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Poe, Richmond, and the Universe

Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with Virginia Humanities, sponsors residential fellows during the academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. Richard Kopley, Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, Penn State DuBois, spent the autumn researching and writing for an upcoming biography, Thoughts on Poe. The 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth will be on 19 January 2019.

I had begun a biography of Edgar Allan Poe, covering his time with his parents, actors Elizabeth Arnold Poe and David Poe, in Boston and New York—then with Elizabeth Arnold Poe alone in Charleston, Norfolk, and Richmond—and finally with foster parents John and Frances Allan after Mrs. Poe died in Richmond. John Allan, a partner in the mercantile firm of Ellis & Allan, later took the family to London to establish a branch called Allan & Ellis. The Allans returned to Richmond when the Panic of 1819, and more particularly, tobacco mania destroyed Allan & Ellis and threatened the entire firm. My recent time at the Library of Virginia was devoted principally to that period after their return to Richmond in 1820. I can offer as a sample of my research a newspaper find of cosmic proportions.

Poe probably had access to a telescope at the Dubourg school in London, where he studied in 1816 and 1817. His foster father John Allan also brought a telescope back with him when he returned to Richmond in 1820. So, Poe would have had some exposure to astronomy. In March 1824, Poe was 15 years old and a runner for his foster father’s firm. I was very pleased to find that in Richmond in March and April 1824 there was a series of lectures on astronomy by British teacher Robert Goodacre. The Richmond Enquirer and the Family Visitor noted that the free introductory lecture on 25 March prompted massive turnout, with “a crowd of near 1000 spectators.” In 1820, Richmond had only 12,000 residents, so 1,000 spectators at one site would have been quite remarkable. Given his experience with telescopes and his intellectual curiosity, Poe might well have been there. Even if he were not, he certainly would have known about it.

This is highly interesting new background, since Poe eventually gave his own lecture on the nature of the universe on 3 February 1848, at the New York Society Library. It was termed “a rhapsody of the most intense brilliancy,” an “extraordinary work of Art” that was “greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchained attention throughout.” One attendee considered Poe’s delivery “so pure, finished and chaste,” and another labelled the talk “a nobler effort than any other Mr. Poe has yet given to the world.” However, one attendee had reservations, terming the long lecture “a mountainous piece of absurdity for a popular lecture,” which “drove people from the room.” There was later concern that Poe’s thinking verged on the pantheistic.

This talk took published form in the work that Poe considered his greatest, Eureka: A Prose Poem. He recommended that fifty thousand copies be printed, but George P. Putnam printed five hundred. Poe announced in his preface, “What I here propound is true.” Relying on logical extrapolation and poetic intuition, Poe argued for the expansion and contraction of the universe. Eureka was a bold work, defying received wisdom and religious convention. In many ways, it anticipated the cosmology of today, from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch. It was a work of great aspiration, perhaps Poe’s ultimate detective story.

As we think about Poe’s lecture on the universe and the ensuing publication, it is worth thinking about his earlier experiences, including one experience that has long been unknown to Poe scholarship—his knowing about, possibly even attending, the extraordinarily popular free astronomy lecture in Richmond by Robert Goodacre in March 1824. It is not the First Cause of Poe’s own lecture on the Universe, but it may have been a contributing event. And it will certainly warrant mention in my biography-in-progress.


-Richard Kopley, 2018 Fall Virginia Humanities Residential Fellow


Posted by in Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

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