Text: Carroll Dee Laverty, “Chapter 09,” Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1951), pp. 221-248 (This material may be protected by copyright)


[page 221:]

Chapter IX

Biology and The Conchologist’s First Book

As an artist, Poe utilized some of the information that botany and zoology supplied him, although his interest in them was probably more literary than scientific. He allowed his name to be put on the title page of The Conchologist’s First Book, a textbook, and may have helped write it. His poetry and prose are dotted with references to flowers, often given their scientific names; and he wrote one article on the sugar beet at a tire when growing sugar beets in the United States was not an established part of agriculture. His tales contain several descriptions of animals done with a scientist’s attention to details, and two sketches are chiefly devoted to them. In three of his stories an insect is an important symbol or actor In the narrative, and his other, prose has scattered references to members of the class Insecta. And finally, he probably helped produce one book on natural history.

“Tamerlane,” published in 1827, mentions the day flower (l. 289), and a note appended by Poe explains that it blooms beautifully by day and fades at [page 222:] night.(1) “Al Aaraaf,” likewise, contains a number of references to flowers,(2) most of which are used for their suggestion of beauty or a legend. They do not indicate great botanical knowledge. Elsewhere in his poetry Poe mentions flowers,(3) but his purpose is to create a colorful poetic image or suggest an allusion — not to present botanical knowledge.

One of the members of the Folio Club was named “Convolvulus Gondola”(4) — the first name being the botanical designation of a morning-glory. In “The Gold-Bug Sullivan’s Island is pictured as being covered by sweet myrtle, “so much prized by the horticulturists of England.”(5) In “Mellonta Tauta” Poe mentions “a plant vulgarly called euphorbium, and at that time botanically termed milk-weed”(6) as a better source of silk than the silk worm. In writing this story of the future, Poe deliberately asserts the vulgar name to be “eupho biue.and the botanical one “milk weed” in direct contradiction of the fact.

Among various kinds of wonders related in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” are a number of botanical curiosities. He calls attention [page 223:] to the “ever-blossoming trees and perpetual sweet-scented flowers” of the Four odd facts of botany that he worked into this story, he obtained, condensed, and. paraphrased from Hugh Murray’s Encyclopaedia of Geography.(8) He weaves these facts into the text in a fanciful way and then explains them in notes taken directly from Murray, The close parallels follow:

Poe —

The Epidendron, Flos Aeris, of the family of the Orchideae, grows with merely the surface of its roots attached to a tree or other object, from which it derives no nutriment-subsisting altogether upon air.(9)


Murray —

Pseudo-parasites. . .are simply attached by the surface of their roots to tropical trees, obtaining no nourishment from them, but from the surrounding element. Among this number may be reckoned that numerous and singular family of the Orchideae, called, from their nature and property, flair. plants.”(10)

Parasites, such as the wonderful Rafflesia Arnoldi.(11)


Parasitic plants, such as the Misseltoe . . . the most wonderful of all vegetable production, the Rafflesia Arnoldii.(12)

Schouw advocated a class of plants that grow upon living animals — the Plantes Epizoae. Of this class are the Fuci and Algae.(13) [page 224:]


Schouw, indeed, has a tribe of plants which he calls “Plantae Epizoae,” attached to living animals. Thus, he says, Fuci and other Algae are attached to whales. . . .(14) [page 224:]

In mines and natural caves we find a species of cryptogamous fungus that emits an intense phosphorescence.(15)


Subterranean plants. Those that live in mines and caves. . .are yet mostly cryptogamous. One species, a fungus, yields a pale phosphoric light of considerable intensity.(16)

Poe likewise mentions other flowers “that moved from place to place at pleasure.” In an explanatory footnote he lists orhe orchis, scabius and vallisneria.”(17) The same story uentions flowers “that spring from the substance of other vegetables,” And finally this passage describes flowers that enslave other creatures, quoting a long note from the Reverend P. Keith’s System of Physiological Botany on the subject.(18) In “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” it is clear that Poe names the most unusual kinds of plants, apparently because of their ability to stimulate the curiosity of the reader. The passage exhibits only a journalist’s knowledge of botany.

In “The Journal of Julius Rodman” Poe occasionally describes a scene made up of bushes, grasses, and trees.(19) Sometimes, as in the following, his descriptions of a grass, for example, are quite detailed: [page 225:]

Within this circle the grass was somewhat higher, and of a coarser texture, with a pale yellow or white streak down the middle of each blade, and giving out a remarkably delicious perfume, resembling that of the Vanilla bean, but much stronger, so that the whole atmosphere was loaded with it. The common English sweet grass is no doubt of the same genus, but greatly inferior in beauty, and fragrance.(20)

In “The Mystery of Marie Roget” a reasoner appeals to botanical information to he ?p prove his contention that articles had not necessarily lain in a thicket three or four weeks. His comments are:

But grass will grow, especsally in warm and damp weather. . . .(21)

. . .the nature of this mildew? Is he to be told that it is one of the many classes of fungus, of which the most ordinary feature is its upapringing and decadence within twenty-four hours?(22)

The tulip-tree was Poe’s favorite tree, and he mentions it in hree different tales. Each time he gives it its botanical name, Liriodendrum tulipiferum. In “The Elk” he singles it out as conspicuous among the magnificent trees of the United States.(23) In “The Gold-Bug” he describes it:

. . .the tulip-tree, or Liriodendron Tulipiferum, the most magnificant of American foresters, has a trunk peculiarly smooth, and often rises to a great height without lateral branches; but, in its riper age, the bark becomes gnarled and uneven, while many short limbs make their appearance on the stem.(24)

It is in this outstanding tree that the skull is found from which the Gold [page 226:] Bug is dropped in the search for the lost treasure. It also forms a part of his ideal landscape in “Landor’s Cottage.”(25) Probably he both saw and read about this tree.

Poe, furthermore, mentions a few writers and works on botanical subjects. In February, 1836, he reviewed Peter Mark Roget’s Animal and Vegetable Physiology, considered with Reference to Natural Theology.(26) In June, 1836, he reviewed in the Southern Literary Messenger, Flora Thalia; or Genus of Flowers and Poetry, which contains some botanical information. He says that this part “is well conceived.”(27) A section of “Pinakidia,” published in August, 1836, comments on Linnaeus: “Theophrastus, in his botanical works, anticipated the sexual system of Linnaeus.”(28) “The Journal of Julius Rodman mentions the botanist Michaux as follows:

M. Andre Michau,(29) the botanist, and author of the Flora Boreali-Americana, and of the Histoire des Chenes d’Amerigue. M. Michau, it will be remembered, [page 227:] had made an offer of his services to Mr. Jefferson, when that statesman first contemplated sending an exeedition across the Rocky Mountains.(30)

He uses this material in an effort to give his narrative an air of reality. Although he may have obtained his references at second hand, Poe’s notes to “Al Aaraaf” name such botanists as Tournefort and Bernardin de St. Pierre, and the famous microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek, whose investigations carried him into botany as well as zoology.(31)

Viewing these data, one may conclude that Poe was interested in rare un ual flowers and in plants that would add color to a landscape and beauty to his poetry, that he was acquainted with at least the names of some botanists, and that often he used botanical descriptions to give verisimilitude to a scene.

One work of a different sort attests Poets acquaintance with another aspect of botany and his loyalty to his friend James Pedder.(32) To Alexander’s Weekly Messenger of December 18, 1839, Poe contributed an article on the sugar-beet-root. The author asserts that France has grown sugar beets and made sugar from them and that the same could be done in the United States. Here the future has proved him true. This article must be considered as showing more interest in Pedder than in the sugar beet, but Poe was not one to pass up any new subject for a magazine article, and in 1839, the sugar beet was news in the United States. [page 228:]

Poe’s stories show an incidental knowledge of animals and an average west in them. He shows considerable knowledge of two insects; and he makes casual mention of others. Furthermore, he helped with one book, A Synopsis of Natural History embracing the Natural History of Animals with Human and General Physiology and Geology, to which Thomas Wyatt, Poe’s friend, put his name as author; and Edgar A. Poe is the author’s name on the title page of The Conchologist’s First Book.

A number of Poe’s stories mention animals. The tortoise figures in the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,(33) as does a monstrous white bear.(34) They are used to give an air of reality to a rather fantastic adventure. Toward the end of the story the author describes with the attention to detail typical of a scientist an imaginary Animal in an effort to suggest the strangeness of the land to which Pym has been carried:

. . .a singular-looking land-animal. It was three feet in length, and but six inches in height, with four very short legs, the feet armed with long claws of a brilliant scarlet, and resembling coral in substance. The body was covered with a straight silky hair, perfectly white. The tail was peaked like that of a rat, and about a foot and a half long. The head resembled a cat’s with the exception of the ears — these were flapped like the ears of a dog. The teeth were of the same brilliant scarlet as the claws.(35)

In “The Journal of Julius Rodman” Poe introduces animals to indicate the nature of the region in which his characters are adventuring. For example, he writes of the antelope “These animals, although of incredible swiftness of foot, are still bad swimmers, and thus frequently fall a victim to the wolves, in their attempts to cross a stream.”(36) The same narrative contains [page 229:] a three-page essay on beavers and their habits,(37) and mention of buffalo,(38) bears,(39) and other animals. But since much of the material of “The Journal of Julius Rodman” was second-hand, it cannot be thought to indicate any peat knowledge of wild animals on Poe’s part. When he does describe animal he shows a scientistle attention to details.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is built around the fact that certain species of orang-utan can imitate many of man’s activities. Poe has Dupin refer to Cuvier(40) to add authenticity to his story:

It was a minute anatomical and generally descriptive account of the large fulvous Ourang-Outang of the East Indian Islands. The gigantic stature, the prodigious strength and activity, the wild ferocity, and the imitative propensities of these memmalia are sufficiently well known to all. I understood the full horrors of the murder at once.(41)

Elsewhere Poe mentions orang-utans and apes.(42) But his only approach to scientific description is in the quotation from Cuvier.

In “The Thousand-and Second Tale of Scheherasade” Poe quotes a passage [page 230:] about a prodigious number of birds from Lieutenant F. Hall’s Travels in Canada and the United States.(43) Poe uses the passage as one scientific wonder in a story of wonders. The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym contains an essay on penguins, which incidentally describes the albatross and stormy petrel.(44) In “The Journal of Julius Rodman” he comments on “geese which build their nests upon trees,”(45) but there is no evidence that Poe was even an amateur ornithologist.

Elsewhere in his prose, Poe distinguishes between a medicinal leech and a noxious bloodsucker,(46) quotas a definition of Cuvier’s class of Entozoa,(47) names the Myrmileon or lion ant and bees in a way to arouse curiosity, and mms the chrysalis and mature condition to symbolize rudimental and perfected states.(48)

But insects are more important in three stories. The first is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” published in January, 1843. It is partly an account of murder in the stillness of the night. Skilfully Poe suggests the mood of murder [page 231:] and horror in the early part of the tale. The intended victim is awakened. The narrator, who is the murderer, says: He “was still sitting up in the bed listening; just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.”(49) The death watches are a species of beetle that live in wood. There is “an old superstition,” which Poe alludes to he “that its beating or ticking in a sickroom is a sure sign of death.”(50) The allusion suggests further the ticking that is analogous to the beating of the heart or ticking of a clock which is emphasized at the end of the tale. The allusion to the death-watch beetle is brief but telling.

“The Gold-Bug” makes artistic use of a supposed entomological specimen half-seriously called scarabaeus caput hominis.(51) “It was a beautiful scarebaeus,(52) and at that time unknown to naturalists — of course a great prize in a scientific point of view.”(53) The beautiful insect is better known today and a good deal has been written about it.(54) The gist of this writing is that the gold-bug is a synthesis of insects Poe saw on Sullivan’s [page 232:] Island and those he read about in the various periodicals and natural histories of his day. One further element in the synthesis may now be added. The gold-bug is unusually heavy. None of the works on the subject; have guggested a reason, but there is one. Poe’s insect is obviously supernatural, as its power to terrify Jupiter testifies. It is akin to the Egyptian scarabaeus, the sacred beetle which was supposed to have supernatural powers. Often little golden images of it were made and worn as charms.(55) Around the neck of Count Allamistakeo in Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” is a collar of beads, one of which is a scarabaeus.(56) Allamistakeo is “one of t family of which the Scarabaeus is the insignium.”(57) It is abundantly clear that Poe knew of the scarabaeus as an image, and ample literature of his day mentions such small stone or golden amulets.(58) It seems probable, then, that the element which gave so much physical weight to Poe s gold-bug was actual gold as in the image of the Egyptian scarabaeus. Poe’s synthesis makes no pretense of being an actual specimen; therefore it is reasonable to think that it was created partly by analog with the powerful baeus and partly by analogy with the death’s-head sphinx moth and beetles Poe may have observed.(59) [page 233:]

Finally, in “The Sphinx” Poe describes in detail a sphinx moth. The story revolves around the supposed fact that if an object, this instance the insect, close enough to the eye it will appear to be of gigantic proportions.(60) The insect seen at one-sixteenth of an inch from the eye seems thugs monster larger than a ship. Poe describes the moth with scientific attention to detail, taking his description almost verbatim from Wyatt’s Natural History.(61) The entire narrative is developed in Poe’s latest manner Jail considerable presentation of detail.

As a hack writer in 1838 and 1839, when his fortunes were at a low ebb, Poe probably helped Thomas Wyatt prepare A Synopsis of Natural History of Animals with Human and General Physiology and Biology, published in 1839 under Wyatt’s name. The book is acknowledgedly “translated from the latest French Edition of Ceran Lemmonnier,” and probably was prepared by Poe, Wyatt, and Professor Henry McMurtrie much as The Conchologist’s First Book. Poe’s exact part in making the book is not known, but in a review he speaks of ‘personal knowledge, and closest inspection and collation”(62) of it. Probably he picked up from it some knowledge of zoology, botany, and geology the three main subjects treated. In some of his stories he draws on the book for scientific descriptions.(63)

Poe’s knowledge of biology was more journalistic than scientific, but his work on Wyatt’s Natural History and his reading gave him considerably sore than average knowledge, particularly of entomology. His scientific [page 234:] knowledge of animals, especially of insects, is infused into his narrative become a very part of it. Sometimes as in the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym and “The Journal of Julius Rodman” his scientific material merely adds supposedly authentic detail to the strange lands he is describing; at other tiffs as in The Gold-Bug” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” the insect is a symbol orthe theme o the story, and in “The Sphinx” the insect creates the story. po seizes odd unusual facts about animals and insects and works them into mach scientific feature stories as “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade.” His total interest in the vast realm of animal and vegetable life helped put him into touch with the nature around him, from which one tendency bids personality seemed to withdraw. It at once enriched his store of sterials for fiction and put him nearer to all the other living things that glared this earth with him.


How much Poe had to do with The Conchologist’s First Book must always remain partly a mystery. Nevertheless a consideration of it is not entirely unfruitful in producing knowledge of him and possibly of his method of working. Various writers have considered the problem of this conchology book, and all have erred in one way or another. For example, John W. Robertson, imme account of this subject is generally sound, speaks of “Isaac Lea, the printer”(64) as one who helped Poe and Thomas Wyatt get out the conchology bock. Yet Isaac Lea, a respected scientist, was probably Americans foremost [page 235:] conchologist in Poe’s time and a partner in a large and profitable publishing house of Philadelphia. That he helped with the book is likely — but not as printer. Isaac Lea contributed to the book practically the only scientific information that had not already appeared in Captain Thomas Brown’s The Conchologist’s Text-Book or Professor Thomas Wyatt’s A Manual of Conchology.

The book, undertaken in 1838 and published in 1839, is a compilation, ad for that reason does not necessarily indicate any significant knowledge trconchology on Poe’s part even if he did much of the work on it. One mould hardly compile such a book, however, without learning a little about the subject. It is made chiefly of conventional material taken from Brown and Wyatt. It probably contains passages translated from De Blainville, and does include the names of a significant number of American species provided by Isaac Lea, and possibly Thomas Say, another Philadelphia scientist and author of American Entomology(65) and American Conchology.(66) Poe says that the animals in the book to which he put his name are described according to Culler and that he translated Cuvier himself.(67) But there is so little in his book that is not in Wyatt’s or Brown’s that the necessity for translating much from Cuvier was very slight. If Poe took material directly from Cuvier, he took only a token. There is evidence, furthermore, that what translating he did was not from Cuvier, but from De Blainville. [page 236:]

Another reason for doubting that Poe really borrowed any significant cwt from Cuvier is the fact that in a letter to Eveleth he mentions help gith the conchologp book given by Professor Henry McMurtrie of Philadelphia.(68) Twos Wyatt in his A Synopsis of Natural History also acknowledges his debt to professor McMurtrie, who was something of a scientist himself and also es translator of Cuviert The Animal Kingdom in four volumes, published in Tea York in 1831. This work has a section on Mollusca, and it seems more likely that he would have done any translating from Cuvier necessary, especially in view of the fact that he had already turned the Frenchman’s magnum opus into English. Perhaps Poe merely said that he did the work to Wend himself against the charge of plagiarism made in connection with this oak, or perhaps he translated just enough to make his statement technically true. Wyatt is quoted as saying that he — not Poe — prepared the volume, Poe merely putting his name to it.(69)

The Conchologist’s First Book itself begins with an original preface of two pages, signed E. A. P., although the information that it contains was Oman knowledge among conchologists. The most important part of the preface is the sentence defining “the ruling feature — that of giving an anatomm ical account of each animal, together with a description of the shell which it inhabits. . . .”(70) Neither of the two books that supplied the major part of [page 237:] the information describes each genus under the two headings “Animal” and “Shell,” but De Blainville uses essentially that classification.

Sometimes the description of the animal seems to come from Brown and the of the shell from Wyatt. For example, on page 28 in the entry on the genus Serpula of the family Serpulacea of the class Annulata, the description of the animal is verbatim from Brown.(71) The description of the shell is a close paraphrase of information from Wyatt, somewhat rearranged,(72) plus one fact — “Inhabits the coasts of Britain” — verbatim from Brown,(73) except the for the s on coasts, which is dropped in the book attributed to Poe.

There are passages in it, however, which may be translations, not from Oilier, but from De Blainville’s Manuel de Malacologie et de Conchyliologie (Pais, 1825). Of course Brown or Wyatt may have translated from De Blainville, so that a parallelism between The Conchologist’s First Book and De Blainville does not prove that its author translated from the Frenchman’s work. But a review which is probably Poe s mentions “the ‘Conchologies’ of De Blainville and Lamarck. . . .”(74) An example will show the parallelism of the book and De Blainville:

The Conchologist’s First Book

Body triangular, much compressed: [page 238:] the free edge of the mantle furnished with a row of tenacular, largest and longest in the rear; foot very large, compressed and pouted to the front; buccal appendages nearly an large as the bronchial laminae, of which the external pair are much smaller than the internal; the anterior contractile muscle larger than the other; tubes very distinct.(75)

Of a somewhat variable form, generally striated longitudinally and much compressed, equivalved, more or less inequilateral; the anterior side almost always longer and more rounded than the posterior, which constantly presents a flexuous fold, at least at its inferior edge; rmmits feebly marked; hinge similar; one or two cardinal teeth; two lateral teeth, far apart with a pit at their base in each valve; ligament posterior, large; round muscular impression. The finest species of this beautiful shell are found in the pearl fisheries of Ceylon; and nolerous species on the American shore. Sixty-eight species.(77)


De Blainville

Corps asset comprime, triangulaire; [page 238:] e bord libre du manteau garni dlun rang de tentacles plus gras et plus longs en arriere; pied tree-large, comprime et pointu en avant; appendices buccaux, presque aussi grande qua les lames branchiales, dont la pairs experne est beaucoup plus petite que leinterme; le muscle adduoteur anterieur, plus grande que Ventre les tubes bien distincts.(76)

Coquille de forme un peu variable, le plus souvent striate longitudinalement et tres-oomprimee, equivalve, plus ou moires inequilaterale; le ate enter-ieur presque toujours plus long et plus arrondi qui le posterieur, qui offre constament un pli flexueux, au moans a son bord inferieur; les me-mets peu marques; charmiere similaire; une ou deux dents cardinales; deux dents latirales ecartees avec une fos-sette a leur base dana cheque valve; ligament posterieur, bombe, asses grand, outre un praeapicial fort petit; impressions musculaires arron-dies; la ligule palliale istroite et ties profondiment rentree en arriere.(78)

Other typical passages that could have come from De Blainville are “Cyprina,”(79) “Genus Cyclas,”(80) “Nautilus,”(81) “Carinaria,”(82) and “Genus Pleurotoma.”(83) But The Conchologist’s First Book usually adds at least one fact which is not in De Blainville; thus it appears to be a compilation. [page 239:]

The introduction to The Conchologist’s First Book is a close paraphrase of material taken from Brown’s book, chiefly its preface and introduction, the sequence of material being changed. Indeed the author dips into the test of Brown’s book for a fact or two,(84) and includes a quotation from De Blainville not found in Brown, and perhaps one or two incidental facts.

After the introduction of The Conchologist’s First Book come the twelve plates, done by P. S. Duval, lithographer of Philadelphia. The first four plates are fairly exact copies of the first four in Brown’s. Plate 5 is much the same as Brown’s XIX, rearranged, with a little left out, and some details from Brown’s XVIII added. Plate 6 has about the sane material as Brown’s XVIII with some from XVII added and some dropped altogether.. Thus are the plates made. There is no illustration in The Conchologist’s First Book not found in Brown’s. For reasons to be explained later, it appears that probably Professor Wyatt suggested this method of copying, that is, beginning at the back of the source and working forward.

Pages 9 to 20 of The Conchologist’s First Book are given to an “Explanation of the Parts of Shells.” With the exception of mere typographical differences, the book here is exactly like Brown’s, pages 15 to 27. The Luther drops the very last sentences of Brown’s explanation probably because it refers to the Linnaean genera of shells, a section in Brown’s book, which is not in the other. No two translators working independently would make Products so exactly alike as these two “Explanations of the Parts of Shells.” [page 240:] At the end that section is a “Description of Plate IV.” This is the same, except for an omission or two, as that which Brown placed in the middle of the section of explanation of shells.

The next thing in The Conchologist’s First Book is a tabular “Classification”(Pp. 21-24) listing the four main classes. This classification is exactly that of Wyatt’s Manual, pages vii-ix, with the exception that The Conchologist’s First Book occasionally lists more species than Wyatt’s. These new species referred to on the title page, are mostly American and in all probability were supplied by Isaac Lea.(85) In fact, several are attributed to Lea by means of his name in parentheses after the species.

Following the “Classification” is the bulk of The Conchologist’s First Book — pages 25 to 146. Most of the material in this sec on is the same as that in the books of Wyatt and Brown. Mary paragraphs are verbatim from some are paraphrased from Wyatt; and some are written in different words from material found in both Brown and Wyatt. There seems to be a little descriptive material, but very little, not found in either of these. The author may have obtained such bits from Cuvier or more probably from De Blainville, who is quoted in the “Introduction.” But such material is a mall proportion of the whole and only incidenta1.(86) [page 241:]

A few examples will show Poe’s method of working if he compiled the book. On page 12, Brown’s”Soler Siliqua” (p. 19) is shortened to “Solen,” Often where Brown includes an alternate description from Linnaeus, the eaker book drops it and uses only the Lamarcklan designation. For example, it drops from Brown (p. 21) the phrase “or, more strictly according to the yjnsean method of discrimination.” On page 16, Brown’s “as in the Murex Doves, &c. (p. 23) is abbreviated to “as in the Murex.” When Brown writes “It is a remarkable circumstance that” (p. 24), the other writes “It must be remembered that” (p. 16). Almost invariably all extraneous material is dropped from Brown. In reference to a “Natural History of Senegal,” Brown writes: “for example the Murex tulipa. (Fasc.iolaria tulipa, Lamarck.)” (p. 20), as compared with “for example, the Fasciolaria tuli (p.13). In such a case, throughout the book The Conchologist’s First Book uses only the Lamarckian term.

One example will show how an entry is compiled. On page 27 under “4. Genus Amphitrite. Pl. V.” The Conchologist’s First Book has:

Animal. Body tubicalar, elongated, cylindrical, attenuated behind with stny annulated segments.

Shell. An elongated cylindrical tube growing thinner towards the base, Mra tough membraneous texture, and generally without adhesions. Mediterranean sea, Seven species.

The description of the animal is the same as Brown (pp. 155-156) description under the title “Generic Character.” The description of the shell is combination of the following information from Brown and Wyatt:

Brown: “tube elongated, cylindrical, tapering towards the base” (p. 156).

Wyatt: “. . . of a tougher membraneous texture and generally without adhesions” (p. 14). Wyatt also has a description of the shell much like Brown’s [page 242:] as quoted above. “Mediterranean sea” is a shortening of Brown’s “Inhabits the Mediterranean sea” (p. 156). Seven species” are from Wyatt (p. 14), who has six, to which is added minima.

Often The Conchologist’s First Book adds some pecies to the number even in Wyatt, sometimes as herd, probably or information supplied by Aratt himself, and other times using those supplied by Isaac Lea. This is particularly true of the genus Unio of the family Na├»adea, Lea’s specialty,(87) to which are added (pp. 62-64), about 100 species more than Wyatt had.

Throughout his book, probably following Wyatt, who does the seas thing, the author omits all genera of shells from Brown’s book attributed to Brown himself. There are several examples of a list of genera of a ertain family tho.t follows Brown exactly exoept for the omission of the genus attributed to Brown. Thus credit is denied to one who deserves much.

Such is the method throughout the body of the work, from first to last. The description of the “Ampullaria” (p. 105) has more information than Brown and Wyatt print on that genus, though much of it appears in their books. Woodberry asserts: “the description of the animals is, as Poe stated, translated from Cuvier,”(88) but he does not state from which of Cuvier’s works, and there is little evidence except Poe’s statement that such is the case.

Following the body of the text, the “ scary” appears. Apparently it is an adaptation of the glossaries of Wyatt and Brown, which are identical(89) [page 243:] except for a typographical error or two and for an ae spelling in Brown instead of the American e as in Wyatt. The glossary is a simplified version of its model. Certain technical terms are dropped from the original, and the definitions are condensed. This glossary contains exactly 300 terms; the ones borrowed from have 382 terms. Some of the definitions are the same as those in the model. Others are shorterand. simpler. The following parallel columns will illustrate .he way the author adapted the definitions to his book,which was intended to be used as a textbook:

Word   The Conchologist’s First Book Definition   Brown’s and Wyatt’s Definition






Aculeated   prickly   furnished with, or ending in, prickles
Carinated   like a boat’s keel   keeled
Elliptical   oval   having the form of an ellipse
Equivalve   both sides alike   having both valves of equal dimensions
Fusiform   spindle shaped, conical or oval   spindle-shaped, intermediate between the conical and oval
Lunule   crescent-like   a crescent-like mark or sect, situated near the anterior and posterior slopes in bivalve shells
Rugose   wrinkled   rugged, full of wrinkles
Vaulted   roofed   like the roof of one’s mouth

The index, the last thing in the book (except “Errata” in the first edition), is the same as that of Wyatt’s book with the addition of a few terms, such as bivalve shells, classification, diceras, multivalve, umbrella, pleurobranchus, univalves.

The second edition of The Conchologist’s First Book, also bearing Poe’s name and published the next year, 1840, is essentially the save as the first. [page 244:] But it is ten pages longer. The ten pages are taken up with sreies added throughout the book. And there is one significant omission. On page 12 of the first edition under the heading “Recurved Teeth” appears this: “hinge of the Panopea. Plate XVIII, fig. 9; and Spondylus, Plate II, fig. 8 ff.” The second edition has only “hinge of the Panopea and Spondylus” (p. 12). The reference to the plates is omitted in the second edition, because the first edition and the second) had no Plate XVIII. The reference obviously was copied from Brown’s book (p. 19), but did not apply The Conchologist’s First Book, since Brown’s nineteen plates were condensed to twelve.

The circumstances under which the book was composed are described by Woodberry(90) and others,(91) probably essentially as they were. Perhaps Professor Wyatt gave Poe the task of compiling a book that would evade the copyright laws with respect to Brown’s and Wyatt’s own book. Perhaps he merely used Poe’s name.

Wyatt’s book itself appears to be based in large part on Brown’s;there — fore it seems likely that Wyatt firs suggested that Brown’s book be used as a source.

Even if Poe did have part in the production of The Conchologist’s First Book, the experience left only a small mark on his later writings. He did not write a “Chambered Nautilus” or a “Pholas.” In fact, references to conchology come before The Conchologist’s First Book. In January of 1836 in a review of Zinzendorf and Other Poems by Mrs. Sigourney, Poe quotes a note on conchology: [page 245:]

The poem entitled The Pholas, at page 105, has the following introduo-ryprose sentence: “It is a fact familiar to Conchologists, that the genus gas possesses the property of phosphorescence. It has been asserted that is may be restored, even when the aninnl is in a dried state, by the application of water, but is extinguished by the least quantity of brandy.”(92)

Apropos of Mrs. Sigourney’s poem, Poe states that he cannot see why Mrs. Sigourney should preach a poetic homily on such a fact.(93) His reference does not indicate any knowledge of conchology.

A few months later in reviewing Joseph Rodman Drake’s The Culprit Fay, and Other Poems, he composed a whimsical ten lines of verse to demonstrate that any one could accouter a fairy in a fanciful dress as well as Drake could. His lines include these two that may facetiously refer to conchology:

His target was the crescent shell

Of the small sea Sidrophel.(94)

Sidrophel is just enough like such words from conchology as sidula, sideroite, spirilla, striatella, strigosa, and cvtherea to suggest to the layman that it too comes from the science of shells. But the ending does not conform to scientific terminology. Poe probably knew that it was not scientific, that, on the contrary, Sidrophel was an astrologer from Butler’s Hudibras. The verses are not serious, and he may have enjoyed the picture of an astrologer in the sea.

In February, 1840 — after The Conchologist’s First Book had been published — there appeared in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine a review of A Monograph of [page 246:] the Limniades, and Other Fresh Water Univalve Shells of N. America. By S. Wideman, etc.(95) This two-paragraph note is perhaps by Poe, whose review of Longfellow’s Voices of the Night immediately follows. The review of Mademan’s work demonstrates an apparent or real knowledge of some of the problems of conchology. It concludes:

Nevertheless Mr. Haldeman cannot give us accurate descriptions and delineations of the branch of Malacology in question, without accomplishing a good work — however he may differ from our own notions in regard to that ever-vexed and ever-vexing question of classification.(96)

In 1840 Conchology had just emerged from the Linnaean classification of shells to the Lamarckian, which Cuvier largely follows, but the classification of the science was still in a state of flux. Brown, for example, gives both the Linnaean and Lamarckian classification. The Conchologist’s First Book follows Cuvier in broad outlines and Lamarck in details, as Wyatt had done.(97)

“The Gold-Bug,” written later, contains two casual references to con-ohcaogy. The chief amusements of Le grand, who lived on Sullivan’s Island and was an educated man. uwere gunning and fishing, or sauntering along the beach and through the myrtles in quest of shells or entomological specimens . . .”(98) If Professor Quinn’s speculation is true that Poe met the conchologist Edmund Ravenel while he was stationed at Sullivan’s Island, the narrator’s introduction of Legrand(99) may be a fictionized autobiographical account [page 247:] of Poe’s first meeting with Ravenel. Like Legrand, Ravenel was of a Huguenot family, and beginning in 1823, according to the Dictionary of American Biography,(100) he spent his summers on Sullivan’s Island; therefore, it is possible that Poe did meet him. In describing Legrand, the narrator of “The Gold-Bug” says, “He had found wn bivalve, forming a new genus . . . .”(101) Although it is only speculation that Poe met Ravenel on Sullivan’s Island, the mention of “an unknown bivalve” is a conchological reference. The Conchologist’s First Book devotes three pages to defining Bivalves an explaining their parts.(102)

One biographical fact of significance emerges from a study of Poe’s work in conchology. Lambert A. Wilmer, who for years was Poe’s friend, stated that Poe at one time studied lithography under a Mr. Duval of Philadelphia,(103) but the details of that part of Poe’s life have remained in darkness. Per hats the conchology book throws light on the subject.

The twelve lithographed plates in The Conchologist’s First Book are signed P. S. Duval, Lithr Phila.”(104) Also so signed are nine of the thirteen plates Professor Wyatt’s A Synopsis of Natural History, published in 1839, in the production of which Poe probably had some part. Is it not reasonable to conjecture, then, that while Poe was helping with the production of these two books, he was also working with Mr. Duval — P. S. Duval — [page 248:] the lithographer — perhaps idly or seriously studying his art? Little is known of Poe’s activities of late 1838 and early 1839, and Wilmer’s statement “At length he actually endeavored to acquire the art of lithography oder the tuition of Mr. Duval of Philadelphia”(105) refers to this period with such great aptness that one feels justified in concluding that he did so while he was working on the two books that P. S. Duval illustrated.(106)

Finally, as Professor Quinn has commented,(107) it is an irony that the little conchology book, to which Poe put his name and which brought open charges of plagiarism against him in his own lifetime,(108) should be the only one of his published volumes to call for a second edition while he lived. Whatever his part in it, The Conchologist’s First Book is little credit to Poe as an author or as a man.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 222:]

1.  The note also says that he has never known its botanic name — commelina. The flower is common, and he may have observed it; read of it in botany books or encyclopedias; or found it in the poetry of Thomas Moore, which he admired. — Poems, p. 156.

2.  Sephalica (I, 48), the “gemmy flower, of Trebizond misnam’d” (I, 50), the Nyctanthes (I, 66), Clytia (I, 68), the Valisnerian lotus (I, 745, the Nelumba (I, 78), and commoner flowers such as the hyacinth, violet, and blue-bell. The Nyctanthes, Vallisneria, and Nelumbo are described in Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden; but Poe’s source is probably Moore’s Lalla Rookh. See Poems, pp. 176-178.

3.  See Poems, p. 160

4.  Works, II, xxxviii.

5.  Ibid., V, 96.

6.  Ibid.,VI, 198-199.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 223:]

7.  Ibid., VI, 91-92.

8.  He acknowledges hi indebtedness do this work for information on volcanoes and earthquakes, but not for the rare botanical curiosities.

9.  Works, VI, 92. The Epidendrum flos aeris is described in a note in Erasmus Darwinss “Loves of the Plants” that also gives essentially Peels information. Canto I, Line 393, 4th edition.

10.  The Encyclopaedia of Geography, I, 247.

11.  Works, VI, 92.

12.  I, 247.

13.  Works, VI, 92.

14.  I, 246.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 224:]

15.  Works, VI, 93.

16.  I, 247.

17.  Works, VI, 93. Murray describes the vallisneria (I, 246), which has the property of moving in water, but does not mention the orchis and scabius. Erasmus Darwin likewise describes the Vallisneria, op. cit., note to line 403.

18.  Works, VI, 93-4. Although Poe does not say so, the reference is to II, 353-354 (London, 1816). This work contains other references on subjects Poe used: the Nymphaea Lotus, II, 315 and 445; Epidendron flos aeris, II, 429; the Horologium Florae, II, 445.

19.  Ibid., IV, 43-44.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 225:]

20.  Ibid., IV, 44. This is the sort of information Poe might well have got from one of his sources. See, for example, P. P. Crawford, “Lewis and Clark’s Expedition as a Source of Poe’s ‘Journal of Julius Rodman,’” University of Texas Studies in English, No. 12 (July 8, 1932), 158-170.

21.  Ibid., V, 48.

22.  Ibid., 48.

23.  Ibid., V, 180.

24.  Ibid., V, 110.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 226:]

25.  Ibid., VI, 260.

26.  Ibid., VIII, 206.

27.  Ibid., IV, 267. The same review describes a dial of flowers, on which he quotes a comment as follows: “It is, of course, impossible to insure the accurate going of such a dial, because the temperature, the dryness, and the dampness of the air have a considerable influence on the opening and shutting of flowers.” — Ibid., IX, 44. Such a clock had been conceived by the botanist Linnaeus and the landscape painter Claude Lorraine. — Timothy Flint, m. cit., 44-45. Poe may have written a one-paragraph review in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, V (Sept., 1839), 168, of The American Flower Garden Companion; Adapted to the Northern and Middle States, by Edward Sayers. If he read the book, it may have given him brief hints on the subject of landscaping that he later developed in his sketches on that subject. For example, “The Island of the Fay,” “The Elk,” “Eleanore,” “The Domain of Arnheim,” “Landor’s Cottage,” and “The Landscape Garden.”

28.  Works, XIV, 42-43.

29.  Andre Michaux (1746-1802).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 227:]

30.  Works, IV, 12.

31.  Poems, pp. 176-177.

32.  James Pedder went to France in 1836 to learn about sugar beet cultivation and sent more than six hundred pounds of seed back to the United States. He invented such things as improved plows and furnaces, befriended Poe in 1838, and edited The Farmer’s Cabinet in Philadelphia or about three years — 1840-1843.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 228:]

33.  Works, III, 132

34.  Ibid., III, 176.

35.  Ibid., III, 179-180.

36.  Ibid., IV, 80.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 229:]

37.  Ibid., IV, 47-51. H. Arlin Turner has shown that most of Poe’s passage on the beaver comes from Irving’s The Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). — “A Note on Poe’s ‘Julius Rodman,’” University of Texas Studies in English, No. 10 (July 8, 1930), 147-151.

38.  Ibid., IV, 80-83.

39.  Ibid., 97-101.

40.  Testimony as to Poe’s knowledge of Cuvier is found in the following note: “Appended are also a catalogue of the engravings, and a tabular view of the classification of animals adopted by Cuvier in his ‘Regne Animal’ with examples included.” — Works, VIII, 210.

41.  Works, IV, 182.

42.  Ibid., II, 208; VI, 76; and VI, 222. In Thomas Wyatt’s (or Poe’s) Natural History (Philadelphia, 1839). p. 31, the orang-utan is described as the animal most like man.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 230:]

43.  Ibid., VI, 95. Although Poe does not say so, Hall himself is quoting from Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology. The beginning of Poe’s quotation is not strictly accurate in wording. See Lieut. Francis Hall, Travels in Canada and the United States in 1816 and 1817, republished from the London edition Boston, 1818 p. 14.

44.  Ibid., III, 153-158. Other animals are mentioned in the Narrative of A Gordon Pym, but most of them come straight from Poe’s sources and do not indicate Poe’s knowledge of the subject. In fact, it was for such information he raided his sources. See D. M. McKeithan, “Two Sources of Poe’s ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,’” University of Texas Studies in English, No. 13 (July 8, 1933), 116-137.

45.  Works, IV, 85.

46.  Ibid., V, 176.

47.  Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, pp. 69-70.

48.  Works, V, 250 and VI, 186.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 231:]

49.  Ibid., V, 90.

50.  “Death-Watch,” Encyclopedia Americana, first edition (Philadelphia, 1830), IV, 145.

51.  Works, V, 99-100.

52.  Wyatt, op. cit., p. 128, describes the Scarabaeus as Genus I of Family Lamellicornes of Order Coleoptera, as follows: “Body thick and convex; hood exceedingly short; flight heavy, and in a right line. They inhabit the hot regions of both continents.”

53.  Works, V, 106.

54.  For example, Ellison A. Smyth, Jr., “Poe’s Gold Bug from the Stand Point of an Entomologist,” Sewanee Review, XVIII (Jan., 1910), 67-72; Carroll Laverty, “The Death’s-Bead on the Gold-Bug,” American Literature, XII (March, 41040), 88-91; and Harvey Allen, Israfel: the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1926), I, 214-218.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 232:]

55.  Charles Knight wrote of the scarabaeus: “. . .charms and amulets of gold, precious stones, were made in the form of these insects. . . .” — Pictorial Museum of Animated Nature, (London, [1856-1858]), II, 383. Though this book vas published after Poe’s death, the same information was probably available to him.

56.  Works, VI, 119.

57.  Ibid., VI, 128.

58.  They are described in the Encyclopaedia Americana, on which Poe drew for material for “Some Words with a Mummy,” and mentioned in Rollin’s Ancient History, which Poe read in, as well as in many other books of his century.

59.  In “The Gold-Bug” Poe mentions the seventeenth-century entomologist Jan Swammerdam. — Ibid., V, 96.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 233:]

60.  Unfortunately, the principle on which it is based operates only within certain optical limits, which Poe exceeded.

61.  Pp. 138-139. Compare with Works, VI, 243.

62.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, V (July, 1839), 62.

63.  For example, Works, VI, 96.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 234:]

64.  A Bibliography of the Writings of Edgar A. Poe (San Francisco, 1934), I, 43.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 235:]

65.  Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, The Literary History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1906), p. 206.

66.  William Jay Youmans,ed., Pioneers of Science in America (New York, 1896), p. 220.

67.  Quinn, op. cit., p. 295.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 236:]

68.  Ibid., p. 275.

69.  “Posthumous Vindication,” Home Journal, Whole No. 626 (Feb. 6, 1858), p. 2.

70.  P. 4.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 238:]

71.  Captain Thomas Brown, The Conchologist’s Text-Book, embracing the Arrangements of Lamarck and Linnaeus with a Glossary of Technical Terms, third edition (Glasgow, 1835), p. 155. The third edition is used because it is one likely to have been used by Poe.

72.  A Manual of Conchology, etc. (New York, 1838), pp. 13-14.

73.  Brown, op. cit., p. 155; Poe, p. 28.

74.  “Pantology or a systematic survey of Human Knowledge,” Graham’s Magazine, XX (March, 1842), 191.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 238:]

75.  P. 49.

76.  P. 548

77.  Pp. 49-50

78.  Pp. 548-549.

79.  Poe, pp. 53-54. De Blainville, pp. 552-553.

80.  Poe, pp. 57-58. De Blainville, p. 55.

81.  Poe, p. 155. De Blainville, p. 387.

82.  Poe, p. 156. De Blainville, pp. 492-493.

83.  Poe, p. 128. De Blainville, p. 394.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 239:]

84.  For example, the reference, page 6, to the expensive Conus Cedo Nulli, which Brown mentions on page 42.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 240:]

85.  See pages 62-65, for instance. Some species carry the names of American scientists: McMurtria [Henry McMurtrie], p. 66; Haysianus [Isaac Hays], p. 63; Vanuxemensis [Lardner Vanuxem], p. 64; Sayii [Thomas Say], p. 103; Nuttaliana [Thomas Nuttall] , p. 65; Wyatti [Thomas Wyatt], p. 90; and others.

86.  Quinn states that Poe had an opportunity to consult the conchologist Dr. Edmund Ravenel during Poe’s Army service on Sullivan’s Island, but there is no evidence that he did. — Quinn, op. cit., p. 277.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 242:]

87.  See a notice of Isaac Lea’s A Synopsis of the Family of Naiades, The Knickerbocker Magazine, IX (Jan., 1837), 100.

88.  George E. Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, I, 197

89.  Woodberry says of the book attributed to Poe: “The volume concludes with an original glossary. . . .” — Ibid., I, 197.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 244:]

90.  Ibid., I, 197-198.

91.  Quinn, op. cit., pp. 275-277.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 245:]

92.  Works, VIII, 132. This property of the Pholas is referred to in Captain Brown’s Conchologist’s Text Book, p. 30. Brown’s book contains a number of such odd facts that are not in The Conchologist’s First Book.

93.  Works, VIII, 132.

94.  Ibid., VIII, 294.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 246:]

95.  VI (Feb., 1840), 100.

96.  Loc. cit.

97.  In one other uncollected review Poe refers to the difficulties in classification that face a conchologist. Graham’s Magazine, XX (March, 1842), 191.

98.  Works, V, 96.

99.  Ibid., V, 96.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 247:]

100.  XV, 394. Sketch by Anne King Gregorie.

101.  Works, V, 97.

102.  Pp. 10-14.

101.  Merlin Baltimore, 1827 Together with Recollections of Edgar A. Poe Edited with an Introduction by Thomas Ollive Mabbott (New York, 1941), p. 33.

104.  The signature varies in details slightly, but always the name of art, and the city are the same.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 248:]

105.  Loc. cit.

106.  If one wants to venture on less sure ground, he can wonder whether Poe himself drew the first three plates in Wyatt’s Natural History — the only three plates in the book not containing Duval’s signature. Perhaps they are the work of lithographer’s apprentice Edgar A. Poe. But this is only conjecture.

107.  Quinn, op. cit., p. 277.

108.  The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe with a Memoir by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, etc. (New York, 1853), p. xlix.




[S:0 - CDL51, 1951] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of EAP (C. D. Laverty) (Chapter 09)