‘…a wild ride of beauty and fear.’ – The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch

September 6, 2021 at 7:26 pm (Book review, books)

  Having recovered from an earlier outburst brought on by this tome – see this post – I can now report, with considerable relief, that I have finished reading The Reason for the Darkness of the Night and am well satisfied as well as relieved. Much of this book was fascinating, much of it was bewildering – rather like its subject:

Working in a stunning variety of styles, genres, and tones, he conjured up sublime landscapes, hypnotic interiors, and compellingly disturbed characters, demonstrating to later writers all that a short story could be: an aesthetic experiment, a study of anomalous psychology, a philosophical investigation, a wild ride of beauty and fear.

It is always gratifying to get some hint of what influence was brought to bear on the creative mind. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Poe was frequently cared for by Black servants (read enslaved persons). They told him tales he would not have heard anywhere else: “African tales–passed down generations, modulated and reinvented through the Middle Passage–often depicted souls possessed through witchcraft and dangerous obsessions, dead bodies brought back to life, malevolent spirits tormenting the living.”

Poe  spent only a year at the newly opened University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Hie room there is preserved. I remember standing at the doorway looking in, able to see clearly the model of a raven perched on the nightstand.) Author Tresch offers this succinct description of the school’s student body:

Poe joined rich young white men acquiring a final gentlemanly polish before returning to manage their inherited estates. They clattered onto the lawn with horses and carriages, accompanied by African servants, fine clothing, dueling pistols, and large allowances.

(Rarely have I encountered a sentence as masterful as this second one, encapsulating a singular moment of a particular time and place in a burst of eloquence topped with a fine touch of irony.)

In Poe’s time, there were many lively debates going on regarding scientific subjects – little  things like the nature of the universe, the formation of the cosmos, etc. etc. Tresch reports on these matters in meticulous detail; I admit I had trouble following those reports and what’s more, had trouble staying interested in them. The most important thing to know is that they were of vital interest to Poe; he waded into every controversy on these subjects. all guns firing, calling out various other theorists and not caring whom he offended.

Of far more interest to me were the details of Poe’s life, his restless peregrinations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with his small unorthodox family in tow, and of course, urgently scribbling his poems and stories, unequaled in their strangeness, fascination, terror, and beauty. I embarked on a rereading of the stories, only to be stopped in my tracks by the incomparable “Fall of the House of Usher.” (I need no program of rereading for the poems, which I’m always returning to.)

Poe persevered in his literary endeavors and public lectures, all the while dogged by almost unrelenting poverty, the failing health of his fragile  and beloved wife Virginia, and his own descent into alcoholism. Poe finally attained a measure of fame and recognition by the mid 1840s. Nevertheless, as his reputation grew, his personal life imploded. Tresch describes him as “a victim of bad luck, alcohol, and self-sabotage.” Virginia died in 1847, closing an agonizing chapter in his life.

Still, back in Richmond in early 1849, Poe felt rejuvenated. He was making progress in controlling the urge to drink. He was warmly welcomed by friends and relations still living there. One among them was Sarah Elmira Royster, now widowed and in possession of a goodly estate. Their reunion was so joyous that he asked her to marry him; though not immediately answering in the affirmative, she gave him hope that she would ultimately agree to be his wife.

But first, he must complete a scheduled lecture tour. He left for Baltimore via steamer, and at once fell into a company of old friends who invited him to go out drinking with them. Poe indulged them, and it was the beginning of the end. Several days later, he was discovered wandering the streets, incoherent and in generally terrible condition. He was taken to a hospital on October third; on the seventh, at the age of forty, he died.

He is buried at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground; this is now part of the University of Maryland Law School. As with everything to do with Poe, there’s a complicated story attached to his burial.

Then, there’s the story of the so-called Poe Toaster. This refers to  a tradition, probably begun in the 1930s. Every year on January 19, in the middle of the night, on Poe’s birthday….

Well, I’ll let Wikipedia complete the story:

a black-clad figure carrying a silver-tipped cane, his face obscured by a scarf or hood, entered the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. At the site of Poe’s original grave—which is marked with a commemorative stone—he would pour a glass of Martell cognac and raise a toast. He then arranged three red roses on the monument in a distinctive configuration and departed, leaving the unfinished bottle of cognac.[5] The roses were believed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, all three of whom were originally interred at the site. The significance of the cognac is uncertain, as it does not feature in Poe’s works (as would, for example, amontillado); but a note left at the 2004 visitation suggested that the cognac may have represented a tradition of the Toaster’s family rather than Poe’s. Several of the cognac bottles are kept at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.

I believe that at this date, the custom has been discontinued. With luck, it will reappear.

Although the passages on the philosophy of science are tough going, in general I recommend this book, especially to anyone who has an interest in nineteenth century American literature and  thought.. John Tresch, an author unfamiliar to me until now, writes beautifully. He has an illustrious academic pedigree and is currently Professor of the History of Art, Science,and Folk Practice at the Warburg Institute in London.

I also highly recommend visiting the site of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Somewhat to my surprise, they assert that the famous Poe Toaster has nothing to do with them.

Ghosts, perhaps..?

Edgar Allan Poe January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: