Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1090:
POE'S CONCHOLOGY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1090.

Today, an act of plagiarism is not quite what it seems to be. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's a constant irritation how easily my literary friends forget the technical and scientific work of writers like Thoreau, Thomas Paine, Goethe, Nevil Shute and Lewis Carroll. Who remembers that Oliver Goldsmith was known in his day as a naturalist!

Now paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, himself a fine essayist, adds a new, if tarnished, name to that list. It is Edgar Allan Poe . Of all Poe's books, only one made it into a second edition. The title was The Conchologist's First Book. It's about mollusk shells, and it carries the formidable subtitle A System of Testaceous Malacology, arranged Expressly for the Use of Schools.

Now, you may wonder, what's so tarnished about Poe's great name? The alcoholic Poe, always short of money, was given the chance to make a buck in 1839. His friend Thomas Wyatt had written a fancy book on mollusk shells the year before. It went for the extravagant price of $8, and no one bought it.

Wyatt figured a trimmed-down version might do better. So he hired Poe as a coauthor and arranged for Poe's name to appear alone on the title page. At $1.75, the new book was a great hit. Yet this was worse than simple ghostwriting.

Poe and Wyatt had lifted chunks of their book from an English naturalist, Thomas Brown. Following Gould's lead, I went to a far corner of my library with "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" about Poe. His biographers all hate his venture into science. They mutter an embarrassed apology for Poe's shady side-track -- then hurry back to talk about The Raven.

Now Gould says, wait a minute. Yes, Poe plagiarized. But Poe, fluent in French, went back to read Georges Cuvier, the great French naturalist. Then he changed the organization of Wyatt's original book. Wyatt had arranged creatures by the shapes of their shells. But Poe said, "There's more to a creature than that." He made a much broader classification system. One biographer complains that Poe is "boring, pedantic, and hair-splitting." But Poe was actually taking pains to construct a better system. In his preface, he talks about the meaning of the word conchology,

The Greek conchylion from which it is derived, he says, embraces both the animal and [its] shell.

Poe's excursion into natural philosophy was an embarrassment to people who are embarrassed by science in the first place. But for Gould, it contains a delicious surprise. In return for the pittance Wyatt had paid him, Poe patched together a genuinely useful insight into biological taxonomy. And I think of a cynical remark that playwright Wilson Mizner once made:

If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism. If you steal from many, it's research.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S.J., Poe's Greatest Hit. Dinosaur in a Haystack. New York: Harmony Books, 1995, Chapter 14.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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