John Tresch describes Edgar Allan Poe, writer—and engineer.
October 31, 2013

Edgar Allan Poe is remembered by most as a writer of ghostly, ghastly masterpieces, most of all “The Raven.” The poem was his breakout hit, so popular that he went on a “Raven” tour, reading the poem aloud and then explaining how he had written it, as a kind of “Making of…” feature for the crowd.

However, his explanation—“The Philosophy of Composition”—seems determined to remove every shred of mystique from the poem. He presented “The Raven” as a feat of engineering in which he started with the effect he wanted to create, and selected everything about the piece, from its length to the long o in “nevermore” to the raven itself, to achieve that effect. “It is my design,” Poe said, “to render it manifest…that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.”

It’s not clear how serious this essay was—at one point Poe briefly considered using a parrot as his talking bird—but the burgeoning interest in science and technology of his time did as much to form the writer as gothic romanticism. His short life was lived at a confluence of two traditions which he combined to make something new, says Associate Professor of History and Sociology of Science John Tresch, currently writing a book on the author. One of these traditions was the romantic idea of poetry as a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and much of Poe’s work seems to be written through intuition and inspiration. Yet he was trained as an engineer at West Point and lived as the ideal of methodical rationality was coming into prominence.

For Poe, as for many of his time, the rational and the romantic were not in opposition, but rather the same thing. “Imagination and rationality are not two opposite functions; they’re the highest form of thought combined,” says Tresch. “According to Poe, the mathematics that allows you instantly to intuit a proof is the same as the intuitive faculty that allows you to assemble a very effective poem.”

Poe wrote not only “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but reviews and critical essays that used analytical and scientific rhetoric. He was one of the nation’s first popular science writers. He invented the detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which his hero rationally deduces the solution to the crime in ways that seem to defy reason. Tresch believes that stories like “The Purloined Letter” foresaw game theory, and Poe also presaged science fiction, imagining how a Venusian would see earth and landscapes that transcend human perception.

Poe also was aware and took full advantage of the way new technology was changing literature and could help his career. “To speak in today’s language, Poe was building a brand,” says Tresch. “All the stories he tells about himself, which are frequently lies but very memorable, all the daguerreotypes he has taken of himself, they’re ways of saying, this is a Poe story. Today it would include, 'For more, if you’re interested, click here.'”

But Poe was not an unreserved fan of the new technology, and the death that permeates his work was also of his time. “This whole period is obsessed with death,” Tresch says. “The cholera epidemic wipes people out. It’s possible to starve to death on the streets of New York or Baltimore. Then there was the fact of slavery, reinvigorated by Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which is just untold brutality where the physical bodies of people are submitted to unimaginable cruelty throughout their lifetimes.” 

Poe brought it all into his writing, embracing technology when it acts as a positive force helping humans near a divine perfection, but aware of its threats and limitations. “He is there at the moment when methodological analytic reasoning is becoming the dominant way of choosing the good for society,” says Tresch. “And he’s not entirely opposed to it, but he sees the harms and limitations of strict method, and what singularities and mysteries are lost.”