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American Literature and Science

by Robert Scholnick

Claudia Stnil

Permeable Boundaries: Literature and Science in America


About the book:
this collection of original essays explores the relationship in American culture between literature
and science;
literature and science are two disciplines often thought to be unrelated, if not actually
antagonistic, but Robert J. Scholnick points out that these areas of learning, up through the
beginning of the nineteenth century, "were understood as parts of a unitary endeavor";
through analyses of the ways that such writers as Franklin, Jefferson, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau,
Twain, Hart Crane, Dos Passos, and Charles Olson have understood the sciences and explored
them in their work as essential and powerful methods of knowing and changing the world, these
essays seek to comprehend how literature and science have evolved together in American culture;
focusing on the languages that writers have used to explore the interpenetrating realms of science
and literature, this collection seeks to open for wider analysis a neglected dimension of American
culture;
through its exploration of the ways that American writers have found in science and technology a
vital imaginative stimulus, even while resisting their destructive applications, this book points
towards a reconciliation and integration within culture.
About the authorss ideas:
American writers have explored the meanings of science and its offshoot technology.
Literature offers us multiple new perspectives on science as a cultural expression, even as science
offers new perspectives on literature.
"One of the reasons for the opposition between the 'two cultures' may have been the belief that
literature corresponds to a conceptualization of reality, to 'fiction,' while science seems to express
objective 'reality.' Quantum mechanics teaches us that the situation is not so simple. On all levels
reality implies an essential element of conceptualization." (OP Snow's famous division between
the culture of science and that of the 'humanities')
This collection identifies two closely related aspects of the interaction between literature and
science over the course of American history.
o The first is one of resistance.Writers have opposed those destructive and controlling powers
made possible by science and technology.
o The second is one of conduction. Writers also have drawn images and vocabularies from
science and technology as powerful expressions of new ideas for their work, even as their
autonomous investigations have enabled them to express ideas that have a parallel or
complementary relationship to those of science.

From the times of Franklin and Jefferson, American writers have critically examined the complex
of contradictory expectations surrounding those central terms, "science," "technology," and now
"high technology," and have found languages and artistic methods to resist their potentially
dangerous uses.
This tradition is essential, for in the words of the historian Robert V. Bruce, "Science and
technology are the prime instruments of irreversible change in the thought and life of mankind,
and for much of our own century the United States had led in wielding them. "
for the most part American writers have not found science and technology to be destructive per
se. Their concern has been with the way human beings have used them as instruments of power
and control within the industrial capitalism of the United States.
Many of these essays focus on what precisely happens at the point of contact, when the
languages or codes of the sciences touch those of art. The writer may seek a way to co-opt the
scientist by demonstrating a gain when a scientific idea is amplified through an examination of
its metaphorical meanings in the realm of art.
Writers may independently formulate in literary terms ideas that also find expression in the
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American Literature and Science


by Robert Scholnick

Claudia Stnil

sciences.
Literature and science independently investigate a "reality" that exceeds any single system of
explanation, any one language.

About the essays:


The essays on Taylor, Franklin, and Jefferson treat the relationship between literature and science
when it was possible to pursue both as part of a unitary endeavor.
The essays on three major writers from the first part of the nineteenth century, Poe, Emerson, and
Thoreau, consider their responses to the growing separation between science and literature and
the underlying search for new and deeper ways of relating them.
The final essays, analyzing the relationship after science and literature moved apart at midcentury, treat the growing gap between popular understanding and the increasingly complex
sciences.
The essays also examine the attempts by writers to develop languages that are responsive to the
new scientific complexities and the ever-increasing importance of science and technology as
agents of change.
Catherine Rainwater's essay on Edward Taylor shows how the great Puritan poet-physicianminister was able typologically to integrate recent medical concepts with his orthodox Puritan
theology.
Aldridge's essay on Franklin and Joseph W. Slade's on Jefferson show how it was possible in the
eighteenth century to integrate science and letters.
Slade, in reviewing the work of Thomas Jefferson as scientist, promoter of science, and writer,
finds no balance or "fusion" of writing and scientific investigation.
The essays on Poe, Emerson, and Thoreau explore how these American writers participated, if
belatedly, in the quest of Romanticism to integrate science and imagination.
William J. Scheick, in "An Intrinsic Luminosity: Poe's Use of Platonic and Newtonian Optics,"
shows how Poe went beyond Newton's rather mechanical theory of vision to develop a theory of
seeing that sought to account as well for the shaping of perception by the imagination.
The central figure in exploring the complex of meanings of art, science, and religion in the
nineteenth century was Emerson, who as David M. Robinson remarks in his essay, began his
career when science and literature had not yet separated.
In "Thoreau and Science" Robert D. Richardson, Jr., precisely charts Thoreau's changing
understandings of, and commitments to, both science and writing over the course of his career.
Joseph W. Slade shows how Hart Crane and John Dos Passos recognized, as did Twain, that
science and technology were critical elements in shaping American life and hence essential
subjects for the writer.
Steven Carter shows how in The Maximus Poems Charles Olson explores from the perspective
of quantum mechanics some of the ways that the realms of space, time, and consciousness
interact across a "quantum field" in which meaning is defined through comprehending complex,
shifting relationships.
In his reading the cybernetic fiction of John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, and
especially Thomas Pynchon, David Porush identifies an interpretive realm where postmodern
literature and post Einsteinian physics and other sciences come together.
In N. Katherine Hayles's concluding essay, she talks about the ways in which literature and
science interact within a common cultural field.