Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Richard Adams Locke”, from Literary America, 1848, manuscript


[page 94:]

Richard Adams Locke.

About fourteen years ago, I think, “The New-York Sun”, a daily paper, price one penny, was established in the city of New-York by Mr Moses Y. Beach, who engaged Mr Richard Adams Locke as his editor.  In a well-written prospectus, the object of the journal professed to be that of “supplying the public with the news of the day at so cheap a rate as to lie within the means of all.” The consequences of the scheme, in their influence on the whole newspaper business of the country, and through this business on the interests of the country at large, are probably beyond all calculation.

Previous to the “Sun” there had been an unsuccessful attempt at publishing a penny paper in New-York; and the “Sun[[”]] itself was originally projected, and for a short time issued, by Mess. Day and Wisner; its establishment, however, is due to Mr Beach, who purchased it of its disheartened originators. The first decided movement of the journal, nevertheless, is to be attributed to Mr Locke; and in so saying I by no means intend any depreciation of Mr Beach — since in the engagement of Mr L. he had but given one of the earliest instances of that sagacity for which I have every disposition to yield him credit.

At all events the “Sun” was revolving in a narrow orbit when, one day, there appeared in its editorial columns a prefatory article announcing very remarkable astronomical discoveries made at the Cape of Good Hope by Sir John Herschell. The information was said to have been received by the “Sun” from an early copy of the “Edinburgh Journal of Science” in which appeared a communication from Sir John himself. This announcement took very well — there had been few hoaxes in those days — and was followed by full details of the reputed discoveries which were now found to have been made chiefly in respect to the moon, and by means of a telescope to which the one lately constructed by the Earl of Rosse is a plaything. As these discoveries were gradually spread before the public the astonishment of that public grew out of all bounds; but those who questioned the veracity of the “Sun” — the authenticity of the communication to the “Edinburgh Journal of Science” — were really very few indeed: — and this I am forced to look upon as a far more wonderful thing than any “man-bat” of them all. [page 95:]

About six months before this occurrence the Harpers had issued an American edition of Sir John Herschell's “Treatise on Astronomy,[[”]] and I had been much interested in what is there said respecting the possibility of future lunar investigations. The theme excited my fancy, and I longed to give it free rein in depicting my day-dreams about the scenery of the moon. In short, I wished to write a story embodying these dreams. The obvious difficulty was to account for the narrator's acquaintance with the satellite; and the equally obvious mode of surmounting this difficulty was the supposition of an extraordinary telescope. I saw that the main interest of such a narrative must depend upon the reader's yielding his credence as to 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 needed, were so rigid and so generally understood, that it would be vain to attempt giving due verisimilitude to my fiction with the telescope as a basis. Reluctantly, therefore — believing the public, in fact, more readily gullible than did my friends — I gave up the idea of imparting very close vraisemblance to what I should write — that is to say, so close as really to deceive — and falling back upon a tone half plausible half bantering, resolved to give what interest I could to the account of an actual passage from the earth to the moon; describing the lunar scenery as if surveyed and personally explored by the narrator. In this view I wrote a story called “Hans Phaall” and published it in “The Southern Literary Messenger”, of which I was then editor. Three weeks after the issue of this story, the first of the moon-hoax editorials made its appeared in the “Sun”; and no sooner had I seen the paper than I understood the jest, which not for a moment could I doubt had been suggested by my own jeu d’esprit. Some of the New York journals — among others “The Transcript” — saw the matter in the same light, and printed the two stories side by side with “Hans Phaall,” thinking that the author of the one had been detected in the author of the other. Although the details are dissimilar, still I maintain that the characteristic features of the [page 96:] two compositions are nearly identical. Both are hoaxes, although of somewhat different tone; both hoaxes are one one subject, astronomy; both on the same point of that subject, the moon; both profess to derive exclusive information from a foreign country; and both aim at plausibility through minuteness of scientific detail. Add to all this, that before these two hoaxes nothing of a similar nature had been attempted — and that the one followed immediately upon the heels of the other.

Having stated the case, however, in this form, I am bound to do Mr Locke the justice to say that he denies having seen my article before the publication of his own — I am bound also to add that I believe him.

Immediately on the completion of the Moon-story (it was three or four days in getting finished) I wrote an examination of its claim to credit, and pointed out distinctly its fictitious character; but was astonished at finding that I could obtain few listeners: — so really eager were all to be deceived: — so magical were the charms of a style that served as the vehicle of an exceedingly clumsy invention. Even now, it may afford some amusement to see designated those particulars of the hoax which should have sufficed to insure its detection. Indeed, however rich the imagination displayed in this fiction, it might have been much more forcible by closer attention to analogy and to fact. That the public were misled, even for an instant, proves nothing so clearly as the gross ignorance which, thirteen or fourteen years ago, was so prevalent on astronomical topics.

The moon's distance from the earth is, in round numbers, 240,000 miles. If we wish to ascertain how near, apparently, a lens will bring the satellite, we have but to divide the distance by the magnifying or, more strictly, by the space-penetrating power of the glass. Mr Locke gives his lens a power of 42,000 times. By this number divide 240,000, the moon's real distance; and, as the apparent distance, we have five miles and five sevenths. No animal whatever could be seen so far — much less the minute points particularized in the story — such as the flowers of the papaver Rheas. The blunder of describing such things is rendered more obvious by the author's own observation that his lens would not render perceptible, objects less than eighteen inches in diameter; — but even this, as I have said, is giving the glass far too great power.

On page 18, of the pamphlet edition, speaking of “a hairy veil” over the eyes of a species of bison, Mr L. says — “It immediately occurred to the acute mind of Doctor Herschell that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the great extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.” But this should not be thought a very “acute” observation of the Doctor's. The “extremes” mentioned do not exist. The inhabitants of our side of the moon have, evidently, no darkness at all; in the absence of the sun they have a light from the earth equal to that of thirteen full moons.

The topography throughout, even when professing to accord with Blunt's Lunar Chart, is at variance with that and all other lunar charts, and at variance with itself. The points of the compass, too, are in sad confusion; the writer seeming to be unaware that, on a lunar map, these do not coincide with terrestrial points — the East being to the left.

Deceived, perhaps, by the vague titles “Mare Nubium,” “Mare Tranquilitatis,” “Mare Fæcunditatis,” etc. given by astronomers of former times to the dark patches on the moon's surface, Mr L. has long details respecting oceans and other large bodies of water in the moon; whereas there is no astronomical point more positively ascertained than that no such bodies exist there. In examining the line between light and darkness, in a crescent or gibbous moon, there is always observed a jaggedness, or roughness, where this line crosses any of the dark patches; but were these latter liquid, the boundary would evidently been seen.

The description of the wings of the “man-bats”, at page 21, is but a literal copy of Peter Wilkins’ account of the wings of his Flying Islanders. This simple fact, it might be thought, should have induced suspicion at the least.

On page 23 we read thus: — “What a prodigious influence must our thirteen times larger globe have exercised upon this satellite when [[page 97, from fragment, in Gimbel collection:]] an embryo in the womb of time, the passive subject of chemical affinity.” Now this is very fine; but it should be observed that no astronomer could have made such [[a]] remark — especially to any “Journal of Science”; for the earth, in the sense intended, is not only thirteen but forty-nine times “larger” than the moon. A similar objection applies to the five or six concluding pages of the pamphlet, where, by way of introduction to some discoveries in Saturn, the philosophical correspondent is made to give a minute school-boy account of that planet — an account quite supererogatory, it might be presumed, where the party instructed is the “Edinburgh Journal of Science”.

But there is one point in especial which should have instantly betrayed the fiction. Let us imagine the power really possessed of seeing animals on the surface of the moon: — what, in such case, would first arrest the attention of an observer from the earth? Certainly, neither the shape, size, nor any other peculiarity in these animals so soon as their remarkable position; they would seem to be walking heels up and head down, after the fashion of flies on a ceiling. The real observer however prepared by previous knowledge, would have commented on this odd phenomenon before proceeding to other details; the fictitious observer has not even alluded to the subject, but, in the case of the man-bats, speaks of seeing their entire bodies, when it is demonstrable that he could have seen little more than the apparently flat hemisphere of their heads. I may as well observe, here that the size, and especially the powers of the man-bats (for example, their ability to fly in so rare an atmosphere — if indeed the moon has any) with most of the other fancies in regard to animal and vegetable existence, are at variance generally with all analogical reasoning on these themes, and that on these themes analogical inference often amounts to the most positive demonstration. The temperature of the moon, for instance, is rather above that of boiling water; and Mr Locke, consequently, has committed a serious oversight in not representing his man-bats, his bisons, his birds, his game of all kinds — to say nothing of his vegetables — as each and all done to a turn. [page 98:]

It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to add that the suggestions attributed to Brewster and Herschell, in the beginning of the hoax, about “the transfusion of artificial light through the focal object of vision” etc. etc. belong to that species of figurative writing which comes most properly under the head of rigmarole. To optical discovery in the heavens there is a real and very definite limit the nature of which need only be stated to be understood. If, indeed, the casting of large lenses were all that is required, the ingenuity of man would ultimately prove equal to the task, and we might have them of any size demanded. Neither of the Herschells even dreamed of a speculum six feet in diameter; and now the marvel has been accomplished by Lord Rosse. There is, in fact, no physical impossibility in our casting lenses of fifty feet diameter, or more. We require only a sufficiency of means and skill. But, unhappily, in proportion to the increase of size in the lens, and consequently of space-penetrating power, is the diminution of light from the object surveyed, through the diffusion of the rays. And for this evil there is no remedy within human reach; for an object is seen by means of that light alone, whether direct or reflected, which proceeds from the object itself.  Thus the only artificial light which could avail Mr. Locke, would be such as he should be able to throw, not upon “the focal object of vision”, but upon the moon.  It has been easily calculated that when the light proceeding from a heavenly body becomes so diffused as to be no stronger than the natural light given out by the stars collectively in a clear moonless night, then the heavenly body, for any practical purpose, is no longer visible.

The singular blunders to which I have referred being properly understood, we shall have the better reason for wonder at the prodigious success of the hoax. Not one person in ten discredited it; and it is especially noticable that the doubters were, for the most part, those who doubted without being able to say why — the ignorant — those uninformed in astronomy — people who would not believe merely because the thing was so novel — so entirely “out of the usual way.” A grave professor in a Virginian college — a professor of mathematics, too, — told me seriously that he had no doubt of the truth of the whole affair, and was at length convinced of  [page 99:] [[...]]

[[An apparently related fragment, in the Koester Poe Collection at the University of Texas, HRCL:]]

[[...]] the deception only upon seeing my own previous jeu d’esprit. The great effect wrought on the public mind is attributable, first, to the novelty of the conception; secondly, to the fancy-exciting and reason-repressing character of the alleged discoveries; thirdly, to the tact with which the matter was brough forth; and, fourthly, to the vraisemblance of the narration.

[[A note written in pencil on this fragment reads: “Here introduce the discussion of vraisemblance from Margin. in Grahams.”]]



There are a number of minor differences between this text and that used in Godey's. Griswold clearly did not use the version given here, instead copying what was originally printed in Godey's. The first four pages of this manuscript are on two sheets of paper, in the Huntington Library. The next two pages are on one sheet of paper, in the Gimbel Collection.

The manuscript was part of the 13-page collection owned by Harry Bache Smith in 1914, listed in his catalog on p. 297 (with a facsimile of the first page of the item on R. A. Locke). Sith's entire collection was purchased about a May 19, 1915 by the Rosenbach company, for $300,000.


[S:0 - LTAM, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc. - Richard Adams Locke