In 1839, Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. That same year, he also wrote ‘The Conchologist’s First Book’, an introductory text to the scientific study of molluscs and other shelled organisms. It would not be difficult, with a little imagination, to identify a thematic link between the Usher home and dynasty and the intertwined fate of the two, and a book that examined the
…relations of the animal and shell, with their dependence upon each other…
But let’s not, eh?
‘The Conchologist’s First Book’ was an enormously popular work, with two more editions released over the following six years. It was deliberately low priced compared with similar volumes to make it accessible to a wide audience.
To afford, at a cheap rate, a concise, yet sufficiently comprehensive, and especially a well illustrated school-book, has been the principal design.
But only the first two editions carried Poe’s name as author. When the third edition was published in 1845, his name was omitted from the title page and he was credited only for the prefaces and introduction. The third edition was printed with an egregious typographic error in the title — MALACHOLOGY — perhaps the work of Titivillus, patron demon of scribes. That would be fitting.
Four years before Poe’s textbook was published in Philadelphia, ‘The Conchologist’s Text-Book’ rolled off the presses in Glasgow. Written and illustrated by Thomas Brown, it was a detailed examination of the shells of molluscs, barnacles and marine worms, arranged according to the classifications of Lamarck and Linnaeus. Brown was a Fellow of the Linnean Society and a member of several other learned groups. ‘The Conchologist’s Text-Book’ was his third major work on natural history.
In the introduction, Brown explained the scope of the book:
CONCHOLOGY or Testaceology, is that department of Natural History which treats of animals with a testaceous covering or shell.
He emphasised the importance of testaceous animals in commerce and culture, as food, pests, and items of beauty. He also stressed their significance in our understanding of Earth history.
…as fossil shells, coral, and wood, are the only true remaining Medals of Creation — as Bergman elegantly expresses himself.
Since the proliferation on cabinets of curiosity among the wealthy of Europe in the 17th Century, shell collecting had been both a pastime and the basis of scientific study. Jesuit scholar Filippo Bonanni published the first text on shell collecting, ‘Ricreatione dell’ occhio e dela mente nell oservation’ delle Chiociolle’ in 1681. In it, he described and illustrated a range of shells (including sea urchins, tube-building worms, and barnacles).
Following Bonanni’s book, works on shells proliferated. Between 1685 and 1692, Martin Lister produced the multi-volume ‘Historiae sive Synopsis Methodica Conchyliorum’ with plates of exquisitely detailed illustrations of both shells and anatomy. The images were drawn by his daughters Susanna and Anna.
From then on, new titles on shells were issued by the shelf load.
Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Manual of Conchology’ was published in 1838 in New York. Like Brown’s book, it was also based on a version of Lamarck’s classification, this one amended by de Blainville.
CONCHOLOGY or Testaceolgy [sic] is a numerous and beautiful branch of Natural History, treating of the testaceous covering of animals…
Wyatt wanted to ensure his readers were aware of his subjects’ role in geology.
…for, as Bergman elegantly says, “fossil shells, coral, and wood are the only three remaining medals of Creation.”
Lavishly illustrated, his book sold for $8, which made it too expensive to be a best seller. A cheaper edition was needed, but Wyatt’s publisher was not keen to produce a new book in direct competition with the ‘Manual of Conchology’.
Enter Wyatt’s friend Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe was paid $50 for the publicity and cachet his name would bring to ’The Conchologist’s First Book’. The first printing sold out and the following year an updated second edition went into print. Although Wyatt was not listed as an author, Poe acknowledged his contributions in the Preface.
The introductory text of this new book was verbose.
The term “Conchology’’ in its legitimate usage, is applied to that department of Natural History which has reference to animals with testaceous covering or shells.
The words of 18th Century Swedish mineralogist Torbern Bergman, quoted in other texts as ‘elegant’, were interpreted by Poe as being uttered in a more emphatic way.
Fossil wood, coral, and shells, are, indeed, as Bergman has very forcibly remarked, the only true remaining “medals of Creation.”
It wasn’t long before accusations of plagiarism were levelled at Poe. Much of the text had been taken from Brown’s ‘The Conchologist’s Text-book’ with light editing, substitution, and rearrangement. So had the plates. Since Poe was known as a sometimes brutal critic who had suggested that others were guilty of plagiarism, that he appeared to have failed his own standards must have delighted the Literati.
I wrote it in conjunction with Professor Thomas Wyatt, and Professor McMurtrie, of Philadelphia — my name being put to the work, as best known and most likely to aid its circulation. I wrote the Preface and Introduction, and translated from Cuvier the accounts of the animals, &c. All school-books are necessarily made in a similar way. The very title-page acknowledges that the animals are given — I according to Cuvier.” This charge is infamous, and I shall prosecute for it, as soon as I settle my accounts with “The Mirror.”
And in translating Georges Cuvier’s works, Poe had made a major contribution. By incorporating anatomical descriptions, he had transformed ‘The Conchologist’s First Book’ from a conchological study into a malacological one. The low cost of the publication ensured that it had a big audience.
Poe’s foray into malacology produced something that was more than a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.