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  • P(oe)rochiality Pilloried?
  • Sean Moreland (bio)
David N. Stamos. Edgar Allan Poe, "Eureka," and Scientific Imagination. Albany: SUNY Press, 2017. 602 pp. $90.00 cloth, $36.95 paper, $29.19 ebook.

Eureka, Poe's epic "prose poem" about the nature of the "Universe of Stars," and the role of humanity and divinity in it, offers unique challenges and opportunities for interdisciplinary analysis—given its engagement with a wide variety of Poe's scientific contemporaries, its whirlwind fusion of natural history, theology, and literary-poetic theory, and its broad-strokes anticipation of a range of modern scientific concepts, from the laws of thermodynamics, to natural selection, to the Big Bang theory. These anticipations form a large part of its appeal for David N. Stamos, a professor of philosophy at York University who specializes in the philosophy of science, much of whose published work focuses on evolutionary theory.

Stamos's book, Edgar Allan Poe, "Eureka," and Scientific Imagination, advertises itself as a dive into a "deeper side" of Poe that "relatively few have explored, let alone from the perspective of philosophy of science":

Written in a clear and informative style that should appeal to the general reader, and yet with enough knowledge and theory to challenge the most erudite and stubborn of professionals, this book—highly informed in places by the very style and humor of Poe himself, and in more ways than one—is for lovers of Poe, yes, but also for lovers of science, real science, and especially for those who are curious about what happens when these two loves, of two seemingly disparate worlds, are amalgamated with a single unity of effect.


The promise, and the problems, of Stamos's approach begin to coalesce from this advertisement itself, with its adoption of both Poetic hyperbole and diacritics, including promiscuous em-dashes and frequent emphatic italics. Ultimately, the book only partially delivers on its promise, and when it does deliver, it is despite, rather than because of, Stamos's attempts to imitate Poe's style and to pursue ambitious goals—which are undercut by inconsistent research and sometimes unsupported, tendentious claims.

Held up to its self-advertisement, the book fails on two main fronts. First, for a supposedly scholarly work written with accessibility and clarity in mind, it [End Page E22] often muddies important historical and epistemological concerns by its perverse adoption of supposedly poetic irony and ambiguity. Stamos revels in impersonating Poe and asserting "interpoelations" [5]. As an enthusiastic Poe-taku, I wanted to enjoy these attempted homages, but Stamos uses them excessively, sometimes ineptly (they more often detract from, rather than contribute to, a "unity of effect"), and very often in ways that impair his argument. While he claims "every effort is made to avoid the sin that historians call presentism, which is reading present ideas into the past without sufficient evidence" [9], many of his interpoelative speculations (what might Poe have thought of Freud, logical positivism, evolutionary psychology, and so on) are merely variants of this "sin," thinly justified by the book's stylistic conceit of speaking-as-Poe. In short, Stamos hides behind his Poe mask and his ironic sallies in ways that call into question the authority and authenticity of many of his claims.

Second, in making the case for Eureka's originality and importance to the philosophy of science because of what he claims is Poe's nascent theory of scientific imagination, Stamos regularly downplays the degree to which Poe borrowed material wholesale from a wide variety of sources, while propagating romantic pseudo-scientific theories that were already being experimentally disproven. Stamos routinely makes claims for the "originality" of some aspect of Poe's thought or synthesis of ideas in support of his own theory of scientific imagination—a theory he uses Poe, like a ventriloquist's dummy, to voice, while ignoring contrary evidence gathered by earlier scholars. This is a pity, for at the core of the book are two fascinating, insightful, and potentially highly productive claims. First, that the "philosophy of science, considered collectively, has pushed the topic of scientific imagination to outside the circumference of the object of its study, as not belonging to the nature...


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