When There Were No Scientists
When Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809, science writing was either non-fiction or reserved for natural philosophical reverie. Interests in science and mathematics were still knotted with philosophy, allowing literature to attempt answering vital questions such as: Is man playing god? Does science negate the need for God? What is man’s relationship with nature?
The eighteenth century saw the publication of Gulliver’s Travels and Baron Munchausen’s tall tales, but the above questions began to be answered in the nineteenth century with works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published when Poe was five-years old. Poe came of age in a time when man’s “progress” was touted and the industrial revolution triumphed. As a result, Romanticism was at its height. The romantics were enamored of science, but distrusted man’s discipline to use science for good, as evidenced Percy Byshee Shelley’s apocalyptic poems and Mary Shelley’s novels.
Poe shared the same doubt, best expressed in an early poem “Sonnet: To Science” which argues that industrial progress zapped the romance out of everyday life, thus destroying the mysteries of nature. Even so, Poe avidly studied science, and could not deny that it could carry the individual into unknown terrain; be it Hades or the moon.
This sentiment was not Poe’s alone. In fact, the discoveries of steam engines, electricity, the railway, and Herschel’s telescope created a zeitgeist within nineteenth century American society. Anything was possible–so the nation’s periodicals well knew–leaving the reading public vulnerable to hoaxers, like Poe, who set out to depict what man was capable of by writing stories riddled in scientific expostulations, riffing on journalistic techniques and formats, and most of all manipulating readers’ hopes and fears.
Editor of some of the day’s premier magazines, Poe knew that periodicals published technical scientific articles side-by-side with fiction and poetry. Also at that time, technical scientific writing was written in fictionalized manners, using metaphor and allegory to better illustrate abstract ideas. To appeal to the general audience, many scientists resorted to using the short story form: “The neurologist Mitchell published textbooks about his patients’ phantom limb pains, but when trying to develop his theory that people’s bodies shaped their notions of identity, he turned to the short story form. Ironically, readers found Mitchell’s story so realistic that they mistook it for an actual case,” writes Laura Otis in her anthology Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century.
This mode of fictional science writing inspired Poe to test his own theory: that the reaction of art combined with factual details could yield new realities. The more absurd a story was, the more Poe strived to make it authentic, by writing the stories in what he called the “plausible, or verisimilitude style.” For Poe, a story’s success was based on whether its details were authentic enough to read as truth. This emphasis, executed in punctilious detail, set the bar for modern science fiction