Poe's American Experiments

Poe's American Experiments

John Tresch

The writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) dramatize the challenges of the archive: the rites of burial and exhumation, the perils of encryption and decoding, the difficulty of isolating the meaningful detail from a morass of traces, the gap between human finitude and God's perfect knowledge. Poe's writings engaged deeply with scientific and technological developments, thanks in part to his training as a military engineer at West Point. In his science journalism, he displayed an informed enthusiasm for Natural History, theories of race, electricity, magnetism, mesmerism, astronomy, and the origins of life. Poe's hoaxes exploited the feeble institutional authority of early American science and the epistemic uncertainties accompanying a newly expanded market of printed matter. In their form and content, many of his famous works reflected on the impact of mechanization and tested the limits of reason and the senses.

Opening the crypt of American science writing during Poe’s lifetime, examining experimental reports, methodological treatises, transcendentalist tracts and utopian prophecies, helps bring to light a crucial dimension of this often misrecognized author. At the same time, it exposes a neglected transitional period in the history of US science, when institutions for research and education first took shape, borrowing and distinguishing themselves from European models in the context of exploration, expansion, and industrialization.