Edgar Allan Poe:
Edgar Allan Poe had some things in common with Isaac Newton.  Both were slightly built men with dark brooding faces and piercing eyes.  Both relished the crunching of numbers.  Both took an interest in ancient history.  Both enjoyed huge popularity.  Both seemed to have a knack for attracting bitter enemies and devoted friends.  Both were highly socially mobile.  In Newton’s case, the mobility was upward.  He went from a very modest beginning to become one of the super rich and to have prestige few have been recorded before or since.  Poe began with connections to the Virginia power elite when Virginia was among the most powerful states in an emerging super power and wound up being found raving and dying on a sidewalk in Baltimore; nobody knows why he was even in the city.  For all that, both Newton and Poe were thought to have behaved oddly.

The question is this.  If a case can be made for the proposition that Newton turned his enormous energies to the study of ancient history and found that societies have a mathematically predictable doom, could Poe have done the same thing?   Of course he could have.  Anybody with a year of college behind him could have.  But is there any evidence that he did?  No.  I have showed you evidence already, and you know what it looks like.  It documents names, dates, titles, numbers and so forth.  To find any hint, we must look for things as subtle as the shadow one flame casts of another.

Poe stated he was intuitive as well as analytic, and there is no reason to think he valued one mental set to the exclusion of the other.  By contrast, in his fiction there is a strong pattern.  When the hero starts out with an analytical mind set, bad things are going to happen.  The story “Descent into the Maelstrom” starts out with a fishing trip in hazardous waters, safety having been assured by a nice calculation of time and distance.  The title gives away what happens as a result.  On the other hand the story “The Domain of Arnheim” begins with plenty of analysis, but in the final episode the visitor is placed alone in an ivory canoe and bid neither to paddle nor steer, but to trust the fates.  The trip is very pleasant.  Reading between the lines, the overall impression is that analysis is all very well and good, but there is something frightening in it.  You may learn something you don’t want to know.

Another recurrent Poe theme is the library.  He loved books.  He loved to talk about books.  Perhaps this was simply a cunning way of encouraging his audience, who were readers.  But considering the amount he read or claimed to have read, he was as voracious in reading as Newton.  And while for Newton books were pretty much a source of information, for Poe they were a source of a somewhat disturbing atmosphere.

A number of his stories are set in the Middle East.  A number involve madness.  So all the pieces are in place for a story in which a character reads a lot of books about the Middle East, analyses what he has found and is driven mad by the truth he discovers.  It could have been autobiographical.

There is a passage in the story “MS Found in a Bottle.”  I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.  Close but no cigar.  He is talking about the Middle East all right, and antiquity and madness. And in the story he is telling, the travelers on the ship are deeply into analysis and bound for the usual post-arithmetic depression.  But there is no mention of analyzing books.

Poe had the opportunity to look at ancient artifacts.  The Soane’s Museum in London is full of ancient artifacts.  It had not been opened to the public at the time Poe was in London, but it seems likely that he saw the house, since he describes one of the chambers quite well in his poem “The Raven,” right down to the statue of Pallas Athena in a transom window.  But the chamber is not a library. 

So the pieces are there for Poe to have discovered the fate of empires that I have shown you, but if he put the pieces together and reported it, I have not been able to document it.

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