Coleridge's 'Poetic Faith' and Poe's Scientific Hoax[Notice]

  • Daniel Burgoyne

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  • Daniel Burgoyne
    University of British Columbia

In this essay, I explore the relation between romanticism and science fiction by examining the development of scientific and futuristic hoaxes in the early nineteenth century. Although these hoaxes are arguably early works of science fiction, my main interest involves the specific manipulations of genre and media that each hoax engages in. My effort is to theorize hoaxing in terms of recent genre theory, which emphasizes the situational aspects of genre; and to do so in a manner that helps explain the inception of science fiction in the early nineteenth century. My theory of hoaxing derives from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's use of the supernatural in poetry, with special attention to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Coleridge's interest in the supernatural is principally directed towards the way that the creative or active aspects of reading are often not recognized by readers; with the interest of the imagination involving the retrospective recognition of these active or creative aspects. This attention to the psychology of reading provides a rationale for hoaxing that characterizes Poe's development of the hoax into a sort of literary gesture that he deploys throughout his writing, but that tends to occur with greater frequency in those tales that anticipate science fiction. Poe emphasizes the disclosure of the hoax as a strategy to provoke a reader. Such provocation has a range of effects that are relevant to science fiction. For example, the investment of belief that occurs in a successful hoax may indicate a shift in the collective sense of what is possible. This type of effect not only underscores the speculative dimension of science fiction, it also draws attention to the ways that representations contribute to and rely on a reading public's view of the world. Another type of effect produced by the disclosure of a hoax involves defamiliarization; or what Darko Suvin terms "cognitive estrangement" in reference to science fiction. I am especially interested in the way that familiar patterns, habits, or conventions that inform reading—and that characterize genres—are brought into sharp relief when a hoax is recognized or pointed out. In order to establish a theoretical basis for discussing hoaxing, I will first outline a number of broad intersections between hoaxes, science fiction, and recent genre theory. I will then look to several examples of scientific and futuristic hoaxes of early and mid-nineteenth century America. While I am interested in a number of Poe's tales, I will focus on two hoaxes perpetrated by the New York Sun: the "Great Astronomical Discoveries" or what is usually referred to as the "Great Moon Hoax" of August 1835 and "The Balloon Hoax" of April 1844. Poe does not perpetrate the first hoax, but he discusses it at length several times. The exploitation of the daily newspaper, especially in the case of "Great Astronomical Discoveries," is of special interest because it affords an acute analysis of the way that hoaxes appropriate or co-opt existing genres or media, and I am particularly interested in thinking about genre in terms social and historical contexts. Following the analyses of these two hoaxes, in order to explain Poe's use of the hoax, I turn to an extended exploration of Coleridge's use of the supernatural in poetry, with specific reference to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Attention to the role of hoax in the early formation of science fiction as a genre is helpful because it emphasizes aspects of recent genre theory that point out the insufficiency of using form as an exclusive or even fundamental aspect of genre. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway provide a succinct introduction to recent genre theory in …

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