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Subject: The Universe
At the start of February 1848, New York newspapers announced a mysterious impending event: “Edgar A. Poe will lecture at the Society Library on Thursday evening … Subject, ‘The Universe.’” There could be no grander topic. But no one could say just what to expect: a story, a poem, a critical diatribe? It might contain anything and everything.
The Home Journal ventured, “There is but one thing certain about it, that it will be compact of thought, most fresh, startling, and suggestive.” As a “born anatomist of thought” Mr. Poe “takes genius and its imitations to pieces with a skill wholly unequalled on either side the water.” The announcements fueled speculation about the man himself. Despite his renown, he had been out of the public eye for more than a year.
The venue, newly relocated to Leonard and Broadway, offered few clues. The Society Library’s board included social luminaries such as the banker Cornelius Roosevelt. Its fare was more polished than at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, ten blocks south; Ralph Waldo Emerson had delivered his “Lecture on the Times” there, but all manner of entertainments passed through its doors. Recent performances featured Swiss bell ringers, the American Daguerreotype Association, and the stage magician Signor Blitz.
Would Poe’s lecture be a story, a poem, a scientific treatise, or some unheralded novelty? The Weekly Universe remarked, “Mr. Poe is not merely a man of science—not merely a poet—not merely a man of letters. He is all combined; and perhaps he is something more.”
The speech was Poe’s return after a fretful absence. He had become famous three years earlier with his poem “The Raven.” Its odd, enticing melody and haunting refrain, uttered by a cryptic bird to a scholar racked with grief, had engraved itself on the public mind: “Quoth the raven: Nevermore.” First published under a pseudonym, it was celebrated, reprinted, and parodied. A Gotham paper raved, “It is written in a Stanza unknown before to gods, men, and booksellers, but it fills and delights the ear strangely with its wild and clashing music. Everyone reads the Poem and praises it.”
They also heard it. Poe became a fixture of New York’s literary salons, where he magnetized listeners with intense and hushed recitations. The poet Frances Sargent Osgood recalled “his proud beautiful head erect, his dark eyes flashing with the electric light of feeling and of thought.” Another author reported his reputation as a practitioner of mesmerism, the new science of invisible fluids and the vibrations that unite minds: “People seem to think there is something uncanny about him, and the strangest stories are told, and, what is more, believed, about his mesmeric experiences.”
“The Raven” opened other doors. In 1845 he gave a lecture titled “The Poets and Poetry of America” to a crowd of three hundred, denouncing the feeble state of American writing and criticism, its regional cliques and inflated reputations. By the end of 1846, Poe’s poems, tales, unflinching opinions, and flair for provocation had brought him near to his dream of running his own magazine. A sketch of him in the first flush of fame suggests a man of poise, wit, and discernment, with good reason to be optimistic (if perhaps a bit anxious).
But his luck changed. For most of 1847 he dropped from salons and lecture halls, to whispers of scandal and tragedy. He moved to Fordham, twelve miles north of the city, with his aunt and his ailing wife, Virginia. He later confessed to a friend, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much.”
Both allies and enemies speculated about his condition. His friend George Eveleth, a medical student, wrote to the editor Evert Duyckinck, “Where is Mr. Poe—what is he doing—and what is he likely to do?… Does he continue to drink hard yet, or has he reformed?” His rival Thomas Dunn English, who had written a novel with a vicious caricature of a drunken Poe, ridiculed his lowered state: “We understand that Mr. E. A. POE has been employed to furnish the railing for the new railroad over Broadway. He was seen going up the street a few days ago, apparently laying out the road.”
Poe around 1846, miniature sketch by John A. McDougall
In fact, withdrawn from the squabbles of the New York papers and salons, safe from public scrutiny and petty attacks, Poe was plotting the next phase of his career. While he was nearly isolated, at one of his lowest moments, his imagination soared. Rambling through Fordham’s lush meadows and on the stark, stony cliffs along the Hudson, he undertook daring new works: essays articulating the “science of composition”; “Ulalume,” an incantatory ballad lit by the “nebulous lustre” of a newly born star; a visionary tale, “The Domain of Arnheim,” scrawled on a single, long scroll, in which an artist of unlimited wealth engineers a vast landscape garden resembling a heaven or a hell; and, most audaciously, the lecture titled “The Universe,” which the New York papers announced in early 1848.
Poe was pinning his hopes on this work, the first step of his concrete plan “to re-establish myself in the literary world.” As a magazine writer, he was lucky to receive more than twenty dollars for an article, no matter how widely it was read. A lecture with a decent audience paying fifty cents each could earn him several months’ rent. He planned to follow the New York event with a national tour, reaping ticket revenues and subscriptions for his reborn literary magazine, The Stylus, starting with his former classmates from the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy: “I must get a list of, at least, five hundred subscribers to begin with:—nearly two hundred I have already. I propose, however, to go South and West, among my personal and literary friends—old college and West Point acquaintances—and see what I can do.”
His lecture’s published title would be Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe. “Eureka!—I found it!”—was the exclamation of the ancient philosopher Archimedes upon discovering a method for testing the purity of gold. “Eureka!” was also the joyful shout of prospectors in California. Poe was convinced that the discoveries in his essay would secure his immortal fame, make him rich, and, by plumbing the mysteries of the universe, save his life.
The strategy was less crazy than it might seem. Poe had trained in mathematics and engineering at West Point and spent subsequent decades reviewing fast-breaking developments in electromagnetism, chemistry, natural history, and astronomy; he was positioned as well as nearly any of his contemporaries to speak on cosmology. The origin and makeup of the universe obsessed great minds of the age—Pierre-Simon Laplace, John Herschel, Alexander von Humboldt—and had captivated the American public. The Scottish minister and astronomer Thomas Dick published popular astronomy books that harmonized natural science and Protestant theology, while the eight volumes of the Bridgewater Treatises had updated “natural theology” to keep pace with scientific advances.
The bestselling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in Edinburgh in 1844, was still being ferociously debated on both sides of the Atlantic. Scandalously, Vestiges retold the origin and development of the solar system, the sun, the earth, and humanity as the result of uniform natural law—without divine intervention. Was the book’s anonymous author a radical, a crank, or a respectable man of science? No one could say. Building on the notoriety of Vestiges, just days before Poe was to speak at the Society Library in early 1848, John Pringle Nichol, professor of astronomy at Glasgow—one of the prime suspects for having written Vestiges—gave a series of well-attended talks in New York.
Nichol had concentrated popular attention on nebulae—remote, shimmering patches of light being closely inspected with powerful new telescopes. According to the “nebular hypothesis” he advanced, our own sun had once been a whirling, luminous cloud of gas before it condensed, leaving the planets orbiting in its wake.
The theological consequences were stark: if true, this hypothesis meant the heavens had gradually evolved into their present state and the universe had a markedly different history than in Genesis. If such processes of evolution occurred as a result of natural laws, without a creator’s intervention, they might still be at work, beyond our tiny planet, or even here on earth, in the formation of new species.
In and around the cottage in Fordham, his aunt and vigilant protector, Maria Clemm, accompanied Poe as he worked. “I used to sit up with him, often until four o’clock in the morning, he at his desk, writing, and I dozing in my chair,” she recalled. “When he was composing ‘Eureka,’ we used to walk up and down the garden, his arm around me, mine around him, until I was so tired I could not walk. He would stop every few minutes and explain his ideas to me, and ask if I understood him. I always sat with him when he was writing and gave him a cup of hot coffee every hour or two.” Restlessly walking late into the night, Poe gazed up at the undimmed stars arched above the countryside, wondering where they had come from and what hints they might hold for those below.
Copyright © 2021 by John Tresch