of the future and of the science which could bring that future about."[2]

The Mystery of Marie Roget

An 1852 illustration of "The Mystery of Marie Roget." Artist unknown.

In order to convey his ideas artistically and truthfully, Poe devised a method of composition where an overall effect must be achieved, the senses are appealed to in striking and contrasting manners, and the use of ambiguity and ambivalence gives the tale a sense of timelessness and infinite meaning. These ideas are more elaborately expressed in "Philosophy of Composition," but are best realized, structurally, within his ratiocination tales: "The Gold-Bug," "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter." Perhaps influenced by Voltaire's Zadig,[3] Poe devised a tale around a puzzle, where every word, every sentence, every paragraph built a deductive structure that led to the story's concluding answer.

With these three components—puzzle, structure, answer—realized as a deductive formula, Poe built a meticulous pattern wherein the fantastic thrives. By using synaesthesia to paint mental pictures within the reader's head, and validate what the reader saw with scientific-like details, Poe's style lent his fiction "verisimilitude," making the absurd or impossible plausible, ideal for hoaxing the public or for attempting to grasp the ungraspable: death.

Poe's shift from lighthearted scientific hoaxing towards serious philosophical discussion begins with "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" and "The Colloquy of Monos and Una." These stories hearken back to Poe's first advents into science fantasy with "Al Aaraaf," in which the main characters are celestial lovers sans their mortal coil. In "Eiros and Charmion," the eponymous beings are reunited. Charmion died ten years before the story's time, and Eiros has just arrived after dying from an apocalyptic blast on Earth. Likewise, "Monos and Una" are celestial lovers posthumously reunited, except centuries have passed between death and reunion.

Both stories are written as question and answer dialogues between the lovers, becoming examiners of the eternal. Monos meticulously describes his bodily death, including being able to feel Una interred over him, as well as discussing humankind's self-destructive nature. Charmion and Eiros contemplate the apocalypse, dismissing it as the inevitable consequence of man's Frankensteinian tinkering.

These stories are important not for their post-apocalyptic nature, but because the characters' exchanges reveal "that the survival of the soul is not dependent upon moral, pious, or good behavior while alive on Earth. Instead, the survival of the soul means the survival of the mind capable of pure thought."[4]

It is interesting to note that the fiery apocalypse in "Eiros and Charmion," and the couple's disgust with religion, reflects Poe's opinion of Americans' reaction to Halley's comet, whose 1835 appearance sent Americans into an apocalyptic fervor led from the pulpit.[5] No matter the achievements of science, Poe saw that people preferred spiritual answers, whether in traditional Christianity or pseudosciences like mesmerism.

Postulated by Dr. Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer in 1772, mesmerism deemed that the life force was governed by magnetic force. Mesmer would often treat ill patients with his force by laying his hands upon them while they were hypnotized. By the 1840s, this practice had adapted itself to stage and sideshows. Many were taken in, but Poe—quite capable of spotting a hoax, as well as writing one—did not believe mesmerism's validity for one second. However, he could not help but see within the pseudoscience a vehicle for further eternal investigation. "Mesmeric Revelation" and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" are more down-to-earth than "Monos and Una" and "Eiros and Charmion," and recall the meticulous, scientific details of "Hans Pfaall" and "The Balloon Hoax." They are written like scientific reports, giving the narrator P— a detached, clinical character as he observes his hypnotized patients. In "Mesmeric Revelation," the experiment leads to a dialogue between doctor and patient that verges on a philosophical discourse akin to "Monos and Una." However, the patient dies before the true meaning of life is revealed. In "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," a dying man is also put under hypnosis, and although there is no fantastical dialogue with the afterlife, P— catalogues the movements of the animate body and the few harrowing words that come from the living corpse.

Both stories grapple with the afterlife, but in more material terms. The reader witnesses the connection between body and soul, giving evidence to the soul becoming its own entity after the death of the body. These stories were so convincing, that they were republished as fact in medical journals and in pamphlets abroad.[6]

Eureka: A Prose Poem

However, these short stories only brushed what Poe ached to touch. It would not be until after his wife's death in 1847, and at the end of his own life, that Poe would find an answer, not only to metaphysics, but also to art. After twenty years of speculation, Eureka: A Prose Poem would be Poe's definitive swan song.

The best kept secret of his entire canon, Eureka is often excluded from editions of his complete works.[7] Part poem, part essay, it is the culmination of Poe's existential struggle. Given as a New York Society Library lecture in 1848, Eureka is Poe's post-Newtonian manifesto, integrating Kepler's physics on the elliptical orbit of planets, Newton's laws of gravity and motion, and Laplace's light wave theory and nebular hypothesis.[8] At its forefront is Dupin's deductive reasoning, and while many critics considered Poe's assumptions and conclusions "hyperbolic nonsense,"[9] like his attempts to prove Newton's ether theories, he did have at the heart of his poem the theory of a finite Universe of stars, where space and time are finite, and just as the Universe was created by an explosion of energy, so it can also collapse: "it will then . . . be Matter without Attraction and without Repulsion—in other words, Matter without Matter . . . . In sinking into Unity, it will sink at once into that Nothingness which, to all finite perception, Unity must be[.]"[10]

In Poe's mind, attraction and repulsion—cause and effect—are the symmetry of the universe. It is the same cause and effect of Poe's stories that also "informs matter, time, space, light, and gravity."[11] This "absolute reciprocity" reinforces Poe's quest for truth through art, and anticipates Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.[12] It would also be this "theory of truth" that laid to rest Poe's existential exigency:

. . . God—the material and spiritual God—now exists solely in the diffused Matter and Spirit of the Universe; and that the regathering of this diffused Matter and Spirit will be but the reconstitution of the purely Spiritual and Individual God. . . . That God may be all in all, each must become God.[13]

Eureka's blasphemous conclusion repulsed many American and British readers, and many of Poe's peers felt he had deduced too far. After Poe's death, Eureka and most of his other work, was dismissed as hackwork and his genius faded into gutter tales of madness and alcoholism. Luckily for us, Poe's intent was understood and rescued from obscurity. It would not be Poe's countryman, but an influential Frenchman, who kept Poe's "Heart Divine" beating.

Dreamland

Poet Charles Baudelaire discovered Poe in an 1847 Parisian translation of "The Black Cat." At this time in Baudelaire's life, he had been developing an aesthetic that would be best expressed through his poetic work, Les Fleurs du Mal, in 1852. But in 1847, Baudelaire feared his vision would be misunderstood and lacked confidence.

Baudelaire had developed a concept of ambiguous beauty: the act of creating with all the senses resulted in an ambient tale that presented an alternative to reality. What Baudelaire thought was his unique idea, he found already expressed by a man across the ocean. "No man," writes Baudelaire of Poe,

. . . has told with greater magic the exceptions of human life and nature; the fevered curiosities of convalescence; the dying seasons charged with enervating splendors; the tropic zones; humid, hot, and misty days, where the south wind soothes and distends the nerves like the strings of an instrument[.][14]

Baudelaire was so impressed that he pooled most of his creative energy away from his own work and into writing, promoting, and translating Poe.

Baudelaire's successor, Stéphane Mallarmé, continued the crusade by translating Poe's poems after Baudelaire's death in 1867.[15]

As with Baudelaire, Poe's writing theories struck Mallarmé's heart.[16] However, Mallarmé read Poe differently. In writing about Poe's aesthetics, he altered Poe's definition of "moral," an allegory or didacticism woven within the story to sustain effect, to define a philosophy of art:

This reading of Poe points to a shift in the focus of artistic discourse. . . . A work of art is now seen more and more as a self-contained, self-referential entity, and questions about art have more to do with the act of creating and the methods, . . . and less to do with anything outside the work.[17]

To Mallarmé, this interpretation was the poetic paradigm, and he devoted his life, perhaps even more fervently than Baudelaire, to spreading Poe's influence among his peers, the Symbolists.[18]

Symbolist theory began to expand not only under Mallarmé's guidance, but also in conjunction with the rejection of the Naturalist and Realist schools that advocated depicting life without exaggeration. Subscribing to the positivist trend of reason and technology, the latter movements were more concerned with social issues and less with the imagination, reflecting the Industrial Revolution's effect that the young Poe had feared in "Sonnet—To Science." The Symbolists saw in the logic of science, industry, and commercial progress a practical need for society, but an impractical usurping of the individual. Therefore, they set out to marry science and art by exploring what Poe called "Dreamland," and what we call the subconscious.

Nothing better illustrates Poe's speculative versatility than how widespread and diverse his influence was. To each writer, Poe stood for different ideas, as Poe scholar Lois D. Vines summarizes:

From Mallarmé on, the effect of Poe on French writers diverges radically. The Symbolists (Mallarmé, Kahn, de Gourmont, Moréas, Vielé-Griffin, Ghil, and Valery) admire the Poe of ordered thought, the master of artistic calculation. In contrast, the Decadents (Huysmans and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam) and the pre-Surrealists (Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Jarry, and Apollinaire) were inspired by the horror, mystery, dreams, and the explorations of the disordered mind, what [the Surrealist] André Breton was to call later the "convulsive beauty."[19]

One French writer unassociated with Symbolism, or any of the movements of his time, was also deeply influenced by Poe:

[Jules Verne] read Baudelaire's translations of Poe in various journals and newspapers . . . and they touched something in him. It was, however, something different from the deep solemn chord Poe had sounded in Baudelaire's heart. Verne responded chiefly to the cleverness, ratiocination, and up-to-date scientific trappings Poe wrapped his strange stories in.[20]

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

At the core of many Verne works are Poe prototypes. "Five Weeks in a Balloon" was influenced by "The Balloon Hoax" and "The Unparalleled Adventures of Hans Pfaall"; "The Sphinx of the Snows" is like a sequel to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and is dedicated to Poe; Around the World in Eighty Days uses the main concept from "Three Sundays in a Week."[21]

Verne's most popular work, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, may be the most subtly and heavily Poe-esque in its tone and character. Verne replaces the "moral" that Mallarmé and the other dreamers obfuscated by the character of Captain Nemo, who is very much a Poe protagonist.

Solitary, a widower, driven by passion to the brink of madness, and at war with the world that misunderstands him, Captain Nemo shuts himself up within an elaborate vessel that not only reflects Poe's attention to machinery, but also echoes Poe's sensual settings with paintings, gilded books, and exotic artifacts and instruments. Nemo's silent suffering, his deprivation of human convenience, and his blatant disdain for society all conjure Hans Pfaall, Roderick Usher, and Monsieur Dupin. The underwater setting lends itself naturally to ambient yet detailed descriptions seen in "MS. Found in a Bottle," "Descent in a Maelstrom," and "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym." Poe is so ubiquitous throughout 20,000 Leagues that at the journey's end, the dazed Professor Aronnax describes his adventures as

being drawn into that strange region where the foundered imagination of Edgar Poe roamed at will. Like the fabulous Gordon Pym, at every moment I expected to see "that veiled human figure, of larger proportions than those of any inhabitant of the earth, thrown across the cataract which defends the approach to the pole."

Poe's influence spread outside of France as well. H. G. Wells was heavily influenced by Poe's mathematical descriptions of machines in such stories as "Maezel's Chess-Player" and "The Pit and the Pendulum,"[22] and acknowledged that "the fundamental principles of construction that underlie such stories as Poe's 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' . . . are precisely those that should guide a scientific writer."[23]

From the 1890s to the present day, Poe's influence is ubiquitous, as Neil Gaiman beautifully summarizes when describing his introduction to Poe when he was thirteen:

Suddenly it seemed like Poe was everywhere. I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories, and in the first tale, "A Study in Scarlet," Holmes is found decrying Poe's detective Auguste Dupin—but decrying him in a way that made it very obvious that Dupin was Holmes's literary progenitor. Ray Bradbury's story "Usher II" solidified my fascination; it's a short story (a hybrid, from Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 future set on the Mars of The Martian Chronicles) in which a set of bloodless critics and reformers of fiction, of fantasy, of horror, are walked around a house filled with tableaus of Poe's stories, and watch themselves murdered—by Pit and Pendulum, by murderous robotic orangutan[s], and so on.[24]

Memento Mori

Although there will be no film adaptations of Eureka, or any of Poe's science fiction, it does not make Poe's influence any less significant. As we remember the Raven, Prince Prospero, and Roderick Usher, in turn, Hans Pfaall and P— should be honored too. It is true that 200 years later, the horror tales are less susceptible to carbon dating.[25] Poe's tales of ballooning and cosmic soothsaying are confined within their time. After having witnessed man on the moon, jetted across waters and space, and debated cloning and stem-cell research, current readers may find Poe's science fiction almost too quaint for steampunk. Nonetheless, these lesser-known stories are parts of the several stepping stones Poe created for speculative fiction. Without Poe's deductive reasoning, his emphasis on literary truth, and his preoccupation with evidence of an afterlife, there may not have been a Time Machine or a Nautilus; neither a Holmes nor a Hyde.

Works Cited

Foye, Raymond, Ed. The Unknown Poe. San Francisco: City Lights. 1980.

Gaiman, Neil. "Some Strangeness in the Proportion: The Exquisite Beauties of Edgar Allan Poe." http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/Some_Strangeness_in_the_Proportion:_The_Exquisite_Beauties_of_Edgar_Allan_Poe..

Hart, Richard H. The Supernatural in Edgar Allan Poe. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1936, 1999. http://www.eapoe.org/papers/PSBLCTRS/PL19361.HTM.

Hudson, Jean Lafitte. Charming the Imagination: Symbolist Responses to Edgar Allan Poe in the Art of Odilon Redon and James Ensor. diss., Florida State University School of Visual Arts and Dance, 1993.

Kravis, Judy. The Prose of Mallarmé: The Evolution of a Literary Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1976.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Modern Library, 1992.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Beaver. New York: Penguin Classics, 1976.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File Publishing, 2007.

Standish, David. Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007.

Unwin, Timothy A. Jules Verne: Journeys in Writing. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006.

Verne, Jules. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Gutenberg Project. November 17, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/164.

Vines, Lois D. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Writer for the World." A Companion to Poe Studies. Ed. Eric W. Carlson. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Footnotes

[1] These fantasies would become realized in Poe's first attempt at science fiction, "Al Aaraaf." Written when he was 20, the long poem depicted a romance among archangels living on the eponymous star.

[2] Poe, Edgar Allan. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Beaver. New York: Penguin Classics, 1976. p. xv.

[3] Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. p. 171.

[4] Sova, Dawn B. A Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File Publishing, 2007. p. 50-51.

[5] Ibid.

[6] "The second English reprint of the work appeared in London as a booklet entitled: 'Mesmerism / "In Articulo Mortis" / An Astounding and Horrifying Narration / Shewing the Extraordinary Power of Mesmerism / In Arresting the / Progress of Death / By Edgar A. Poe, Esq. / of New York / London / Short & Co., 8, King Street, Bloomsbury. / 1846. / Three Pence.'" Ibid. p. 66.

[7] It can be found on Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore's website at http://www.eapoe.org/works/editions/eureka.htm, or within Harold Beaver's The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.

[8] The author found Harold Beaver's commentaries in The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe comprehensive and thorough. She is indebted to this text, and highly recommends it to anyone curious about Eureka.

[9] Sova, Dawn B. A Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File Publishing, 2007. p. 63.

[10] Poe, Edgar Allan. Eureka: A Prose Poem. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Beaver. New York: Penguin Classics, 1976. p. 306.

[11] Beaver's words. Ibid. p. 402.

[12] "It was Paul Valery who first associated Poe's coherence theory of truth with Einstein's theory of relativity. At their broadest synthesis, Poe's Universe and Einstein's cohere." Ibid. p. 402.

[13] Ibid. p. 308-309.

[14] Foye, Raymond, Ed. The Unknown Poe. San Francisco: City Lights, 1980. p. 90.

[15] Mallarmé first published Le Courbeau with illustrations by Manet in 1875, and the complete volume of poems in 1887 under the title Les Poèmes d'Edgar Poe.

[16] "Poe . . . stands in Mallarmé's work as the supreme example of the writer whom Mallarmé wanted to see." Kravis, Judy. The Prose of Mallarmé: The Evolution of a Literary Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. p. 31.

[17] Hudson, Jean Lafitte. Charming the Imagination: Symbolist responses to Edgar Allan Poe In the Art of Odilon Redon and James Ensor. diss., Florida State University School of Visual Arts and Dance, 1993. p. 42.

[18] Ibid. p. 47.

[19] Vines, Lois D. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Writer for the World." A Companion to Poe Studies. Ed. Eric W. Carlson. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. p. 522.

[20] Standish, David. Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface. New York: Da Capo Press, 2007. p. 113.

[21] Vines, Lois D. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Writer for the World." A Companion to Poe Studies. Ed. Eric W. Carlson. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. p. 522.

[22] "'The Pit and the Pendulum,' with its diabolical machinery, is akin to the modern mechanistic story. Poe bridged the way for H. G. Wells's use of mechanistic and scientific themes. . . ." Hart, Richard H. The Supernatural in Edgar Allan Poe. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1936, 1999. http://www.eapoe.org/papers/PSBLCTRS/PL19361.HTM.

[23] Vines, Lois D. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Writer for the World." A Companion to Poe Studies. Ed. Eric W. Carlson. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996. p. 521.

[24] Gaiman, Neil. "Some Strangeness in the Proportion: The Exquisite Beauties of Edgar Allan Poe." http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/Cool_Stuff/Essays/Essays_By_Neil/Some_Strangeness_in_the_Proportion:_The_Exquisite_Beauties_of_Edgar_Allan_Poe..

[25] An IMDb.com search indicates that of the 200 films and TV shows based on Poe's work, all have been horror and ratiocination. Not one, including the five films slated for release in 2009, adapt Poe's science fiction or more fantastic pieces.




Selena Chambers's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of venues including MungBeing magazine, The Non-Binary Review, Tor.com, Bookslut, and Cassilda’s Song (Chaosium, 2014). She is currently co-authoring with Arthur Morgan a travel guide to Steampunk Paris, out this fall from Pelekenisis Press. You can reach her at www.selenachambers.com, or on Twitter: @BasBleuZombie.
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