Edgar Allan Poe: Malacologist

Bronwen Scott
5 min readMay 2, 2021

Writer turns snail fancier

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?

“Edgar Allan Poe ‘Annie’ Daguerreotype restored” by Laurel L. Russwurm is marked with CC PDM 1.0

‘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.

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com