American Literature and Science

American Literature and Science

Robert J. Scholnick Editor
Copyright Date: 1992
Edition: 1
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    American Literature and Science
    Book Description:

    Literature and science are two disciplines are two disciplines often thought to be unrelated, if not actually antagonistic. But Robert J. Scholnick points out that these areas of learning, up through the beginning of the nineteenth century, "were understood as parts of a unitary endeavor." By mid-century they had diverged, but literature and science have continued to interact, conflict, and illuminate each other. In this innovative work, twelve leaders in this emerging interdisciplinary field explore the long engagement of American writers with science and uncover science's conflicting meanings as a central dimension of the nation's conception of itself. Reaching back to the Puritan poet-minister-physician Edward Taylor, who wrote at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and forward to Thomas Pynchon, novelist of the cybernetic age, this collection of original essays contains essential work on major writers, including Franklin, Jefferson, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Hart Crane, Dos Passos, and Charles Olson. Through its exploration of the ways that American writers have found in science and technology a vital imaginative stimulus, even while resisting their destructive applications, this book points towards a reconciliation and integration within culture. An innovative look at a neglected dimension of our literary tradition, American Literature and Science stands as both a definition of the field and an invitation to others to continue and extend new modes of inquiry.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4943-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Permeable Boundaries: Literature and Science in America
    (pp. 1-17)

    Reaching back to the Puritan poet Edward Taylor and forward to the contemporary novelist Thomas Pynchon, this collection of original essays explores the relationship in American culture between literature and science. These two ways of knowing are often thought to be unrelated, if not actually antagonistic. Through analyses of the ways that such writers as Franklin, Jefferson, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Hart Crane, Dos Passos, and Charles Olson have understood the sciences and explored them in their work as essential and powerful methods of knowing and changing the world, these essays seek to comprehend how literature and science have evolved...

  5. 2 “This Brazen Serpent Is a Doctors Shop”: Edward Taylor’s Medical Vision
    (pp. 18-38)

    “A physitian cureth not only the body but the mind in some manner,” writes Nicholas Culpeper in 1654; his statement reflects the neo-Platonic and alchemical assumptions underlying Renaissance medical theory.¹ Such holistic views of medicine prevailed in Edward Taylor’s era (c. 1641-1729), despite the fact that the late seventeenth century was rapidly shifting away from an animistic cosmology, which stressed vital connections between matter and spirit, toward a Cartesian and mechanistic view, which posed few links between matter and spirit. Culpeper’s and other hermetically based herbals were the primary sources of medical information during Taylor’s lifetime, but the trend was...

  6. 3 Benjamin Franklin: The Fusion of Science and Letters
    (pp. 39-57)

    The eighteenth-century mind made very little distinction between science and the imagination. This is the reason that one may find every scientific theory of importance in the Enlightenment described somewhere or other in verse. Well-known mathematician Edmund Halley, the same who charted the famous comet, contributed a poetic preface to Newton’sPrincipia,and Richard Glover, who was to become author of the most important British epic of the century,Leonidas,introduced a popular book with an elegant “Poem on Sir Isaac Newton,” containing a well-known phrase, “NEWTON demands the muse.” This book by Henry Pemberton, entitledView of Sir Isaac...

  7. 4 Thomas Jefferson
    (pp. 58-76)

    Thomas Jefferson gloried in his reputation as a scientist but did not seek recognition as a writer of literature. To be sure, he listed hisauthorshipof the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom as two of his greatest achievements on the inscription he wrote for his tombstone, and Americans revere him for having invented their nation with his pen, in a primal literary act. Aside from these documents, some unsigned articles, and his political pamphlets, however, Jefferson did not generally write for publication;² the dozens of volumes bearing his name are compilations of his...

  8. 5 An Intrinsic Luminosity: Poe’s Use of Platonic and Newtonian Optics
    (pp. 77-93)

    The place of science in Poe’s thought and imagination can be easily misassessed if we judge it on the basis of his poetry. Such verse as “Sonnet—to Science” (1829), with its identification of the poet with the defiant but doomed mythological figures of Prometheus and Icarus, represents a clear assault on science as a force preying on the poet’s heart, as a force inimical to creative imagination (Promethean fire) and mythic or metaphoric language (Icarian flight). This poem, however, appeared early in Poe’s career, and although he later revised and continued to republish it together with much of his...

  9. 6 Fields of Investigation: Emerson and Natural History
    (pp. 94-109)

    In an 1830 sermon at Boston’s Second Church, Emerson singled out “the love of the natural sciences . . . beginning to spread among us the study of plants, of minerals, the history of beasts, birds, and insects” as a particularly hopeful sign of a shift in American society. Emerson praised this growing emphasis on natural science because he felt it was part of a general reorientation of American religious life that would result in a new focus on the cultivation of the self. The rise of interest in natural history “may have the effect to supplant in some degree...

  10. 7 Thoreau and Science
    (pp. 110-127)

    Thoreau’s early zest for science is bright and uncomplicated. Three and a half months out of college, he writes in his new journal, “How indispensable to a correct study of Nature is a perception of her true meaning—The fact will one day flower out into a truth.”¹ Thoreau’s lifelong engagement with science begins early, with this positive and hopeful asserting of the connection between fact and meaning. Thoreau goes on in this entry to emphasize the difference between the “master workmen” of science and the “mere accumulators of facts.” The young Thoreau begins with an immense respect for fact,...

  11. 8 (Pseudo-) Scientific Humor
    (pp. 128-156)

    Scientific humor in America is older than the Republic. When Washington Irving lampooned Thomas Jefferson’s scientific activities in Book IV ofA History of New York. . .By Diedrich Knickerbocker(1809),¹ he followed the example of Connecticut Wits David Humphreys, Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, and Lemuel Hopkins, who had already ridiculed Jefferson inThe Anarchiad(1786-87). When Samuel Clemens published his spoof of fossil finds “Petrified Man” (1862) a few months before becoming Mark Twain,² he joined the journalistic tradition of Richard Adams Locke, whose infamous moon hoax in the New YorkSunof August 25-28, 1835, presented science fiction...

  12. 9 Traveling in Time with Mark Twain
    (pp. 157-171)

    We all travel in time every day. The sun rises and sets, our bodies age, the world changes, and our minds move backward with memory and forward with anticipation. After a night’s sleep, we wake into a different world. But time travel means something different from all these common experiences. Time travel is a peculiarly modem form of exploration.

    Historical time, at least in Anglo-European culture, used to be mere chronology—a sequence that arranged genealogy, the reigns of kings, famous battles, natural disasters, and other notable events. But when science and technology began to induce changes in material existence...

  13. 10 Hart Crane and John Dos Passos
    (pp. 172-193)

    During the 1920s, America was mutating at speeds accelerated by rampant industrialization, political upheaval, revolutions in communication and transportation, population migrations, economic cycles, corporate reorganization, artistic ferment, and intellectual advance. All this activity generated new information of enormous volume and diversity; the question was not merely whether it could be comprehended, but when. One popular response was to defer interpretation, in the hope that the next generation would eventually sort matters out when still more information became available. The lingering trauma associated with the Great War and the hedonism of the Jazz Age that followed doubtless also encouraged procrastination. Political...

  14. 11 Fields of Spacetime and the “I” in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems
    (pp. 194-208)

    The notorious eclecticism of Charles Olson’s reading and scholarship owes a great deal to his interest in scientific texts. Unlike Robert Frost, who discovered after having written certain poems that he had intuitively embroidered into them concepts of quantum physics,¹ Olson was apparently directly influenced as a thinker and a poet by the work of a select group of scientists and mathematicians, including Bernard Riemann and Norbert Wiener. Thomas F. Merrill has pointed out that, in his important 1957 essay, “Equal, That Is, To the Real Itself,” Olson relied heavily on Hermann Weyl’sThe Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science....

  15. 12 “Unfurrowing the Mind’s Plowshare”: Fiction in a Cybernetic Age
    (pp. 209-228)

    One of the most pervasive themes in postmodern culture is an urgent concern with an old philosophical question, the mechanism-vitalism problem: Are humans merely machines whose every experience and expression can be described by a formal mechanics? In contemporary terms we call this question a cybernetic one, and concern with it is so ubiquitous and fundamental that it is fair to characterize our era as a cybernetic age.

    In the sciences, the answer to this question is not simple, but the general drift is toward the mechanical: human behaviors, including communication in language and thinking, can be expressed in formal,...

  16. 13 Turbulence in Literature and Science: Questions of Influence
    (pp. 229-250)

    When influence is discussed in literature and science, it nearly always turns out to be the influence of science on literature. If one inquires about the influence of literature on science, one is greeted with such anecdotes as Murray Gell-Man having taken the word “quarks” fromFinnegan’s Wake.Compared with the acknowledged influence of science on literature, these instances are so trivial as to border on the frivolous. Contrast them, for example, with studies discussing the influence of Newton on Blake; Darwin on George Eliot; thermodynamics on Henry Adams. Why is there no comparable list of studies demonstrating the influence...

  17. Bibliography: American Literature and Science through 1989
    (pp. 251-272)
  18. Contributors
    (pp. 273-274)
  19. Index
    (pp. 275-287)