Poe’s best-selling book in his lifetime was A Guide to Seashells

Edgar A. Poe landed at Philadelphia in 1838. He had been raised among the elite of Richmond, Virginia, but in Philadelphia he was a poor foreigner seeking recognition and stability as a professional writer. Strikingly, Poe’s first publication in Philadelphia – and the one that sold the most during his lifetime – was a science textbook.

When Poe arrived with his teenage wife (and first cousin) Virginia Clemm and mother Maria, they were “literally suffering from starvation,” living “on bread and molasses for weeks together.” Poe’s friend, James Pedder, conveniently located in a sugar manufacturer, purifying raw materials delivered from the slave islands of the Caribbean, came to their aid; his daughters, Bessie and Anna, visited him with gifts for “Sissy” and “Muddy”. Pedder was also editor-in-chief of The Farmers’ Cabinet, spreading awareness of soil improvement and animal husbandry techniques – the kind of practical, commercial publication in which much of the natural science of the day was reported and discussed. Pedder had studied the beet industry in France and was considering introducing beet sugar to the United States.

Pedder helped Poe find odd jobs. His old Baltimore friends Nathan Brooks and Joseph Snodgrass published his occasional plays in The American Museum of Science, Literature and the Arts. Hoping for a government post, Poe wrote in July 1838 to novelist James Kirke Paulding, who became Van Buren’s secretary of the navy; he longed to “get the most insignificant outsourcing of your donation –any thing, by sea or by land. ” No chance.

The Philadelphia State House in 1845. Smith / Gado / Getty Images Collection

By September 1838, the Poes had moved to a tiny house on Locust Street, complete with a pet-friendly garden that a friend gave as a gift to Virginia: “She wants me to thank you with all her heart – but, unfortunately, I cannot report a mode of transport. He must have been content to imagine “the little guy … already nibbling the grass in front of our windows.” Pedder offered a more useful gift: an introduction to a nature historian in need of a writer’s help.

Thomas Wyatt, a Delaware-based teacher and schoolteacher, had published a great handbook on conchology – the classification of seashells – with Harper & Brothers. Wyatt’s textbook was based on earlier work by French biologists Lamarck and Blainville. He also received help from Isaac Lea, the Philadelphia publisher and naturalist.

In the 1830s, geology was one of the most sought-after branches of science, especially because of the growing industrial importance of coal. Geology and conchology were closely linked: knowing which shells and rocks went together helped align geological strata as successive chapters in the Earth’s long history. Léa, whose passion for the natural sciences was fueled by her friendship with geologist Lardner Vanuxem, wrote that geology and conchology, “her sister science”, revealed “objects of the utmost importance, an in-depth knowledge of our cosmogony ”, or the origin of the universe. In a more radical vein, the poet and naturalist Erasmus Darwin took as his family emblem the phrase e conchis omnia– “All seashells.”

Lea’s eyes were opened to the wonder of creation when he first examined a crate of shells from China and Ohio: He “didn’t know what it was like to live in the land of God before ”. Lea published “Description of Six New Species of the Genus Unio” – Freshwater Mussel Shells – for the American Philosophical Society and, along with Samuel Morton, became a leader of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, founded in 1812 as a less formal, more inclusive scientific society than the American Patrician Society of Philosophy.

In 1832, like many Americans of her generation pursuing in-depth scientific subjects, Lea toured Europe. In Paris, Léa had access to the library of the legendary naturalist Georges Cuvier; he acquires part of the collection of shells from Jean Baptiste Lamarck and meets the anatomists of the Jardin des Plantes, who reclassify the museum Unio shells according to Lea’s system. Upon her return, Lea published a large folio with color prints, Observations on the Genre Unio.

Thomas Wyatt drew on Lea’s classifications in his conchology textbook, merging them with others to form a more comprehensive overview of all known shells. Yet as Wyatt lectured on the high school circuit, his book proved too bulky and overpriced for his listeners, many of whom were women and children. He needed a more practical and affordable volume, but could not publish a similar work without infuriating his publisher, the mighty Harper & Brothers, by reducing their sales. He needed a new edition: shorter, cheaper and signed under the name of another author.

Enter Poe, newly arrived and eager to work. Thanks to his work on his only novel, The Story of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and the reviews he had written, Poe had a proven record on scientific subjects. Fluent in French, he was able to work through relevant volumes by Cuvier, Lamarck, Blainville and naturalist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, all available for consultation at the Library Company of Locust Street – an august space dominated by a giant bust of ‘Athena.

Poe often struggled to make ends meet as a writer.
Poe often struggled to make ends meet as a writer. Album / Alamy

Published in 1839, The first book of the conchologist by Edgar A. Poe was thin, portable, and inexpensive, with several engraved shell plates. The preface and introduction were taken from the book by Wyatt and Thomas Brown Elements of conchology, who openly admitted their own debts to French precursors. Although later rumors accused Poe of plagiarism for this book, all “new” natural history systems depended on earlier systems, which in turn were the product of enormous collective and largely anonymous work by observers. , collectors and taxonomists around the world. In his preface, Poe thanked Isaac Lea for his “precious public works” and for his “private assistance” in the preparation of the book.

Poe introduced significant improvements. Biologist Stephen Jay Gould noted the book’s “progressive, even innovative, arrangement of the material”. Brown’s book had followed Lamarck’s order of description, presenting the shells descending from those considered most advanced or perfect to the lower, more “primitive” types, but Poe adopted a more widely practiced convention, mounting shells. “Lower” up.

Poe’s subtitle, A testacea malacology system, announced a more significant advance. “Malacology”, taken from the Greek word for “soft,” is the study of small, flabby creatures, while “testaceous” means having a shell. Earlier work in conchology, Poe wrote, “appears to any person of science to be very essentially flawed, inasmuch as the relations of animal and shell, with their dependence on each other, are radically considered. important in considering one or the other. He saw “no good reason why a book on conchology (using the common term) couldn’t be malacological.” Rather than a study of the ruins left by dead creatures, Poe described both the shells and their spongy inhabitants, moving conchology “from artificial description to integrative biology.” Poe’s book was not only shorter and cheaper, but more comprehensive, with innovations that surpassed its predecessors.

Poe's book was shorter, cheaper, and more complete than its predecessors.
Poe’s book was shorter, cheaper, and more complete than its predecessors. FSU special collections

Unlike Wyatt – but like Lea – Poe also included natural theological reflections: “For a righteous and well-regulated mind, there is no part of the works of the Creator, entering into his knowledge, which will not provide material for a careful and pleasant investigation. He quoted the German naturalist Carl Bergmann, who wrote that seashells are “creation medals” – eternal accounts of God’s purpose.

The first edition is out of print; a second, published the same year, added “American species discovered more recently”, noting that the work had been adopted by several schools. In three editions, the book sold more copies than any other Poe published during his lifetime. It earned him at least $ 50, putting food on the table. It also gave him crucial contact with Isaac Lea, whose Philadelphia publishing house would print Poe’s first collection of stories. And the success of The first book of the conchologist gave him something to brag about while he put his skills up for sale.

In addition to his three collections of poetry, at the age of 30, Poe is the author of two very different books: his playful, sensational and mysterious novel. Pym, full of empirical detail and psychological insight, but denounced as an “attempt to defraud the public”, and the First book of the conchologist, a widely read scientific textbook, adding to the best-established research of the time, extending a rational classification to a significant field of nature.

In Philadelphia, a vast thirst for entertaining novelties has been accompanied by plans to standardize knowledge and ban speculation about charlatans. Standing at the intersection of these two streams, Poe would be at home.


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