Some people’s gateway drug into crime fiction is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock stories. Others credit (or blame) Agatha Christie, or Ed McBain, or Raymond Chandler, or Sue Grafton for their addiction to books with a body count.
My origin story is a passion for Edgar Allan Poe that has only grown deeper and richer than memorizing “The Raven” or watching the great Vincent Price/Roger Corman movies based on Poe’s tales, like “The Tomb Of Ligeia” and “The House of Usher.” I studied Poe in graduate school where the difference between his output and aspirations and those of other writers of his time is stark: he was not religious like Ralph Waldo Emerson; well-born like Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Identified with a particular region, like Henry David Thoreau. Poe was a restless soul and writer, jumping from poetry to short stories to criticism and from New York City to Boston to Baltimore, occasionally swinging by his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
What is often forgotten is that Poe also wrote about science; indeed, he considered his masterpiece to be “Eureka,” a meandering and tangled work Poe called a prose-poem about the material and spiritual worlds. Enter John Tresch, a historian of science who saw an overlooked science writer in Poe and produced a remarkable new study, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science. Admittedly, Poe can be a Rorschach test for critics: I hadn’t thought about science, as I am fixated on his fixation with women who are dead or on their way there. Tresch’s biography opened up the possibility of a new Poe, and I was eager to learn more.
Lisa: So how did you how did you end up writing this book? What’s your attraction to Poe?
John: Well, I think he’s an intrinsically interesting writer and there’s all kinds of unexpected stuff buried in the stories. When you start to read some of the criticism, you realize how many games he’s playing and how many in-jokes he’s got—secret references and secret illusions and influences. Poe is really at the center of modernist literature of all kinds, including science writing. That totally shocked me only knowing him as a childhood author.
Lisa. I was going to write my dissertation on why some of the best writers in American literature have now been relegated to reading for children—Poe, Louisa May Alcott, Hawthorne, Mark Twain.
John: For me, Poe became a mystery I had to make sense of. It became my mission to write a different Poe. Not the madman, the guy who’s exploring psychopathology.
Lisa: What’s interesting to me about Poe as a literary critic is that we don’t really look at his whole body of work and think about what it means. That’s why I found your book so intriguing.
Poe had different aims than most of the writers of his time because he had to make a living. If he didn’t sell enough magazines, then he and [his wife] Virginia don’t eat.
John: Exactly. Even though the more snooty critics and authors stay clear of what’s popular; what people wanted to read, it’s what’s selling the penny papers. When they got their magazines, they ran to the sensation tales. He’s taking the interest in the first person and sensation and subjectivity and aesthetic response and using it in his work.
Lisa: The short stories were the stuff he had to produce in order to eat. Which is not to say he wasn’t invested in them. Some of them he’s quite invested in, but a lot of them are dashed off. When you’re a writer with a deadline, you recognize a writer with a deadline.
John: There’s a lot of throwaways. I don’t spend too much time on some of the comic tales.
Lisa: Poe is not funny. In general, things that are creepy aren’t funny. One of the things that’s fascinating is that Poe is so serious and yet we’ve relegated him to the school room. Americans think that Poe is something you read in elementary school and you make a diorama and there’s a body in a wall and that’s it. That’s the height of American literature. We did it to Hawthorne. We did it to Washington Irving. What does that say about America as a culture, as a canon?
John: It’s not so good on its past.
Lisa: Or it reinvents itself and gets rid of the things that don’t fall into line.
John: In Poe’s case, there’s such an effort in the 19th century to set up Boston as the intellectual center of the country. Poe is not very Boston. He’s got a lot more edge to him, a lot more irony. A sense of the cruelty of the world. And he’s working in genres that don’t get taken as seriously.
Lisa: I was just reading your take on “The Philosophy of Composition” [a lecture where Poe describes how he wrote his popular poem, “The Raven”]. His lectures are huge elaborate hoaxes for the most part, but they’re read very seriously.
John: I think part of why he’s so interesting is that there’s always that double reading, sometimes a triple reading. You can like “The Philosophy of Composition.” You can take it at face value. And then you can step back and say, well, wait a minute. How could you have possibly done it like that? But there’s another level. I think he does hold very sincerely to the idea that he knew what effect he wanted and therefore he adapted his means to that end. His work has that massive density of meaning, which forces readings that are totally opposed to each other.
John: We’re totally hoaxing.
Lisa: The reason we have trouble with Poe is that he doesn’t tow a line. He has a much more open point of view than the writers of his time. He’s not especially religious. He is ill and his illness becomes part of his persona, but his illness is also part of his life. He was a chronically ill person trying to make a living in a very difficult sphere. I think literary people want him to be more literary and he just isn’t. I mean, he cares about literature, but he messes with form. Poe is too weird to shove into a category.
John: He’s always going to be the outsider.
Lisa: That is an incredibly charged thing in 1830s and 1840s America. We are basically on the cusp of civil war. And he is either a Southern gentleman in the north or a literary Yankee who goes south.
John: Exactly. And he plays both. Beyond the north-south division, which is forming at that time, all literary cultures are very regionally aware. His outsider status allows him to set the agenda for literature and decide what counts as good. Then he viciously tore down the things that he doesn’t think are good, which is why he’s dying his whole life to get his own magazine. He wants to be the owner and the editor-in-chief and call the shots. He feels this great pressure from the Rupert Murdochs of his time.
You were saying that he’s always outside. He’s not welcomed by American letters. And I think that’s sort of true. He has his friends, he has the critics, he has his fellow writers, he’s got amazing moments—with Hawthorne, for example—where there’s a really appreciative exchange. And in New York, after the “Raven,” he’s the talk of the town. He is totally celebrated. He’s welcomed to all the salons and becomes very close friends with literary people in New York.
It’s that success that’s perversely his undoing. It’s at the time when Virginia’s more ill [with tuberculosis] and he’s taking on more and more jobs. He starts to work for and then eventually takes over the editorial control of “The Broadway Journal.” He’s working like 18 hours a day. He’s republishing his own work, or plagiarizing his own work, and getting articles to put into “The Broadway Journal.” And he’s also drinking quite a bit.
Lisa: To deal with the pressure.
John: That’s when he burns all his bridges,
Lisa: What you’re describing is the life of the average writer.
John: Yeah. But I think it’s taken up to like—
Lisa: Eleven. Poe always takes it to eleven. But Poe always thinks that like everybody hates him. I’m going to go to this other city. I’m going to try this other genre. I’m going to give these lectures about scientific topics to try and weasel my way into this other arena of publishing.
John: Not just weasel my way in, but to put myself above it. Yes. I’m going to be beyond it all. No other literary figure could do what I’ve done. I’ve done a complete cosmology: an astronomical, philosophical account of the origin of the universe. I’ve blown away my competition. I’ve blown away all the scientific competition. I understand intuitively the critique of the philosophy of science at the time. I know exactly how the universe works, what the beating heart of the universe is. And I’ve justified that leap into discovery with the same arguments that I’ve been using for what makes for good literature.
He moves into different genres, and into different audiences in order to get away from the ones he was in before and to be outside them. It’s always a one-upmanship. In “Eureka,” that last cosmological lecture, he’s taking on the literary establishment, and he’s taking on the scientific and philosophical establishment, but ultimately he’s taking on God.
John: Poe was oblivious sometimes: I won’t understand your motives. I won’t understand your plans. I won’t understand how you did it, just like Dupin in the detective stories. Poe says I can trace the clues and figure out exactly how you did it. Therefore, you didn’t outsmart me just like the criminals don’t outsmart Dupin. God does not outsmart Poe.
Lisa: As you say in the book, Poe is all about puzzles and games and puns and allusions. To read Poe in a scholarly way is to have a whole bunch of reference materials around you.
John: You have to be following behind him taking notes in order to figure out what he’s talking about and to figure out when he’s playing a game and what you should take straight.
Lisa: There’s a way in which his trickery made people really angry, not only people in his time but the people who end up codifying what American literature is in the early 20th century. The question that’s often asked is why is Poe left out. Why did we erase the history of the American literary bestseller? Because it was mainly women’s fiction. By disregarding popular authors, it’s trying to codify itself as transcendent. There’s a real seriousness about art and Poe is actually a very serious artist for all of his trickery. What he wants more than anything is respect.
John: That’s true. I think that combination of real seriousness—like here are my principles of criticism and literary evaluation, which are connected to the seriousness of the modern scientific revolution. There are huge new discoveries being made. And he speaks that language. He speaks with that authority of scientific certainty. That’s a big part of what I wanted to show. He makes his claim to literary acuity as he speaks like a scientist. He’s definitely serious about it, but he then makes use of that seriousness in popular literature and then invents these new genres, right? Which are hard. You don’t know how to make sense of them. There’s no name for science fiction.
There’s no name for detective fiction yet. He invents new genres. It’s always about selling, about getting a readership and attracting readers who don’t appreciate the formal qualities of the work. The thing that I think drove American critics nuts about Poe was not only that he sold much more than the authors that they venerated as proper literature. But then he had this huge following among the people who were looked at as real authorities for literary taste in Europe. This is modern literature because it’s experimental, because it’s psychologically acute, because it’s not afraid of frightening subjects. It’s not afraid of the perversity of the human mind. It’s not afraid of the unconscious. It puts it all right there on the page. And in that lurid myth, in those shocking images, that’s where the field of experimentation for future literature lives. Americans took a very long time to get with that.