Happy 200th Birthday: Edgar Allan Poe

A post from Dan Burstein, Co-Author of Secrets of the Lost Symbol:

2009 has been an important year for 200th birthdays—Lincoln and Darwin in particular. Two other 200th birthday celebrants are also of interest with regard to The Lost Symbol and the cosmological ideas and, in particular, the Freemason history that is at the heart of the Dan Brown novel: Edgar Allan Poe and Albert Pike. Today, we will give Poe a little consideration. Look for a post on Pike on his birthday—December 29.

There are a variety of fascinating resonances between Poe’s life and work, and the ideas and philosophy expressed by Dan Brown in The Lost Symbol.

Poe, is a great American writer and a highly original thinker. He is best known today for his novels and poems, including The Raven, written in the mystery and horror genres. Many American students read Poe’s famous short story, The Cask of Amontillado, in middle school or high school. Yet few will realize, or be told by their teachers, that The Cask of Amontillado has Freemasonry and also anti-Mason history at the heart of it.

For an intriguing insight into the meaning of the Freemasonry at the heart of Cask, see this paper by Robert Con Davis-Undiano, Executive Director of World Literature Today and the Neustadt Professor of Comparative Literature and Presidential Professor of English at The University of Oklahoma:

Here are a couple of choice excerpts, but I would encourage interested readers to look at Davis-Undiano’s entire argument:

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” (1846)… actually enacts a Masonic ritual in a way that would not be evident to anyone except Masons and Masonic scholars. Without this historical context, this tale is simply another example of Poe’s skillful manipulation of gothic effects–the praise usually given in commentary on the tale. Read in its proper historical context, this tale is participating in Freemasonry’s discussion of an emergent national character and the distinct notion of a “sacred” dimension in national culture in the early nineteenth century in America.

Critics in the twentieth century have consistently misread the Masonic dimension of this tale primarily because cultural literacy has changed drastically since 1846, and Freemasonry, no longer a power in politics and popular culture, is not now something many people know about. Nineteenth-century readers would have understood most or all of Poe’s Masonic references. We will understand them here only by looking for connections between Masonic texts and art and Poe’s use of ideas and motifs from those sources. Bear with me–I am not arguing that Poe was a Mason, or knew an especially lot about Freemasonry, but, rather, that in 1846 everyone knew about Freemasonry in America and, whether they wished it or not, had an inadvertent affiliation or tie with Freemasonry, if only through the popular media.

I am also arguing that the misreading of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” is not just an instance of critics overlooking something that Poe’s readers would have readily seen (although this is true). If we take affiliation in its usual definition as establishing a tie, or a commitment, even in the extreme sense of determining a blood tie as in the paternity of an illegitimate child, then the failure to see Poe’s affiliation with Freemasonry in this tale is symptomatic of a larger cultural failure to see the American affiliation with Freemasonry as a major channel to eighteenth century values and ideals, and to the generational affiliation of ideas across eras. Freemasonry was a great force in early America, sometimes an overwhelming one…”The Cask of Amontillado”… reflects ideas of Masonic art and also a piece of Masonic temple art as it embodies a cultural narrative about democratic values. I view this story and this painting as occasions for glimpsing that larger, neglected picture concerning how Freemasonry has tried to interpret, and is still trying to interpret, the nature of the “sacred” in American culture…

A recounting of this story’s action leads directly to the Masonic material. The story is set during Carnevale (Mardi Gras) in Italy–probably in Viareggio, the famous Carnevale site–during the early nineteenth century. Central to the action is the narrator Montresor’s plan to trick his “friend” Fortunato into visiting his wine cellar so that Montresor can there entomb the friend behind a brick wall. They go to the cellar, ostensibly, so that Fortunato can test Montresor’s recent purchase of Amontillado, a light sherry. Once in the wine cellar, their exchange oddly turns to Freemasonry, and the following dialogue comes just before the entombment as the two men drink a glass of wine, and Fortunato makes an odd gesture with a wine bottle.

“You do not comprehend [the gesture]?” he said.
“Not I,” I replied.
“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”
“You are not of the masons.”
“Yes, yes,” I said; “yes, yes.”
“You? Impossible! A mason?”
“A mason,” I replied.
“A sign,” he said, “a sign.”
“It is this,” I answered producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowel….

Read the whole essay. It’s quite interesting.


One more thought about Poe. On top of the political and cosmological views reflected in the Cask of Amontillado, Poe was also much more of a lay scientist and science fiction writer than we usually assume. Poe thought of his essay Eureka as his most important work, even though critics pay it scarcely any attention today. However, a few of his speculative ideas on the expanding universe, the big bang, and other scientific issues have proven remarkably prescient. He is even credited by some with being among the first to put forward a conceptually valid explanation for the “dark night sky paradox.”

See a few comments below from Wikipedia on Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka:

Eureka (1848) is a lengthy non-fiction work by American author Edgar Allan Poe which he subtitled “A Prose Poem”, though it has also been subtitled as “An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe”. Adapted from a lecture he had presented, Eureka describes Poe’s intuitive conception of the nature of the universe with no scientific work done to reach his conclusions. He also discusses man’s relationship with God, whom he compares to an author…

Eureka was received poorly in Poe’s day and generally described as absurd, even by friends… Poe’s suggestion that the soul continues to thrive even after death also parallels with works in which characters reappear from beyond the grave such as “Ligeia.”… He considered it his greatest work and claimed it was more important than the discovery of gravity.

Eureka is Poe’s attempt at explaining the universe, using his general proposition “Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are”. In it, Poe discusses man’s relationship to God and the universe or, as he offers at the beginning: “I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical – of the Material and Spiritual Universe: of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny”. In keeping with this design, Poe concludes “that space and duration are one” and that matter and spirit are made of the same essence. Poe suggests that people have a natural tendency to believe in themselves as infinite with nothing greater than their soul—such thoughts stem from man’s residual feelings from when each shared an original identity with God. Ultimately individual consciousnesses will collapse back into a similar single mass, a “final ingathering” where the “myriads of individual Intelligences become blended”. Likewise, Poe saw the universe itself as infinitely expanding and collapsing like a divine heartbeat which constantly rejuvenates itself, also implying a sort of deathlessness. In fact, because the soul is a part of this constant throbbing, after dying, all people, in essence, become God.

The work ventures into transcendentalism, relying strongly on intuition, a movement and practice he had despised. Though he criticized the transcendental movement for what he referred to as incoherent mysticism, Eureka is more mystical than most transcendental works. Eureka has also been compared to the theories of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science and Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of Mormonism.

[…] After its publication he wrote to his aunt Maria Clemm saying, “I have no desire to live since I have done Eureka. I could accomplish nothing more.” He confided in a friend that he believed his contemporary generation was unable to understand it but that it would be appreciated, if ever, two thousand years later. Some critics, however, respond favorably to Eureka. French writer Paul Valéry praised it for both its poetic and scientific merit, calling it an abstract poem based on mathematical foundations. Albert Einstein in a letter written in 1934, noted that Eureka was eine schöne Leistung eines ungewöhnlich selbständigen Geistes (a very beautiful achievement of an unusually independent mind).

UPDATE: A response to this post at Zoe Buck’s blog, Zblog.

2 responses to “Happy 200th Birthday: Edgar Allan Poe

  1. Very interesting post! And many thanks for directing us to the essay about “Amontillado”–I hadn’t come across it before. I’ve always wondered why such relatively little attention has been paid to the “Freemason” undercurrents of the story.

  2. Craig Faustus Buck

    Poe surprises again! I especially like the heartbeat metaphor.

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