Text: David Ketterer, “Pseudo Science Fiction,” Poe Studies, December 1979, Vol. XII, No. 2, 12:37-39


[page 37:]


Pseudo Science Fiction

Taylor Stoehr. Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists: Pseudoscience and Science in Nineteenth-Century Life and Letters. Harnden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, Inc., 1978. 313 pp. $19.50.

Harold Beaver, ed. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Penguin Books, 1976. xxv + 429 pp. Paper $1.95.

These are not the pages in which one would expect to find a review of a book concerned largely with Hawthorne, least of all a book that dismisses Poe as a literary hack whose reputation is “vastly overrated” (p. 11). The later statement that Hawthorne’s ambiguous treatment of the question of fate and free will “gives an almost transcendental turn to stories that, in the hands of Poe, would merely be inexorable marches into the abyss” (pp. 78-79) would seem simply to reveal that Taylor Stoehr does not know much about Poe, not even that Poe’s abysses ambiguously signal a “transcendental turn” to his narratives. Fortunately, Stoehr’s opinion of Poe is not a measure of the worth of his book for the study of both Poe and Hawthorne. The background material that Stoehr presents to illustrate the prevalence of various pseudosciences in the first half of the nineteenth century, their role in an overall reform movement out of which developed various social sciences, and the influence of all these matters on Hawthorne’s fiction culminating in The Blithedale Romance, applies equally to Poe, especially Poe the “science fiction” writer for whom Harold Beaver’s collection is a showcase.

According to Stoehr, “Hawthorne is the chief practitioner of science fiction in our literature” (p. 9). The issue here, of course, is that of definition, but, in my view, it is extremely misleading to label retrospectively either Hawthorne or Poe as writers of science fiction in any pure sense. Hawthorne’s juxtapositioning of the real world and fairyland, frequently to overt allegorical ends, encroaches more on the techniques of discontinuity and translation associated with fantasy than on the techniques of verisimilitudinous continuity, extrapolation, and analogy associated with science fiction.

In Poe’s case, I would argue that the goal of a transcendent unity, present directly or indirectly in all his creative work, outweighs whatever science-fictional elements may be apparent. Consequently, no single work can be satisfactorily categorized outright as science fiction. There is a sense, however, in which all of Poe’s creative work is marginally science fiction: Poe not altogether consistently asserts that the desired state is of a material rather than a spiritual nature; and the transference to this state may be effected accidentally by means similar to the space-time warps of science fiction or deliberately by artificially created environments which may be compared with the mechanical means of time, mind, or matter transference in science [column 2:] fiction. This is, in fact, a position that I have argued elsewhere, in a chapter entitled “Poe and the Visionary Tradition of Science Fiction” in New Worlds for Old (1974), pp. 50-75, and in an annotated bibliography entitled “The SF Element in the Work of Poe: A Chronological Survey,” Science-Fiction Studies, 1 (Spring 1974), 197-213. I was therefore somewhat chagrined to discover and now, as reviewer, somewhat embarrassed to report that neither piece figures in Beaver’s bibliography.

What we have to do with in both Poe and Hawthorne, then, is something that seems like science fiction but is not quite; it is pseudo science fiction. At the same time, it is a fiction that draws heavily on the pseudosciences. The reason that Stoehr offers for the popularity of the pseudosciences in the United States, the “combination of material means and transcendental ends” (p. 113), was very much the reason for Poe’s interest. In the first part of his book, Stoehr devotes individual chapters to the pseudosciences of mesmerism, physiognomy and phrenology, and homeopathy. Of these, mesmerism is the most amenable to literary use.

Stoehr indicates that Hawthorne links mesmerism with the Unpardonable Sin of prying into another’s soul and demonstrates that the same basic plot involving a conflict between love and mesmerism may be abstracted from both The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance. Poe is much more positively disposed towards the possibilities of mesmerism although one notebook entry by Hawthorne which Stoehr quotes — ”Questions as to unsettled points of History, and Mysteries of Nature, to be asked of a mesmerized person” (p. 52) — reveals the latter contemplating a sketch along the lines of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Poe’s three mesmeric tales do, of course, impinge on the genre of science fiction and accordingly are included in Beaver’s collection.

The use of a particular pseudoscience does not necessarily make for science fiction, however marginal. A number of Poe’s tales which draw on physiognomy and phrenology cannot possibly be classified as science fiction. In this regard, Beaver’s inclusion of “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” which he admits is “not science fiction exactly” (p. 390), is very peculiar. Neither as “a psychiatrical hoax” (p. 390) nor on account of a brief phrenological reference that Beaver glosses in a note (p. 392) does this tale belong in the collection. Hawthorne like Poe occasionally made use of the humorous possibilities of physiognomy and phrenology, but he was particularly interested in the bearing of these pseudosciences on the question of fate and free will. In making the point that Hawthorne believed in physiognomy as an art rather than a science, Stoehr offers a brilliant analysis of The House of the Seven Gables, relating it to “The Great Stone Face” in its concern with the physical revelation of character.

Hawthorne’s use of homeopathy cannot be paralleled in Poe. There are no homeopathic doctors like Chillingworth or homeopathic scientists like Aylmer stalking the pages of Poe’s tales. However, a related element, the elixir of life, always poisonous in Hawthorne’s fiction, may be present in a similarly ambiguous fashion as the drop of ruby liquid in “Ligeia.” The Faust archetype, to which the mad doctor or [page 38:] scientist stereotype is related, has been observed before in Hawthorne’s work, but what Stoehr’s study makes very clear is the likelihood that the pervasive influence of the pseudosciences determined rather than followed from or simply illustrated his thematic preoccupations. Nevertheless, Stoehr is very remiss in failing to acknowledge the pioneering work of H. Bruce Franklin in this general area. In his introduction to the Hawthorne section of Future Per” feet: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century (1966), Franklin draws attention for the first time to the science-fictional cast of Hawthorne’s imagination, his “long line of doctors, chemists, botanists, mesmerists, and inventors,” and “his obsession with the elixir of life” (p. 7). Stoehr’s decision to limit his notes to the more arcane “scientific” references and exclude any acknowledgment to the standard body of Hawthorne criticism on which he builds may have been convenient, but in Franklin’s case the omission is a serious error.

In the second part of his book, Stoehr moves on to the social sciences which developed from the attempt to integrate the pseudosciences and the various philanthropies. This development is related to an extensive analysis of The Blithedale Romance, which is described as “the best of nineteenth-century anti-utopias” (p. 143). Four “movements” are treated in relation to the four main characters with which they are linked. Coverdale is interested in associationism or utopian communitarianism but discovers that the artist is hurt by communal living. The modulation of mesmerism into spiritualism, which is reflected in Poe’s mesmeric tales, is associated with Westervelt, Coverdale’s alter ego. Feminism is associated with Zenobia who is loosely modelled on Margaret Fuller. Hollingsworth’s particular enthusiasm, prison reform, appears to be included, according to Stoehr, because it may be related metaphorically to Hawthorne’s interest in the fallen condition of man. None of these movements, it may be noted, have much to do with Poe’s own dystopia, “Mellonta Tauta,” although that tale exhibits every bit as much sociological foresight as Hawthorne’s romance.

Stoehr argues in a fine concluding chapter that the gothic tradition (associated with the pseudosciences) and the utopian tradition (associated with the social sciences) meet in Hawthorne. Albeit the combination of “wild-eyed reformer and evil-eyed mesmerist” (p. 254) is less than successful in the figure of Holgrave in The House of the Seven Gables, Stoehr goes on to claim that Hawthorne’s work marks the transition between the gothic novel and its successor, the utopian novel, which flourished towards the end of the nineteenth century, and that the motifs of one genre inform the other. Given Stoehr’s “science-fictional” concerns, his speculative conclusion is both appropriate and challenging.

As Beaver demonstrates in his somewhat frenzied and impressionistic Introduction, the speculative connections posited in the early nineteenth century between electrochemistry, electromagnetism, and animal magnetism account for much of the science-fictional flavor in Poe’s work. The dichotomous mix is exemplified in the observation that alongside the march of mechanical invention, “Mysticism spiritualism, hypnotism, mesmeric trances, galvanic resuscitation, [column 2:] phrenology, flourished” (p. ix). But in spite of the suggestive parallel that Beaver draws between Poe’s references, in relation to Dupin and elsewhere, to the Calculus of Probabilities and the science-fictional technique of extrapolation, Beaver’s general characterization of Poe’s “science fiction” makes very clear (whether intentionally or not) that his use of the term is more a matter of titular convenience than generic accuracy.

Beaver captures the quality of Poe’s “science fiction” by quoting Paul Valery: “Poe was opening up a way, teaching a very strict and alluring doctrine, in which a kind of mathematics and a kind of mysticism became one . . .” (p. xv). The factual underpinning, so crucial to science fiction in the strict sense of the term, is often bogus or hoaxical in Poe. From this point of view, as Beaver observes, Poe should be related to the American tradition of the hoax or tall tale, a tradition that culminates with Mark Twain (an heir also of the pseudoscientific enthusiasm). Indeed, the concluding astronomical image, which Beaver appropriates from Mallarme, of Poe as a plunging meteorite, “apocalyptic prophet and pioneer victim of science fiction” (p. xxi), looks forward to the coincidental equation between the career of Mark Twain and Halley’s comet. However, it was a somewhat more stellar figure in the universe of science fiction, Jules Verne, who, in refocusing aspects of Poe’s work, gave birth (with an assist from H. G. Wells) to the genre per se. Thus Poe’s work is important not as science fiction itself but as a crucial stage toward its evolution.

The sixteen works that Beaver collects include most of the titles that might loosely be classified under the rubric “science fiction” together with the one tale already mentioned that, in my view, might not. However, much closer to science fiction than “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” are three pieces that are not included: The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (which is available as a separate Penguin text also edited by the industrious Beaver, albeit less successfully than the present volume), “The Man That Was Used Up,” and “The Mask of the Red Death.” The eponymic man that was used up is a kind of cyborg. He exists at all only because of the wonderfully inventive age which makes possible all manner of prosthetic devices. Clearly Beaver felt uneasy about omitting this tale and compensates by inserting without much excuse a description of it in the context of a general note on “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” (p. 379). There is no mention at all of “The Mask of the Red Death” which relates to the end-of-the-world theme so popular in science fiction, and which was probably influenced by Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

Of particular value is the occasion that Beaver’s subject area provides to make the text of Eureka (taken from the 1848 Putnam edition but incorporating emendations Poe made in a copy of that edition) available in a reasonably priced paperback. He is also able to reprint those pieces that are particularly related to Eureka: “Mesmeric Revelation,” “The Power of Words,” and “Mellonta Tauta.” Indeed, it may be suspected that the science-fiction umbrella offered a means of making this cluster of works commercially more appealing. [page 39:]

There is not space to evaluate in detail Beaver’s ninety-three pages of close-packed commentary or to compare his annotations with those recently available in Stuart and Susan Levine’s The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Ollive Mabbott’s edition of The Tales and Sketches. The reader will find much that is useful, much in the way of commentary and cross connection that is critically provocative, combined with some overstatements and some inaccuracies. For example, in commenting on “Some Words with a Mummy,” Beaver writes, “One book certainly known to Poe was The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) by Jane Webb” (p. 384). In fact there is absolutely no evidence that Poe had any knowledge of this work. There is a similar case of Beaver’s assuming too much in the Introduction where he instances The Conchologist’s First Book as an occasion where Poe “deceived himself . . . into claiming his very plagiarisms as his own” (p. xvii). It should be emphasized however that the presence of such pseudofacts, no less than Stoehr’s opinions of Poe, do not seriously prejudice the value of Beaver’s collection. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, like Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists, illuminates its subject.

David Ketterer, Concordia University


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[S:0 - PS, 1979]