Edgar Allan Poe lived through the harrowing cholera pandemic of the 1830s. He published his story “Masque of the Red Death” in 1842, just after his wife’s first attack from tuberculosis; he would struggle to pay for her care. Poe’s classic story about infection has been in the air the past year and a half for obvious reasons: In that tale, the medieval Prince Prospero and his debauched guests lock themselves inside a palace, thinking its walls will save them from the plague raging outside. Their comeuppance is swift and shocking. In the form of a shrouded corpse, the disease infiltrates the prince’s costume ball, stalking the revelers who drop “one by one” in “the blood-bedewed halls of their revel.” In the last, looming line, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
While that story taps into the human fear of death from disease, there’s a less familiar aspect of Poe’s life and work that makes him even more relevant to our COVID-era crisis in public health, science, and communication. As I write in my recent book, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night, Poe was obsessed with science, and the reasons people doubt or believe it. In his lifetime, scientific practice and explanation were on the rise, but it faced even fiercer opposition than it does today. Though he followed its developments closely and championed its advance, he also pointed out its limits and abuses. In ways that researchers and science communicators today might usefully consider, Poe showed how science’s power depended on political support, on the frank admission of its fallibility—and on telling a good story.
Poe was born in 1809, the same year as Charles Darwin. He was drilled in math and physics at West Point, and, after getting himself kicked out, kept himself informed about the fast-breaking inventions and discoveries of the early 19th century. Photography, steam engines, telegraphs, and railroads were taken as signs of limitless progress through technical innovation. The discovery and study of geological strata, revealed by excavations to create canals and railways, showed the earth’s relentless and sometimes catastrophic evolution, while new theories for the formation of planets, stars, and galaxies challenged the biblical narrative of creation. The idea that animal species might have evolved through purely material processes found growing support—as well as heated theological resistance.
Meanwhile, a hunger for information and entertainment was met by self-declared “doctors” who preached new health cures and by lecturers who presented wild theories on topics from astronomy to zoology across the country. On Broadway, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum invited debate about “discoveries” such as the “Feejee Mermaid”—a monkey’s upper body sewn to the tail of a fish—while itinerant antebellum tech bros touted investment schemes for electric communications and flying machines.
As these clashes over knowledge and the order of nature raged—and as the storm over slavery was brewing—the U.S. was undergoing a media revolution. The number of newspapers and magazines exploded. News items were cut, copied, and reprinted in other publications not unlike how a retweet spreads text and images across Twitter today, and with just as much uncertainty about the original writer’s intention or credibility.
Poe’s science writing danced back and forth between genres, sometimes explaining, sometimes fictionalizing by using science for dramatic effect. While working for magazines in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, Poe published clear-eyed evaluations of scientific and technical developments. One of his bestselling works was an introduction to conchology, the science of shells. His fictional stories also frequently turned on scientific facts and theories, with fluid mechanics and natural history underwriting his 1841 nautical thriller “A Descent Into the Maelström.” The story sees its narrator sent through the devastating twists of a Norwegian whirlpool, while observation and reasoning save him from watery destruction. In another tale from that year, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe confronted readers with a gruesome puzzle in the form of two corpses: a strangled mother and her decapitated daughter, stuffed up a fireplace in a locked room. In that tale, Poe didn’t simply invent the lurid tropes of the detective story and introduce C. Auguste Dupin, the disarming reasoner who would be the model for Sherlock Holmes. He ventured into contemporary astronomical and biological controversies and dramatized observation and verification, highlighting the difference between plodding empiricism and justified leaps of ingenuity.
In such tales, Poe tapped into the public excitement for emerging science. He conveyed its methods and findings to a wide public, while placing himself always a step ahead. The public face of science was shifting at this time, from a pastime for gentlemen amateurs to a well-coordinated profession with importance for expanding nations and empires. In Poe’s lifetime, a handful of well-connected American scientists advanced plans to build national institutions to distinguish “real working men in the way of science” from charlatans, quacks, and humbugs. Their efforts led to the Smithsonian Institution and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Poe penned columns in support of such projects, while plotting his own journal to raise the level of American letters. His planned journal, eventually named the Stylus, would advance an impersonal, objective criticism, “aloof from all personal bias” and guided “only by the purest rules of Art.” Analyzing literature according to impersonal, objective criteria, he sought to bring scientific objectivity to bear on the analysis, and even the creation, of art.
But while Poe was hailed for attempting “the overthrow of humbug” in literature, his love of games and illusions and his craving for publicity led him to perpetrate hoaxes that rivaled Barnum’s. In the New York Sun, in 1844, he mimicked newspapers’ effusive science reporting to falsely claim that a hot-air balloon had crossed the Atlantic. In a story he first published in two popular magazines, presented as a medical report, he also purported to document a fictional experiment in which a patient’s life was prolonged by hypnosis; the imaginary “case” was reprinted and discussed in medical journals as far as London. Such literary stunts, published in general-interest publications in which fiction, poetry, fashion, gossip, and science appeared side by side, took advantage of the unstable boundaries between genres amid an unprecedented flood of information. They demonstrated how easily the language of expertise could be used to serve either deception or truth. Alert readers might detect the joke, but uncertainty about the article’s truth—who had written it, on what basis, with what intention—spurred public doubt and debate.
Though Poe could be an earnest advocate of the new forms of truth, he was an inveterate trickster, compulsively revealing science’s blind spots and limitations. In comic tales published in magazines up and down the East Coast, he expressed his doubts about scientific overreach. In “Some Words With a Mummy,” an Egyptian pharaoh revived by a galvanic battery shows, through his powers of argument, the preposterous arrogance of a character based on the anatomist Samuel Morton of Philadelphia—who claimed to find a natural hierarchy of races in skulls robbed from graves and battlefields. In other satires, including “The Business Man” and “The Man That Was Used Up,” Poe lampooned the claims of the overconfident utilitarian reformers and entrepreneurs who prophesized endless technological progress and promised data-driven solutions to all of life’s ills. His hoaxes and satires demonstrated that the language of proof and method were no guarantee against error and deceit.
Throughout his varied writings on science, Poe made it clear that facts don’t speak for themselves. He showed that although a well-woven fabric of evidence was far more deserving of belief than threadbare speculation, the most effective scientists were those who brought their claims to life as gripping tales with an intuitively felt, aesthetic coherence—what he called the “unity of effect.” For Poe, the universe itself was a sublimely well-crafted “plot.” He tried to convey its scientific and poetic form in Eureka, the theory of “the material and spiritual universe” he published in 1848, the year before he died. He was convinced that Eureka would “revolutionize the world of Physical & Metaphysical Science,” though with its baffling combination of well-established findings from astronomy and physics and wild cosmological speculation, it sank into obscurity immediately. Only in the 20th century did readers recognize its uncanny anticipations of relativity and the big-bang theory.
In the diverse modes he used in his science writing, and his sense that truth is inseparably bound with how it is communicated, Poe’s approach was as much in tune with his tumultuous age as it is with ours. Whether we’re talking about cosmology, climate change, or COVID, science still needs good stories. Historians and sociologists of science, such as Naomi Oreskes in her recent book Why Trust Science?, argue that science’s reliability doesn’t come from abstract and all-embracing truths, a unitary method, or isolated geniuses, but from well-established social institutions and their diverse, repeatedly tested methods. These may be imperfect, but after being questioned, challenged, reformulated, and applied to specific matters, they’re the most trustworthy tools we’ve got. Poe reminds us that instead of preaching ready-made truths from their elevated perch (and shaking their heads at those who refuse to hear), scientists can enhance their authority by revealing their long chains of collective reasoning, doubt, and testing, and by telling and retelling their stories through a variety of perspectives, genres, and forms. The effort to find creative ways of convincing various people of the robustness and validity of scientific methods and claims shouldn’t be seen as wasteful pandering but as providing the necessary care that vital information needs to thrive. Poe’s plots and literary virtuosity also make clear that STEM fields, though important, are doomed to wilt if they’re deprived of the skills taught by the humanities. Rhetoric, interpretation, and dramatization are essential for narrating the twists of conjecture and discovery, and for conveying scientific conclusions so that people not only understand them but are moved to follow their implications.
Poe is famous for detailing the horrifying thoughts of madmen. But in today’s media maelstrom, his insights into the emotional and aesthetic mechanics of belief and his principled ambivalence toward science—acknowledging its incompleteness, while embracing its practical achievements—make Poe’s singular voice sound surprisingly, bracingly sane.