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The Reason for the Darkness of the Night (2021)

by John Tresch

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The Reason for the Darkness of the Night by John Tresch is one of the best biographies of Poe I have read and could serve as an example for future biographers when writing about someone who has been largely presented from one limited perspective. Tresch doesn't so much refute every mistake or overstatement made about Poe as he simply presents Poe in his entirety, as a complete person, flaws and all. Though he does take the time to show the intentional and planned tainting of Poe's legacy after his death.

It is mistaken to imply that all previous biographies bought wholly into the troubled alcoholic theme, most over the past several decade have been less negative on Poe as a person. Even in the early 90s when I was taking a course with J Gerald Kennedy we learned that Poe was far more nuanced than we had been led to believe. That said, this is one of the, if not the, first biographies to focus on all that Poe accomplished and tried to accomplish and not on his flaws and weaknesses.

While science serves as the opportunity and perspective from which Tresch recovers Poe, it is not simply a book about Poe and science. It is literary criticism as well, showing how scientific thought, as well as the changes within the science community, influenced Poe's fiction as well as his nonfiction. His attempts, many successful to some degree, of organizing and categorizing aspects of writing and reading. His contributions have influenced genre fiction, and fiction as a whole, to this day. From the single effect to ratiocination, Poe is still with us today.

I would highly recommend this to those who like biographies of literary figures as well as anyone who is interested in the history of science, since the period covered was pivotal to how we now perceive science.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  pomo58 | Jun 14, 2021 |
3.5 This is the first full length biography I have read of Poe and it revealed many, to me at least, surprising insights. Science vs. literary pursuits. There is much I had known of Poe, snippets I read here and there, in other books. I did know he went to West Point, served in the military, married his cousin, etc. What I didn't know was his avid interest in science. An interest that formed in his youth and that was reflected in some of his poems and fiction.

His life was prolific but personally sad. The early death if his wife, his drinking all presented challenges that he never seemed to overcome. His last lectures on science, were ones he hoped would provide redemption and bring him back into the public eye.

The author I think has presented a good portrait of this tortured genius. I enjoyed his insightful outlook and discussions of Poe's many literary pursuits. ( )
  Beamis12 | Apr 22, 2021 |
The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch is the first biography I have read of Poe. I was totally enthralled. Tresch's approach gives us a man of technological and scientific insight, an expert craftsman with the pen, an original thinker, and a relentless worker. And yet, everything was against Poe, he struggled to provide basic needs, and his dreams were always beyond reach.

It is one of the saddest biographies I have ever read. A genius with everything against him, a man who achieved great heights and died with nothing. Had he been born in a different time, would his fate have been happier?

I first read Poe in my grandfather's 1926 paperback 101 Famous Poems in which I discovered The Raven, The Bells, and To Helen. Then, I discovered a complete set of Poe on gramp's shelves and borrowed the volumes so often, he told me to just keep them. This was almost 57 years ago!

Like my own grandfather, Poe's father had abandoned his mother and with her death was an orphan. Like my grandfather, Poe was taken to be raised by a family without formal adoption. Like my grandfather, Poe was sent into the world without enough financial support to live on. Like Poe, my grandfather was an engineer, a writer, relentlessly working three jobs to support his family. Unlike my grandfather, Poe had been raised by a wealthy family and had expectations of being supported to continue that lifestyle. Plus, he had inherited the family problem of alcoholism.

Poe embraced two interests: the advancement of a distinct American literature that could rival Europe's, and an interest in science and technology. His classical education, training at West Point, deep reading, and relentless pursuit of financial security and fame was derailed by his inability to handle alcohol, which was almost impossible to avoid in society or business.

He took on his aunt and cousin as family, his love for both deep and sincere. They starved with him and followed him from home to home. He married his child bride cousin, who died of tuberculosis, perhaps the inspiration for his poem Annabel Lee.

Poe lived in an age when science and pseudoscience and faith clashed. He reacted to the new scientific ideas that precluded purpose and meaning to existence.

Tresch begins and ends with Poe's lecture Eureka! which presented radical ideas that later were seen as foreshadowing current theories accepted in the scientific community. He neither envisioned a universe controlled by a deity, or abandoned by a deity, or once created remained unchanged. His universe was dynamic and evolving. He saw that science had its limits in understanding the human experience and place in the universe.

Poe lived during the rise of the magazine, and he relentlessly wrote articles of every kind, published in magazines such as Graham's Ladies and Gentleman's Magazine; forty years ago I bought an 1841 bound volume in a Maine antique shop which included numerous works by Poe, articles on cryptography and autography (analyzing signatures), The Colloquy of Monos and Una, and the poems Israfel and To Helen.

It was so interesting to read Tresch's comments on these articles and poems. The Colloquy, he comments, includes lines that foretold the future: "Meantime huge smoking cities arose, innumerable. Green leaves shrank before the hot breath of furnaces. The fair face of Nature was deformed as with the ravages of some loathsome disease.[...]now it appears that we had worked out our own destruction in the perversion of our taste, or rather in the blind neglect of its culture in the schools." He continues, "Taste along could have led us gently back to Beauty, to Nature, and to Life."

With my new insights into Poe, I really must return and reread his work.

I received a free galley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased. ( )
  nancyadair | Apr 1, 2021 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Treschprimary authorall editionscalculated
Achilles, GretchenDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Colligan, ThomasCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Veve, ArmandoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Art is the perfection of Nature. Were the world now as it was the sixt day, there were yet another chaos: Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In briefe, all things are artificial, for Nature is the Art of God.

-- Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, 1643
To my mother, who read me scary stories
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At the start of February 1848, New York newspapers announced a mysterious impending event: "Edgar A. Poe will lecture at the Society Library on Thursday evening . . . Subject, 'The Universe.'" (Introduction: "Subject: The Universe")
In the swampy heat of the summer of 1825, anyone walking past the mansion on the corner of Fifth and Main could look up and see a slender young man on the balcony making fine adjustments to a telescope.
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A biography of Edgar Allan Poe with an emphasis on his engagement with the scientists and scientific discoveries of his era. -- Provided by publisher.


Part I: From Allan to Poe -- The Young Astronomer -- In Jefferson's Experiment -- Exile, Artificer, Cadet

Part II: Setting Sail -- A Baltimore Apprenticeship -- Richmond: The Palpable Obscure - Delirious Design

Part III: Philadelphia -- The Athens of America -- Methods Grotesque and Arabesque -- Dizzy Heights -- The Tide Turns -- The March of Science and Quacks

Part IV: New York City -- The Market for Novelty -- A Man of Wonders -- The Imp of the Perverse

Part V: To the Plutonian Shore -- A Spectacle for Angels -- The Plots of God -- Falling Star

Conclusion: From a Lighthouse.
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