Text: William H. Gravely, Jr., “A Note on the Composition of Poe’s ‘Hans Pfaal’,” from Poe Newsletter­, June 1970, vol. III, no. 1, 3:2-5


[page 2, column 2:]

A Note on the Composition of Poe’s “Hans Pfaal”

University of Maryland

Some years ago I sent the late Professor T. O. Mabbott two articles in manuscript relating to Poe’s tale, “Hans Pfaal.” One of these, which was to be incorporated into Professor Mabbott’s projected edition of Poe’s Tales, is a lengthy source study in which, on the strength of new evidence from numerous accounts of balloon ascensions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I contend that Poe’s most significant sources are scientific rather than fictional and hence take issue with Professor J. O. Bailey, who has ably argued that George Tucker’s fantasy A Voyage to the Moon is Poe’s main source. The other, offered here, is primarily concerned with the circumstances surrounding the composition of the story — and here, too, I take issue with Mr. Bailey.

In “Sources for Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, ‘Hans Pfaal, ’ and Other Pieces,” Mr. Bailey offers for consideration certain “tentative conclusions — or surmises” which he feels are suggested by his re-examination of the sources for “Hans Pfaal” (PMLA, LVII, 530-531). He thinks that Poe was probably working as early as 1833 on the part of the story which describes Hans Pfaal’s actual journey to the moon, and he bases his opinion largely upon John H. B. Latrobe’s account of an interview that he once had with Poe (1). According to Latrobe’s account, which was given in the form of an address to a large gathering of people attending Poe Memorial exercises in Baltimore on 17 November 1875, this interview took place soon after Poe had been awarded the Saturday Visiter prize in 1833 (2). [page 3:] Latrobe relates how Poe described in some detail his plans for writing a voyage to the moon, with which he said he was occupied at that time. Now, although Poe is represented as having referred in this same interview to the Southern Literary Messenger (not even in existence at the time), Mr. Bailey is inclined to accept Latrobe’s statement on the ground that “it seems to bear the marks of truth” (p. 531). At the same time, apparently, he is disposed to reject Poe’s own statement to White that “Hans Pfaal” “was written especially for the Messenger” on the ground that Poe would not have been dissatisfied with the twenty dollars he received for the story if, as Poe maintained, it had cost him only two weeks ’ labor (p. 531). As additional ground for believing Latrobe rather than Poe, Mr. Bailey makes the following observation: “Poe’s source was Tucker’s A Voyage to the Moon, and that is the title Latrobe says Poe gave for his own story” (p. 531).

Mr. Bailey’s interpretation of Latrobe’s statement about Poe’s being “engaged on a voyage to the moon” is based on a citation from Hervey Allen’s inaccurate version of Latrobe’s reminiscences. According to Allen, Poe told Latrobe during the interview “that he was then engaged on A Voyage to the Moon “ (3). I do not know by what authority Allen converted the phrase “a voyage to the moon” into a title by italicizing it, but since he gives no source for his quotation I must conclude that the conversion was due to carelessness. Certainly, in the detailed reports of Latrobe’s address appearing in the Baltimore newspapers on 18 November 1875, there is no implication that Poe intended to give this title to his story (4). Indeed, the implication is quite the contrary, the term “voyage to the moon” being unmistakably used to denote a literary genre, just as Poe used it in his long note at the end of “Hans Pfaal.” So far as I have been able to discover, Allen is the only biographer of Poe who makes this error.

When Mr. Bailey speaks of Latrobe’s statement as “bearing the marks of truth,” I cannot believe that he is aware of how unreliable Latrobe’s memory was during his later years. When Latrobe arose to address the large crowd which had assembled on the afternoon of 17 November 1875 to honor Poe, he stated that he had been asked to give his personal recollections of the poet. “You may be surprised, then,” he added, “when I say that I never saw Edgar Allan Poe but once, and that our interview did not last an hour.” Later in his address he remarked: “Of this interview, the only one I ever had with Mr. Poe, my recollection is very distinct indeed.” Latrobe further stated that this sole interview occurred on the first Monday after the publication of Poe’s prize-winning tale in the Saturday Visiter or, in other words, on 21 October 1833.

Let us now compare these statements with some earlier reminiscences which he wrote at the request of C. Chauncey Burr in December 1852, just a little more than three years after Poe’s death. In the earlier account Latrobe says of Poe:

At my instance he called on me several times, and entered at length into the discussion of subjects on which he proposed to employ his pen. When he warmed up, he was most eloquent. . . . . I remember being particularly struck with the power that he seemed to possess of identifying himself with whatever he was describing. He related to me all the facts of a voyage to the moon, I think, which he proposed to put upon paper, with an [column 2:] accuracy of minute derail and a truthfulness as regarded philosophical phenomena, which impressed you with the idea, almost, that he had himself just returned from the journey which existed only in his imagination (5).

Obviously, then, there are important discrepancies in Latrobe’s earlier and later reminiscences. Whereas in the earlier account he states that Poe paid him several visits — how many or how far apart they were he does not say — “and entered at length into the discussion of subjects on which he proposed to employ his pen,” in the later account he says that he had only one interview with Poe, that it took place on the Monday following the publication of Poe’s prize-winning tale, that it lasted less than an hour, and that Poe not only revealed his plans for writing a voyage to the moon but also mentioned the Southern Literary Messenger — a publication not then in existence.

Another instance of Latrobe’s forgetfulness during his later years involves the second edition of a little volume of poems by Latrobe printed in Baltimore in 1876 (6). Among these poems is one entitled “The Aeronaut to the People,” which the author wrote in 1833 to commemorate C. J. Durant’s ascension from Baltimore in a balloon during the same year (pp. 5-7). Latrobe refers to the poem in the following note: “At the end of nearly forty years, Mr. C. J. Durant, at whose instance these lines were written, sent to me, a short while before his death, a copy on satin along with a photograph of the car, still preserved by him, in which the ascent was made from Federal Hill, Baltimore, October 14th, 1833. It was the first ever made in the city and created an extraordinary sensation. The verses were dropped from the ascending car.” In this note Latrobe definitely states that the ascent made by Durant on 14 October 1833 was the first to occur in Baltimore. Yet less than three weeks before the event took place, there had been another ascension from the same city and by the same aeronaut (7).

Still another instance of Latrobe’s forgetfulness may be seen in the following comment by Mr. Hubbell in his article already referred to: “Latrobe has misled some Poe biographers by stating in his 1875 account that among the tales which Poe submitted for the prize was ‘A Descent into the Maelström ’ which was not published until 1841 and almost certainly was not written as early as 1833” (p. 837).

Inasmuch as Latrobe’s memory during his later years was clearly unreliable, I must accept Poe’s own explanation of the circumstances under which “Hans Pfaal” was conceived and written. I am aware, of course, that Poe often deliberately misstated facts. Nevertheless, everything he says about the aim and design of “Hans Pfaal” has, to me, a ring of truthfulness. In his discussion of Richard Locke and his celebrated “Moon-Hoax,” Poe tells how his own story had its inception in Sir John Herschel’s A Treatise on Astronomy (8). He states that upon reading an American edition of this work he became interested in what the author said about “the possibility of future lunar investigations” (p. 127). He says further:

The theme excited my fancy, and I longed to give free rein to it in depicting my day-dreams about the scenery of the moon — in short, I longed to write a story embodying these dreams. The obvious difficulty, of course, was that of accounting for the narrator’s acquaintance with the satellite; and the equally obvious [page 4:] mode of surmounting the difficulty was the supposition of an extraordinary telescope. I saw at once that the chief interest of such a narrative must depend upon the reader’s yielding his credence in some measure as to details of actual fact. At this stage of my deliberations I spoke of the design to one or two friends — to Mr. John P. Kennedy, the author of “Swallow Barn,” among others — and the result of my conversations with them was that the optical difficulties of constructing such a telescope as I conceived were so rigid and so commonly understood, that it would be in vain to attempt giving due verisimilitude to any fiction having the telescope as a basis. Reluctantly, therefore, and only half convinced, (believing the public, in fact, more readily gullible than did my friends,) I gave up the idea of imparting very close verisimilitude to what I should write — that is to say, so close as really to deceive. I fell back upon a style half plausible, half bantering, and resolved to give what interest I could to an actual passage from the earth to the moon, describing the lunar scenery as if surveyed and personally examined by the narrator. In this view I wrote a story which I called “Hans Phaall,” publishing it about six months afterwards in “The Southern Literary Messenger,” of which I was then editor. (Works, XV, 127-128)

It will be observed from the foregoing excerpt that Poe definitely acknowledges an American edition of Herschel’s A Treatise on Astronomy to have been his inspirational source for “Hans Pfaal.” He also states that before he even conceived the idea of describing an actual journey to the moon he had planned to describe the lunar scenery as seen through a telescope. Now, Mr. Bailey apparently believed Poe to be sincere in stating that his original plans called for the device of a telescope rather than that of a lunar voyage (p. 533) . It follows, then, that he must believe these plans to have taken shape before the interview which Latrobe, according to his later reminiscences, says he had with Poe in 1833.

But if they did take shape at so early a date, Poe could not have received his inspiration from an American edition of Herschel’s treatise published about six months before Locke’s famous story appeared — that is, near the end of 1834 (9). Thus, if Mr. Bailey holds to the belief that Latrobe’s later account of his interview is accurate, he must also acknowledge that the American edition of Herschel’s work could not have had any influence on Poe’s original plans. As far as I can see, however, the material which Poe drew from Herschel is the very warp and woof of what Mr. Bailey calls the central portion of “Hans Pfaal” — the part on which he suggests that Poe may have been working as early as 1833.

If Poe’s explanations in his article on Locke seem sincere, so also do those which occur near the end of the note appended to “Hans Pfaal,” in which he states positively how his own jeu d ’esprit differs from other narratives containing journeys to the moon. After commenting briefly on several of these journeys, including a lengthy review of the one which we know to be Tucker’s but which was published under a pseudonym, he makes the point that they are satirical in aim. In “Hans Pfaal,” however, says Poe, “the design is original inasmuch as regards an attempt at verisimilitude, in the application of scientific principles (so far as the whimsical nature of the subject would permit) to the actual passage between the earth and the moon” (Works, II, 108). Sincere, also, seems Poe’s caustic appraisal of Professor Robley Dunglison’s elaborate review of Tucker’s romance as a “criticism [column 2:] in which it is difficult to say whether the critic most exposes the stupidity of the book, or his own absurd ignorance of astronomy” (10). It is most unlikely that either a review or a book which led Poe to express such an opinion as this would have been his inspirational source for a story to which he sought to give the illusion of plausibility through the use of scientifically accurate and minute descriptive detail.



(1)  The untrustworthiness of Latrobe’s memory on Poe is partially cleared up in an article by Professor Jay B. Hubbell, “Charles Chauncey Burr: Friend of Poe” (PMLA, LXIX, 833-840). Mr. Hubbell establishes that, about twenty-three years before the interview to which Mr. Bailey refers, Latrobe wrote other reminiscences of Poe which differ substantially from the later ones. Latrobe wrote the earlier reminiscences in the form of a letter to Burr at the latter’s request, and Burr afterwards published this letter in the June 1866 issue of The Old Guard. In stating, however, that Latrobe’s later account is “the only one thus far mentioned by Poe’s biographers” (p. 837), Mr. Hubbell overlooks the fact that Ingram had access to the earlier reminiscences and actually quoted from them: Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions (London, 1880), I, 109, 118-119. Since I am mainly concerned here with questioning Mr. Bailey’s conjectures concerning the composition of “Hans Pfaal,” which are partly based upon his inclination to accept Latrobe’s later reminiscence as accurate, it is only fair to him to point out that he offered them for consideration before Mr. Hubbell’s article appeared.

(2)  Baltimore Sun, 18 November 1875, pp. 1, 4. Mr. Bailey (p. 530) gives July 1833 as the month in which Poe was awarded the Saturday Visiter prize. Actually the award was not made until three months later. See Arthur H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York and London, 1941), pp. 202-203.

(3)  Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1926), I, 351.

(4)  Baltimore Sun, p. 1; Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, p. 4.

(5)  Quoted from Latrobe’s letter as reproduced in C. Chauncey Burr’s article entitled “Poe and His Biographer, Griswold,” The Old Guard, IV (June 1866), 353-358.

(6)  Odds and Ends (printed by John Murphy).

(7)  For information concerning Durant’s aerial activities, other than that which Latrobe’s note has furnished me, I am indebted to Mr. N. H. Randers-Pehrson, who kindly allowed me to examine data which he had compiled. At the time I consulted him Mr. Randers-Pehrson was chief of the Aeronautics Division, Library of Congress. I agree with his suggestion that there is some connection between Poe’s interest in the science of aeronautics and the balloon ascensions that took place in Baltimore during the autumn of 1833. Not only was Poe living there at the time, but it was then that he formed a warm friendship with John P. Kennedy, who, along with Latrobe, was greatly interested in Durant’s exploits. Durant’s first ascension occurred on 26 September.

(8)  See Poe’s “Literati” sketch of Locke in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), XV, 126-137. The late Professor Meredith N. Posey has convincingly demonstrated Poe’s indebtedness to Herschel. I feel, however, that he, like Mr. Bailey, has overestimated the influence of A Voyage to the Moon on Poe. See his article, “Notes on Poe’s Hans Pfaal, ” MLN, XLV (Dec. 1930), 501-507. I have discussed Professor Posey’s arguments in the lengthy source study referred to in my introductory comments and previously in my unpublished master’s thesis, “The Lunar Voyage in Literature [page 5:] from Lucian to Poe,” University of Virginia, 1934. Professor Marjorie Nicolson, in an epilogue to her Voyages to the Moon (New York, 1948), suggests one or two possible sources for “Hans Pfaal” (pp. 238-239) but does not mention Tucker’s romance.

(9)  See Works, XV, 127. According to Poe, the edition of Herschel’s treatise which he used was published by the Harpers. The only 1834 edition that I have been able to find was published in Philadelphia by Carey, Lea, and Blanchard. The first English edition appeared in 1833.

(10)  Works, II, 108. Dunglison’s review appeared anonymously in The American Quarterly Review, III (March 1828), 61-88. Tucker’s romance was published in New York (1827) by Elam Bliss under the pseudonym of Joseph Atterley. Nowhere does Poe mention the name of either author although both were professors at the University of Virginia when he was a student there. Although Tucker’s romance is not the inspirational source for “Hans Pfaal,” the tale is not without satiric intent. In “Poe’s ‘Hans Pfaall ’ Reconsidered,” Notes & Queries (1966), 333-337, Ronald S. Wilkinson persuasively argues that Poe satirizes not only Tucker’s romance but perhaps other previous lunar voyages as well. But he errs in stating (p. 333) that the long note appended to the story in the 1840 edition of Poe’s tales refers in any way to Dunglison’s review of Tucker’s book. Mr. Bailey is also mistaken in this respect. In fact, the note in the 1840 edition mentions no previous lunar voyages except L ’Homme dans la lune, which is a translation of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon. Not until the publication of Griswold’s edition did the paragraphs commenting on other lunar voyages appear.  


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1970]