Horrible Sanity: An Edgar Allan Poe for Our Time

Henry Cowles finds much to appreciate in John Tresch’s new biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

Horrible Sanity: An Edgar Allan Poe for Our Time

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science by John Tresch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 448 pages.

“TRUE! — NERVOUS — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” So begins what may be the most famous short story of all time: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe. First published in 1843, the story recounts a heinous act — murdering a housemate and stuffing his body beneath the floorboards — and the narrator’s attempt to rationalize it after the fact. While the crime takes up most of the story, the drama lies elsewhere: in the mind of the narrator, as he strains to make sense of the senseless thing he’s done. Poe’s style, all em dashes and italics, is the dark mirror of the agony it portrays: pulled apart by anxiety, the narrator’s mind ultimately comes undone in the story’s final line. Mistaking the hammer of his own heart for that of the dead man, he breaks down the wall between his inner monologue and the outside world: “[T]ear up the planks! here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

But what tale does the heart tell? On the surface, Poe’s story is about the unbearable nature of guilt, his narrator a precursor to Raskolnikov cowering in his flat or Stephen Dedalus sweating in church. The thumping of the titular organ has become a shorthand for criminal conscience, for what happens when we can’t let certain things slide. But beneath the crime and cover-up is an account of thinking in general, of how mind and matter flow into one another in ways we can’t control. The murder plot, which seems to come from somewhere else (“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain”), sharpens the narrator’s senses and steadies his hand. But guilt is something physical, too: ringing in his ears, beating through his feet. Poe not only makes us feel the tortured dissembling he describes, but he also seems to insist that thinking is feeling: minds are always battling to keep the passions in check lest they burst forth in catastrophic ways. The heart, in other words, tells a tale of the mind — and what happens when it is pushed to the limit.

Embodied cognition, as dramatized in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is a way of accounting for such limits and the terror we feel when confronting them. Poe would know: his life story could be told in much the same way, a pendulum that swung erratically from ambition to addiction over his short 40 years. He poured his struggles onto the page — sometimes consciously, sometimes less so — and the result is a body of work that is still among the best known in American letters. What tortured him in the material world seems to have fed his imagination; he turned his confrontations with life’s limits (including the horror of death) into a canon of literature that toed the line between madness and method. His own mind, like that of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” was always on the move, racing between ellipses and exclamation points as he tried to make sense of the world around him and pull it all together. That effort, a grand cosmology, was his final unfinished project, but the dark pieces Poe produced along the way may have proved that any grand project was doomed, if not to failure, then to feeling — ultimately — incomplete.


The horrors Poe conjured were in many ways his own. The macabre poems and short stories for which he is known are only a part of Poe’s tale, though they are more familiar to readers today than the intellectual and cultural terrain across which he ranged widely (and darkly) in his short life. At turns a well-regarded author and a much-maligned editor, a critic so sharp he made more enemies than friends, Poe was one of the first Americans to make a living by letters alone. It wasn’t much of a living, to be sure, stalked as he was by financial hardship that propelled him from one venture to another. But the circumstances that made Poe’s life so hard to live help explain why it still captivates us. He was an inventor — of genres, of moods — and insofar as necessity is the mother of invention, understanding Poe’s struggles becomes crucial to understanding his written work.

This is the central insight of The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, a splendid new biography by the historian John Tresch. Poe’s manic omnivory, his intellectual passions and professional struggles, is the heart of the book, helping Tresch show that what we now call science emerged alongside (and often through) practices we deem mystical, if not misguided. For Tresch, Poe’s zigzagging trajectory from astronomy to the occult and back again is proof less of science’s strange bedfellows and more of a tragic narrowing in what it means to be scientific. Poe’s stories, on this view, do more than mirror the science and technology of his day. Literature and science were densely entangled, pursued in tandem by boundary-crossers like Poe and his followers. “Even while exploring the outer limits of imagination and irrationality,” Tresch writes, Poe “would continue to ask how a poet might love science and how deem it wise.” Flights of fancy, or even folly, were not antithetical to science; they were often its driving force.

Tresch is eager to restore Poe to his rightful place in this tangled history. The book “returns Poe’s cosmology to its place at the summit of his life and thought, showing his work as a singular expression of the tumultuous ideas and passions of his age, thoroughly bound up with the emergence of modern science.” From childhood as an orphan to his death 40 years later, Poe’s tragic life furnishes both a narrative arc and a who’s-who of the literary and scientific establishment in the antebellum United States. Weaving private letters and published works into a broader history, Tresch uses Poe as a drunken Virgil, through whose hazy eyes we catch glimpses of abolitionism and the Mexican-American War, new technologies and the Second Great Awakening. The effect is dizzying — and part of the point. Presidential elections are on par with editorial spats, hoaxes sit side by side with discoveries. In Poe’s mind (if not Tresch’s), boundaries — between self and other, science and society, poetry and politics — tend to shimmer, even dissipate. It’s not just that Poe was an outsider (though he was); even the insiders experienced the Jacksonian period as one of dissolution. But Poe seems to have felt the era’s ups and downs more acutely than almost anyone.


Money issues weren’t Poe’s only plague. Mental health, and particularly addiction, troubled him from a young age. What we now call alcoholism (or, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, “alcohol use disorder”) haunts the pages of Tresch’s biography, appearing either to foil Poe’s plans or to drown his sorrows when they failed for other reasons. The lexicon of addiction was different then, and descriptions by both Poe and his contemporaries are at once strange and familiar. His “hope of relieving a nervous attack” reads like the kind of self-medication we still see so often, while later struggles with “the Fiend of Intemperance” are signs of a Victorian vernacular. Drinking led to gambling, exacerbating financial stress and trapping Poe in a vicious cycle he broke only occasionally. “I became insane,” Poe wrote near the end, “with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much.” If Poe’s life and texts are the train tracks of his biography, then alcohol is its third rail, a power that was ever-present — and frequently devastating.

Problems like Poe’s were thought of less as dependence or disease than they are today, and more as a war against an external threat. The reason the temperance activist Carrie Nation smashed all those saloons later in the century was the terrifying power of alcohol itself; breaking bottles was supposed to release men from a spell. Intangible forces were being invoked everywhere: from anti-alcohol crusades and Christian revivalism to mesmeric performances and theories of luminiferous ether. The self, it seemed, was buffeted by hidden energies — some dark, some divine. Poe’s personal struggles were reflected in much of his writing, in pieces that tested the limits of prosody and plot or tugged at the boundaries of literature and science. His own ordeals became those of his characters. Poe drank, wrote a friend, “[t]o calm & quiet the excessive nervous excitability under which he labored” on “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and lesser-known pieces like “Sonnet — To Science” or (Tresch’s favorite) Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe. Taken together, these form a cosmology, a poetics of limitation through which Poe strained the bounds of meter and materialism. The habits he hated in the real world haunted the worlds he imagined, too.

It’s hard not to read Poe in light of his all-too-human limits. Tresch does so occasionally, suggesting for example that Poe’s raven might have been “the embodiment of guilt and shame, the return of the repressed, whether individual or national.” His reading of “The Tell-Tale Heart” as a perverse “scientific experiment” that “dramatized the dark side of the Enlightenment” is a compelling one, though its central unraveling will be just as familiar to anyone who has struggled with the temptations that tormented Poe. After all, the genre Poe is famous for inventing — detective fiction — makes science seem like obsession, spinning method and meaning out of the smallest of clues. Characters from Sherlock Holmes (partly based on Poe’s Auguste Dupin) to Dr. Gregory House fueled deduction with drug abuse, testing the limits of the brain and the liver at once. While Poe’s Dupin is not (obviously) a victim of such habits, he “enters into the mind of his opponent” via a method that troubles the limits of the self in related ways. In Poe’s published work and private life, the self is less sovereign, less stable than it seems. Minds flicker, fracture, or fade out.


Tresch’s title is a reference to limits of another sort. It stems from an astronomical puzzle on the minds of many in Poe’s day: if space is infinite, as the Newtonians believed, then why is the night sky not completely illuminated with starlight? After all, in an infinite universe, each spot in the sky should be filled with a star more or less distant from the point of observation. In Eureka, the last lecture Poe gave and the text with which Tresch begins and ends his biography, Poe proposed a solution: the universe has limits, both spatial and temporal. Poe’s cosmology leaned on limitation as a necessary framework for life’s meaning. Everything that exists, every atom and poem alike, was a consequence of this fundamental finitude; each embodied a balancing act of attraction and repulsion through which the larger drama of spiritual unity unfolded. If this strikes you as confusing — you are not alone. Tresch, a fan, describes Eureka as “punishingly digressive and lopsided” — much like the cosmology it described. Intentional or not, this affinity between style and substance was classic Poe: brilliant but alienating, revealingly of its moment and frustratingly ahead of its time.

Eureka embodied its own argument, its style stretched thin in mirroring how an infinite soul expands into a finite universe. And Tresch’s biography does something similar. It is a tall task to layer so many histories — political, cultural, literary, scientific — onto the life of a single individual, even one so idiosyncratic as Poe. At times, Tresch pushes past where Poe can lead. Alexander Dallas Bache, one of the forgers of American science, features heavily for someone Poe never met. The same goes for P. T. Barnum, a “forger” in quite another sense, though Poe did engage with him briefly in print. Tresch is reaching here, but for a reason: Bache and Barnum are poles at the ends of a spectrum, along which Poe raced back and forth. “Poe’s strategies,” Tresch argues, “were at times those of Bache, at times those of Barnum. Pushed by poverty and the threat of starvation, he constantly shifted his positions; in his writings the pursuit of truth was accompanied by the play of glitter and shadow.” Poe was pushed by necessity not just to invent but also to imitate, to take conventions — whether social or literary — and see how far he could run with them.

After all, conventions are another kind of limit. It’s no accident that Poe is remembered best for his contributions to some of our most codified genres: mystery and horror, detective stories and science fiction — to say nothing of scientific papers themselves, more hidebound than anything else. Those who live and breathe in the world of such genres — as authors or readers, fans or scholars — tend to see their limits as a form of freedom, a foundation for the wildest fantasy and speculation that guards against the full collapse of meaning. Biography does something similar: knowing roughly where we’ll start and stop, authors can give us many worlds at once. Poe embodies this perfectly: we peel back the layers on one man’s life, and we find everything from personal trauma to cosmological drama. Yes, Poe is a special subject. His mind expands outward, capturing a sense of the infinite in a finite space (like the utopian technologies and cosmograms Tresch analyzes elsewhere). But taking biography as a starting point rather than an end in itself, we find a lesson we share with Poe: that the only thing scarier than a sense of our limits is the fiction that we can somehow transcend them.


Henry M. Cowles is a historian of modern science and medicine at the University of Michigan.

LARB Contributor

Henry M. Cowles is a historian of modern science and medicine based at the University of Michigan. His research and teaching focus on the sciences of mind and brain, evolutionary theory, and the experimental ideal in the United States and Great Britain. His book, The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey, was published by Harvard University Press in 2020. Current projects include a study of the relationship between tools and theories in psychology and psychiatry since 1800 and a history of habit from the celebration of daily routine in Thoreau's Walden to the rise of “persuasive technologies" in Silicon Valley and beyond.


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