The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe

Updated: May 6, 2020

In 1633 Galileo was sentenced to imprisonment for his claim that the earth rotated around the sun. In 1662 The Royal Society in England was formed. A major goal was to prevent a conflict of authority between science and the church. Five years later Bishop Spratt wrote "A History of the Royal Society," where he argued for a particular rhetoric to be utilized by natural philosophers. (The term scientist would not be coined for 200 years).

Almost 200 years later, Edgar Allan Poe pioneered a form of short story he dubbed "Tales of Ratiocination," which used a reasoned train of thought as a key stylistic feature. Coming out of these tales Poe created the first "Great Detective," with his character Dupin. Nearly 40 years after Poe's death, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the basic structure and character from Poe's work to create his iconic character, Sherlock Holmes. Poe's tales of ratiocination also gave rise to a new feature of Science Fiction, notably in stories such as "A Descent into the Maelstrom," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."

On these episodes you will get a reading of Poe's short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," a discussion and analysis of the story with emphasis on a style we can call "The Rhetoric of Science," and even a hypothesis as to why President of the Royal Society, Sir Isaac Newton, used the image of an apple falling on his head.

The rhetoric of science follows the rules originally set down by the Royal Society in the 17th Century, but Poe subtly elucidates the dangers of seemingly credible people who sound "scientific."

Science Fiction is one of the most important genres today. Here is a rough definition put forth by Professor Eric S. Rabkin of The University of Michigan: "Science Fiction as fantastic genre that is most important today, the one that claims plausibility by a backdrop of science."

We are inundated with what "science says" about life, ecology, health, psychology, productivity, career, success and drinking coffee. Like the readers of "The Facts in the case of M. Valdemar, we should be extraordinarily cautious of what we allow to be called science.

Above are two recordings I did. Part one is a reading of the Poe short story. Part two is the commentary and discussion. Both can be found on itunes, spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Below are, in order:

  • a passage from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" that I discus in the show

  • a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappacini's Daughter," that I discuss in the show

  • the full original story of The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe.


Passage from Shelley's Frankenstein:

In this retreat I devoted the morning to labour; but in the evening, when the weather permitted, I walked on the stony beach of the sea, to listen to the waves as they roared and dashed at my feet. It was a monotonous yet ever-changing scene. I thought of Switzerland; it was far different from this desolate and appalling landscape. Its hills are covered with vines, and its cottages are scattered thickly in the plains. Its fair lakes reflect a blue and gentle sky; and, when troubled by the winds, their tumult is but as the play of a lively infant, when compared to the roarings of the giant ocean.
In this manner I distributed my occupations when I first arrived; but as I proceeded in my labour, it became every day more horrible and irksome to me. Sometimes I cold not prevail on myself to enter my laboratory for several days; and at other times I toiled day and night in order to complete my work. It was, indeed, a filthy process in which I was engaged. During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment; my mind was intently fixed on the consummation of my labour. But now I went to it in cold blood, and my heart often sickened at the work of my hands.

Passage from Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter:

"I have been reading an old classic author lately," said he, "and met with a story that strangely interested me. Possibly you may remember it. It is of an Indian Prince, who sent a beautiful woman as a present to Alexander the Great. She was as lovely as the dawn, and gorgeous as the sunset; but what especially distinguished her was a certain rich perfume in her breath—richer than a garden of Persian roses. Alexander, as was natural to a youthful conqueror, fell in love at first sight with this magnificent stranger. But a certain sage physician, happening to be present, discovered a terrible secret in regard to her."
"And what was that?" asked Giovanni, turning his eyes downward to avoid those of the Pr