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Reading Poe's Mind: Politics, Mathematics, and the Association of Ideas in "The Murders in

the Rue Morgue"


Author(s): John T. Irwin
Source: American Literary History, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 187-206
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Reading
Politics,

Poe's

Mind:

and
Mathematics,

the
Association of Ideas
in the
"The
Murders
Rue

in

Morgue"
John T. Irwin

One of the best known and most intriguingpassages in


Poe's fictionoccursnearthe beginningof his firstdetectivestory,
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue." The narratorhas been
describingDupin's remarkablepowers of observationand deduction, and he illustratesthese with a brief example. The two
men had been walkingone eveningthroughthe streetsof Paris
in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. "Being both, apparently,
occupiedwith thought,"neitherof them "hadspokena syllable
for fifteen minutes," when suddenly Dupin breaks in on the
narrator'smeditations with the comment, "He is a very little
fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des
Varietes"(2: 533, 534). The narratorsays that he hadjust been
thinking of an actor named Chantilly, "a quondamcobbler of
the Rue St. Denis, who, becoming stage-mad, had attempted
the role of Xerxes, in Crebillon'stragedy so called, and been
notoriously Pasquinadedfor his pains" (2: 534), and he expresseshis astonishmentat Dupin's abilityto readhis thoughts.
In responseDupin explainsthe deductivemethod that allowed
him to eavesdropon his friend'smeditation.He points out that
some fifteen minutes earlier the narratorhad been jostled in
the street by a "fruiterer,with a large basket upon his head."
The man, "brushingquicklypast,"had thrustthe narratorupon
"a pile of paving-stonescollected at a spot where the causeway
is undergoingrepair"(2: 535). The incident, says Dupin, had
clearlylaunchedthe narratoron a trainof thought,and by close
observationof his facialmovementsand gesturesand by a series
of deductionsbased on his knowledgeof the narrator'sthought
processes,Dupin had reproducedthe associativelogicgoverning
his companion'smeditation,untilthe moment when he decided

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188

Reading Poe's Mind

to test the accuracyof his methodby agreeingwith the narrator's


last mental comment. As Dupin explains,the "largerlinks" in
the narrator'schain of thought "run thus-Chantilly, Orion,
Dr. Nichol, Epicurus,Stereotomy,the street stones, the fruiterer"(2: 535).
Dupin's subsequentexplanationof this chain is a remarkable exercisein the associationof ideas, an explanationthat we
will examine presentlyin some detail. But what interestsme
most about this passage,in which Dupin theorizesthe associationsthat producedthis linkingof ideasin the narrator'smind,
is the question of the actual associationsexistingin Poe's mind
that led him to create this particularsequence of thoughts as
an example of associative logic. For I would argue that this
chain growsout of the association,in Poe's mind, of the realms
of mathematics and politics in revolutionaryand postrevolutionaryFranceand that the visible link betweenthe two realms
in the narrator'strain of thought is the word "Stereotomy."
To pursuethis line of inquirywe must recallfor a moment
the importance of mathematics in Poe's three Dupin stories.
Beginningwith the narrator'sremarkat the opening of "The
Murdersin the Rue Morgue"that "the faculty of re-solution
is possibly much invigoratedby mathematical study, and especially by that highest branchof it which ... has been called
... analysis" (2: 528), the amount of mathematical reference

and imagery increases almost exponentially from one Dupin


story to the next. The second tale, "The Mystery of Marie
Roget," is filled with referencesto Laplace'scalculus of probabilities,while the thirdtale, "The PurloinedLetter,"contains,
in responseto the narrator'sremarkthat Dupin apparentlyhas
"a quarrelon hand ... with some of the algebraistsof Paris"
(3: 987), a lengthy digression by Dupin on the relationship
between the words "analysis"and "algebra."Part of the explanationfor this mathematicalcomponent in the tales is that
the Dupin storiesare subtlybut unmistakablygroundedin contemporaryFrenchpolitics, and in Francemathematicsand politics were closely linked duringthe period in which the stories
are set. Recall that Paris, besides being the center of French
political life, was at this period the mathematicalcapitalof the
world,and a greatmany of the most distinguishedFrenchmathematiciansof the late eighteenthand earlynineteenthcenturies
were eminent political figuresas well. For example, Gaspard
Monge (1746-1818), perhapsthe foremostFrenchgeometerof
his day, was a staunchrepublicanand Bonapartist.The inventor
of descriptivegeometry, Monge had already had a long and
distinguishedcareeras a teacher of mathematicswhen he was

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 189

appointed to important administrativeand political positions


duringthe Revolution and the empire (Taton). In 1792-93 he
servedbrieflyas minister of the navy. Workingto provide the
technologicalexpertiseneeded for the defense of the republic,
he took an active part in establishingthe Ecole Polytechnique,
where he taught descriptive geometry. In 1796 he made the
acquaintanceof Napoleon and later accompaniedhim on his
expeditionto Egypt.Returningto Francein 1798, he wasnamed
the firstpresidentof the Instituteof Egyptand resumedteaching
at the Polytechnique.A loyal supporterof Napoleon, Monge
was subsequentlyappointeda member of the Senate and given
the title of count of Pelusium. But later, upon Napoleon's fall,
he was strippedof his officesand titles by Louis XVIII and died
soon after (Cayley).
When Monge was expelledin 1816 from the Academiedes
Sciences, his place was filled by the appointment(not the election) of Augustin-LouisCauchy,a devout Catholicand royalist
and perhapsthe foremost French algebraistof the day. A professor first at the Ecole Polytechniqueand later at the Faculte
des Sciences and the College de France, Cauchy published in
1821 his famous Coursd'Analyse,which revolutionizedmathematicalanalysisby basingit on limits, functions,and calculus.
But just as Monge had seen the political part of his career
overwhelmthe scientificpartwith the fall of Napoleon in 1815,
so Cauchy experiencedthe same fate in 1830 when the July
Revolution replacedthe Bourbon CharlesX with the Orleans
king Louis Philippe. Refusingto take the oath of allegianceto
the new king, Cauchylost his academicpositionsand went into
self-imposedexile. In 1833 Cauchy"wascalledto Prague,where
CharlesX had settled, to assist in the education of the crown
prince" and was eventually made a baron by the ex-king as a
mark of his esteem (Freudenthal).With the revolutionof 1848
and the establishmentof the Second Republic, the oath of allegiance was repealed, and "Cauchy resumed his chair at the
Sorbonne.... He retainedthis chair even when Napoleon III
reestablishedthe oath in 1852, for Napoleon generously exempted the republicanArago and the royalistCauchy"(Freudenthal).
The fact that leading figuresfrom two distinct mathematical camps in nineteenth-centuryFrance-the geometerMonge
and the algebraistCauchy-were deeply involved, from opposite ends of the political spectrum,in the governmentalturmoil of the period explainsin partthe appropriatenessof Poe's
including a reference to mathematical partisanship(Dupin's
quarrel with "some of the algebraistsof Paris") in a tale of

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190

For in both the political


and the mathematical
spheresit must have
seemed that revolution
and counterrevolution,
exile and return,were
the orderof the day.

Reading Poe's Mind

French political intrigue like "The Purloined Letter." For in


both the political and the mathematicalspheresit must have
seemedthat revolutionand counterrevolution,exile and return,
were the order of the day. Indeed, this association of politics
and mathematicsin the affairsof the time sheds light on Poe's
choice of a name for his detective. The traditionalexplanation
of the detective's surname holds that Poe took it from one
Andre-Marie-Jean-Jacques
Dupin (1783-1865), a "Frenchadvocate and presidentof the chamber of deputies" ("Dupin").
And the evidence most frequentlycited for this identification
is the fact that Poe reviewed, in the same issue of Graham's
Magazine (April 1841) in which he publishedthe first Dupin
story, a book translatedby R. M. Walsh entitled Sketches of
ConspicuousLivingCharactersof Francethat containsa chapter devoted to the political careerof Andre Dupin (Mabbott2:
525). Moreover,the book's author,Louis Leonardde Lomenie,
describesAndreDupin in termsthat beara strikingresemblance
to those describingPoe's detective. He says, for example, that
Dupin is "a perfectlivingencyclopaedia.From Homer to Rousseau, from the Bible to the civil code, from the laws of the
twelve tables to the Koran, he has read every thing, retained
everything" (224). He also notes that Dupin's characterseems
to be compounded of nothing but antitheticalqualities, a descriptionrecallingthe narrator'ssense of his friendas "a double
Dupin" whose dual powers of intellect-the creative and the
resolvent-recalled "the old philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul"
(Mabbott2: 533):
He is the personage for whom the painters of political
portraits,make the most enormous consumption of antithesis.In the same picture,he will be drawnas both great
and little, courageousand timid ... white and black;there
is no understandingit.... If, like every one else, and even
more than everyone else, the honourabledeputyof Nievre
has his contrasts of light and shade, is it thereforeto be
supposed,that so many heterogeneouselements are combined in him in such equal proportions,as to render his
charactera jumble so strange as to be absolutely monstrous?(Lomenie 210-11)
Perhapsthe most interestingpiece of informationthat Lomenie providesabout Andre Dupin for our purposesis that he
has a brother,the BaronCharlesDupin (1784-1873), who is a
famous mathematician. Now while it seems fairly clear that
Poe had the lawyerand politician Andre Dupin in mind when

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 191

he chose a name for his detective in the first Dupin story, it


seems equallyclearthat Poe had CharlesDupin in mind as well
when he providedhis detectivewith an antitheticaldouble, the
MinisterD_, in the thirdstory.In givingthe Ministerthe same
initial as Dupin (and as the word "double"), Poe suggests a
structuralkinship between the two opponents, a kind of antithetical "family resemblance."Poe guided himself in creating
this resemblanceby taking biographicaldetails from both Dupin brothersand giving them to the charactersof the detective
and his rival, the MinisterD_.
We can see this process more clearly if we examine for a
moment the career of the mathematicianCharles Dupin. He
graduated"in 1803 from the Ecole Polytechnique... as a naval
engineer,"having been a studentthere of the geometerMonge
(Struik).When Dupin published his Developpementsde geometriein 1813, he acknowledgedthis discipleshipby dedicating
the work to his "illustre maitre" Monge. Occupying himself
mainly with naval engineeringprojectsduringthe firsttwo decades of the nineteenthcentury, CharlesDupin eventuallybecame "professorof mechanics at the Paris Conservatoiredes
Arts et Metiers,a position he held until 1854" (Struik).In 1824
he was made a baron by Louis XVIII;in 1828, elected deputy
for Tarn; in November 1834, served briefly as "minister of
marineaffairs";in 1838, was made a peer;and finallyin 1852,
became a member of the Senate (Struik).
In "The PurloinedLetter"Poe indicates that he has both
Dupin brothersin mind by having the narratorremarkof the
MinisterD : "Thereare two brothersI know; and both have
attainedreputationin letters.The MinisterI believe has written
learnedlyon the DifferentialCalculus"(3: 986). Undoubtedly
one of the reasonsthat Poe associatesboth the Dupins with this
storyis that the tale is set againstthe complex politicalbackdrop
of the French court, a court with which both brothers were
involved to varying degrees. From internal evidence we can
make a fairlyaccurateestimate of the political period in which
the action of "The PurloinedLetter"takes place. In all of the
Dupin stories, Poe refers to the prefect of the Paris police as
G_, and Poe scholarshave generallytaken this to be the initial,
as Mabbottnotes, of "Henri-JosephGisquet... prefectof police in Paris, 1831-1836. ... Baudelairein 1865 identifiedG_
as Gisquet"in a footnote to his translationof"The Mysteryof
MarieRoget"(2: 573n31). Given that Gisquetwas prefectfrom
1831 to 1836, the French king and queen in the tale would
then be Louis Philippe and his queen, Maria Amelia.
Louis Philippe,the duke of Orleans,had, of course,gained

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192

Reading Poe's Mind

the throneas a resultof the revolutionof 1830, in whichCharles


X attemptedto abdicatein favor of his grandsonthe comte de
Chambord (with Louis Philippe as regent) but was deposed
instead by the Chamber of Deputies who "proclaimedLouis
Philippe 'King of the French by the grace of God and the will
of the people'" (Phillips).Andre Dupin, as one of the leading
membersof the Chamberof Deputies, had playeda majorrole
in the events of July 1830.
In the politicalspectrumof the period,Andre Dupin seems
to have maintained a fairly consistent stance of liberal opposition to absolute rule. In 1815, as a member of the Chamber
of Deputies, he "strenuouslyopposed the election of the son of
Napoleon as emperorafterhis father'sabdication"("Dupin").
After the restorationDupin was not reelectedto the Chamber
of Deputies, and the new monarchy"made an effortto win the
distinguishedadvocate"with the offerof a position as secretary
general in the Department of Justice (Lomenie 218). Dupin
refused,choosing instead to defend "with great intrepiditythe
political victims of the reaction," most notably MarshalNey
("Dupin").Likemany liberalsof the period,AndreDupin found
Louis Philippe, who had been a republicanhero at the battle
of Jemappesand had courtedthe favorof the liberalbourgeoisie
throughouthis adult life, an attractivepolitical alternativeto
the other members of the royal family, and he became Louis
Philippe'spersonalfriendand political ally, servingfrom 1817
as "one of his legal counselors ... and as his business agent"

(Brown).In 1820 Louis Philippe appointed Andre Dupin "a


memberof his privatecouncil" (Lomenie218). In 1827 Dupin
was again elected to the Chamberof Deputies, taking"his seat
in the left centre" (Lomenie 218), and after the accession of
Louis Philippein 1830, Dupin became presidentof the Chamber of Deputies in 1832, an office he held for the next eight
years.
At the period, then, in which "The Purloined Letter" is
set-somewhere in the five-yearspace between 1831 and 1836
when Gisquetwas prefectof the Parispolice, and probablyafter
late 1832 when Dupin became president of the Chamber of
Deputies- AndreDupin'srelationshipwith LouisPhilippe(first
as his businessagent and a member of his privatecouncil, then
as a deputy who worked for his accession to the throne, and
finally as presidentof the Chamberof Deputies) was certainly
as intimate as the MinisterD_'s was with the king in the tale,
which is to say, a relationshipclose enough that it permitted
the Minister D_ to enter the royal boudoir for an audience
with the king and, afterconducting"businesstransactions,"to

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 193

converse"for some fifteenminutes, upon the public affairs"(3:


977), as if his visit were an everydayoccurrence.The difficulty
hereis that Poe gives D the title "Minister,"a title that allows
for some confusion;for while Andre Dupin had served briefly
as "ministerwithout portfolio"in the firstcabinet formed after
the revolution of 1830, his brotherCharles,as we noted, had
also served briefly as minister of marine affairsin 1834. One
might wonder, then, whether Poe had taken the name of his
detectivefrom one brother(the politicianAndre)and the character of the Minister D_ from the other brother(the mathematicianCharles,who, in his applicationof differentialcalculus
to geometryin the Developpements,could certainlyhave been
said to have "writtenlearnedlyon the DifferentialCalculus,"
as the narratorsays of the Minister D_). Yet to judge from
Lomenie's descriptionof the way in which the press portrayed
Andre Dupin at the time of the July Revolution (a portrayal
that Lomenie feels is unjustand attemptsto correct),the characterof the MinisterD_ (whomPoe describesas a man of"daring, dashing, and discriminatingingenuity" [3: 990], given to
political intrigueand the use of influenceto satisfyhis personal
ambitionforpower)seemsto be derivedfromthe popularimage
of the politician Andre ratherthan from his brother Charles.
It would seem, then, that Poe took the surname and some of
the mental traits of his detective as well as the broad outline of
the MinisterD_'s politicalcharacterfrom one brother(Andre),
while in "The PurloinedLetter"he added to the charactersof
both the detective and the Minister features taken from the
other brother (Charles).In so doing, Poe was able to superimpose upon the figuresof the detective and the Minister an
image of structuralkinship(the antitheticaltwinshipof doubles)
and thus personifythe creative/resolventpower of mind which
they shared as that of poet and mathematician, a move that
took advantageof the fact that one of the Dupin brotherswas
actuallya famous mathematician.(Whateverthe Dupin brothers' poetic talentsmight have been-and certainlywritingverse
was a standardaccomplishmentfor men of their class and era,
as evidencedby the reamsof bad poetryproducedby the mathematicianCauchy-history seems to have ignoredthem as poets.)
In minglingdetailsfromthe careersof the two Dupin brothersin "ThePurloinedLetter,"Poe may well have been reflecting
the combined influencethat nineteenth-centuryFrenchpolitics
and mathematicshad had on the specificcircumstancesof his
own mathematical education. Recall that when Poe left the
Universityof Virginiain 1826 afterhis fosterfatherJohn Allan

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194

Reading Poe's Mind

had withdrawnhis financialsupport,he traveledto Boston and


enlisted as a private in the US Army in May 1827 under the
name EdgarA. Perry.He spentthe next two yearsin the service
and was eventually promoted to sergeantmajor, the highest
enlisted rank. Having paid a substituteto serve out his enlistment, he was honorablydischargedin April 1829 and sought
an appointment to West Point. Poe entered the US Military
Academy as a cadet in July 1830-the same month in which
Andre Dupin was, according to Lomenie, continually mentioned in the French press for his active role in the events of
the JulyRevolution,whichbroughtLouisPhilippeto the throne.
And the school that Poe entered at West Point that summer
was one whose curriculumhad been modeled since 1817, when
Major SylvanusThayerbecame superintendent,on that of the
Ecole Polytechniquein Paris, the school createdby Monge in
1794 to trainengineersand scientistsfor republicanFranceand
at which CharlesDupin had been educated.
In 1815 Thayer had been sent abroad by the War Department "to look into the military system of Europe,particularlyof France"(Cajori114).Thayer,who had graduatedfrom
West Point in 1808 and taught mathematicsthere from 181012, was a Francophile,and most of the two and a half yearshe
stayedin Europewerespentin Parisexaminingthe organization
of varioustechnical schools (Molloy 386-87). In 1816 Thayer
was informedby the War Departmentthat, upon his returnto
the US, he would become superintendentof the US Military
Academy,andit waswith the reformof WestPoint'scurriculum
in mind that Thayer focused his attention on the Ecole Polytechnique.Thayerwas able "to spend time with facultymembers at Polytechnique"through the help of the Marquis de
Lafayetteand GeneralSimon Bernard,"who was about to sail
for the United States as Chief of the Board of Fortifications"
(Molloy 388).
Bernard,an early graduateof the Polytechnique,had entered the French army's engineerscorps and eventually risen
to become Napoleon's aide-de-campin 1813 and a field marshal the followingyear (Carter307). With the fall of Napoleon,
he emigratedto the US, havingacceptedan appointmentin the
"Corpsof Engineers,with the rankof BrigadierGeneral"(Molloy 368). In the US, Bernard"executeda number of extensive
militaryworksfor the government,notablyat FortressMonroe,
Virginia"("Bernard").(We might note in passing that as an
enlistedman in the US Army, Poe was stationedat Fort Monroe, Virginia,from December 1828 to April 1829 [Thomasand
Jackson 87-90].) In 1830, after the July Revolution, Bernard

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 195

returnedto France and was appointed a lieutenantgeneralby


Louis Philippe. He became aide-de-campto the king in 1832,
served briefly as minister of war in November 1834, and was
again appointedministerof war in 1836 (Carter307). Bernard
would thus have been ministerof war in 1834 at the same time
that CharlesDupin was minister of marine affairsand Andre
Dupin was presidentof the Chamberof Deputies. It was Bernard, then, who helped Thayer find his "way in Parisian scientific circles" in 1815-16, arrangingfor him "to receive instructionin descriptivegeometry,and in advancedstonecutting"
at the Ecole Polytechnique(Molloy 374), and it was Bernard
againwho, as a brigadiergeneralin the Corpsof Engineersand
chief of the Board of Fortifications,acted as Thayer'sstaunch
supporterin modelingthe curriculumof the MilitaryAcademy
on that of the French technical school.
To understandwhat that modelinginvolved, we must consider for a moment the originalpurpose of the Polytechnique
as it was conceivedby Monge in 1794, comparedto its purpose
in 1816 when Thayersaw it. When Monge drewup the original
curriculumfor the Polytechnique,he planned to create a pure
engineeringschool, a single institution to train France'scivil,
military, and naval engineers,and for the first five years of its
existence this was the role the Polytechnique filled. But in
1800 the curriculumbegan to change. As a result of constant
political pressure from the Ecoles d'Application (specialized
schools of advanced training in science and engineering),the
Polytechniquegraduallybecame a preparatoryschool for the
advanced schools, with its length reduced from three years to
two and its curriculumdevoted to pure and applied mathematics rather than to engineering(Molloy 70, 78). In 1804
Napoleon militarizedthe Polytechnique,requiringthe students
to wear uniforms, perform infantrydrill, and live in barracks
at the school (Molloy 80), for the emperor'smain interest in
the institutionwas as a source of engineersand artilleryofficers
for the army. But his decision to place the studentsunder military disciplinewas promptedas well by the fact that the Polytechnique was a bastion of republicansentiment, manifested
in early 1804 in a seriesof anti-Bonapartistacts by the student
body. Indeed,this strongrepublicanbias remainedan ongoing
aspect of the school, as demonstratedsome twenty-fiveyears
later when the students "went in a body to the barricadesto
fight for the Liberalsin the Revolution of 1830" (Molloy 85).
The Polytechniquewhich Thayer saw in 1815-17, then,
was a military school with long-standingrepublicantraditions
and a curriculumdevoted to pure and applied mathematics.

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196

Reading Poe's Mind

But "Thayerhad no intention of modeling West Point's curriculum after the advanced and highly abstractcurriculumof
the Ecole Polytechniqueof 1815; instead,he looked back to the
curriculumof the years 1795-1804, when the Polytechnique
had been a genuine engineeringschool. Perhaps Thayer was
influencedin this respectby GeneralBernard,an earlygraduate
of the Polytechnique"(Molloy 389). Though mathematicswas
at the core of the curriculumthat Thayerestablished,the emphasis was on its practical applications, with a specific bias
against the theoretical:"The Cadets were not encouragedto
expressthemselvesin abstractterms"(Molloy432-33). Indeed,
one wonderswhetherDupin's quarrelwith "some of the algebraistsof Paris"reflectsa bias againsttheoreticalmathematics
left over from Poe's education at West Point.
Thayer copied not only West Point's curriculumand its
system of examinationsfrom the Polytechniquebut even specific regulations,such as that forbiddingcadets to have any
books in their rooms "beyond prescribedtexts and reference
works" (Molloy 390). In addition, he employed a graduateof
the Polytechnique,ClaudeCrozet,to teach engineering.Crozet,
who had been an artilleryofficerin Napoleon's army, had accompanied Bernardto the US in 1816, servingfirst as an engineer in the US Army and then on the engineeringfaculty at
West Point from 1816 to 1823. Like Charles Dupin, Crozet
had been a student of Monge's at the Polytechnique,and he
introducedinto the US the study of descriptivegeometry,the
field that Monge had invented. In 1821 Crozet published A
Treatise of DescriptiveGeometryfor the Use of Cadets of the
U.S.M.A.,a text that was still "the standardwork for third and
fourthclassmenuntil 1832" (Molloy 444) and would thus have
been availableto Poe.
WhenPoe enteredthe MilitaryAcademyin 1830, Thayer's
Polytechnique-derivedcurriculumhad been in place for thirteen years,and so we can be fairlycertainwhat Poe's course of
studies involved. For the firsttwo years at West Point, a cadet
concentratedon two subjects-mathematics and French.In the
examinationsystem "subjectswere weightedaccordingto their
importance.Thus for freshmen,who studiedonly mathematics
and French, the former subject received a weight of two, the
latter a weight of one" (Molloy 438). Includedin the study of
mathematics was "a little drawing,and a fair amount of descriptive geometry" (Molloy 441). In his first year, a cadet,
"even in the slowestsection, masteredalgebra,plane geometry,
plane analytic geometry, plane trigonometry,and basic techniques of surveying;the advanced section covered advanced

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 197

plane and sphericalgeometry in addition to the previous subjects" (Molloy 422). Poe was in the advancedsection in mathematics, as he braggedto John Allan in a letter dated 6 November 1830: "I have an excellentstandingin my class-in the
firstsection in every thing and have greathopes of doing well."
But he adds that "the study requisiteis incessant,and the discipline exceedinglyrigid."He goes on to note, "I am very much
pleasedwith Colonel Thayer,and indeed with everythingat the
institution"(Letters38).
As one of Poe's contemporariesat West Point, A. B. Magruder, recalled, Poe "was an accomplished French scholar,
and had a wonderfulaptitude for mathematics"(Thomas and
Jackson 107). Indeed, Poe's standingin his studies, as he told
Allan, was excellent:after the Januaryexaminationsin 1831,
he was third in French and seventeenth in mathematics in a
classof eighty-seven(Thomasand Jackson 112). And since "the
performanceof each Cadet was chartedon a daily basis," with
the gradesbeingturnedoverto the superintendentweekly(Molloy 428), Poe's rankingin these areasduringhis five months of
classes at West Point is a significantgauge of his ability, particularlyof his mathematicalaptitude, for at the time that Poe
attendedWest Point and for severaldecadesafter,the Military
Academy was "unquestionablythe most influential mathematical school in the United States"(Cajori 121).
Poe's sense of his high academic standingin his class can
be seen in a subsequentletterto the superintendent.Aftergetting
himself court-martialedin February1831 for "grossneglect of
duty" and "disobedienceof orders"and dismissed from West
Point, Poe wrote Thayer on 10 March requestinga letter of
recommendation:"I intend by the firstopportunityto proceed
to Paris with the view of obtaining, thro' the interest of the
Marquis de La Fayette, an appointment (if possible) in the
PolishArmy. In the event of the interferenceof Francein behalf
of Polandthis may be easily effected.... A certificateof'standing' in my class is all that I have any rightto expect. Any thing
farther-a letterto a friendin Paris-or to the Marquis-would
be a kindnesswhich I should neverforget"(Letters44-45). One
wonderswhetherPoe's plan to go to Paristo continuea military
careerafterhis dismissalfrom West Point had been influenced
by the recentreturnto Franceof Bernard.Indeed,one wonders
whetherBernardwas Thayer's"friendin Paris"mentioned in
Poe's letter. French army recordsshow that Bernardhad "returned to active service in the Corps of Engineers"as of 12
February1831 (Carter307), a month before Poe's letter.
To judge, then, from the curriculumat West Point in Poe's

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198

Reading Poe's Mind

day, it seems fairlycertainthat his courseof studiestherewould


have indelibly linked in his mind the subject of mathematics
with contemporaryFrenchpolitics. It would have done so not
just because Poe was requiredto spend five of the nine hours
a day that cadets devoted to their studies on learningmathematicsandthe otherfouron French,but becausethe veryreason
for this odd, two-subjectcurriculumfor new cadetswas rooted
in the eventsof recentFrenchhistory-the foundingof the Ecole
Polytechniquein revolutionaryFranceto providecivil and military engineersfor the fortificationand defense of the republic;
the militarizationof the school in 1804 by Napoleon; the departurefrom France, upon the fall of Napoleon and the restorationof the monarchy,of some of the Polytechnique'smost
distinguishedgraduates(such as Bernardand Crozet)to follow
careersin the US Army; the modeling of West Point's curriculum on that of the Polytechniqueand the resultantneed for
the cadets to know French well enough to keep up with the
latest mathematical developments at the school (Thayer had
purchasedover a thousand technical books in France for the
West Point libraryduringhis 1815-17 sojourn);and the return
of Bernardto France,upon the accession of Louis Philippe,to
rejointhe Frencharmy and ultimatelybecome ministerof war,
servingalongsidehis fellow PolytechnicianCharlesDupin, who
was ministerof marine affairs.
All of which ultimately returnsus to the passagein "The
Murdersin the Rue Morgue"where Dupin explains the train
of thought initiated in the narrator'smind by his beingjostled
in the streetby a tradesmanand thrustagainsta pile of paving
stones and returnsus with enough backgroundinformationto
explain why Poe createdthis specific sequence of thoughts as
an example of associativelogic. Noticing that the narrator,in
the wake of beingthrustagainstthe pile of stones,keepslooking
at the roughpavementas he walks, Dupin concludesthat he is
"stillthinkingof the stones,"and when they reach"a little alley
calledLamartine,which has been paved,by way of experiment,
with the overlappingand riveted blocks," he notes that the
narrator'slips move, and he assumesthat he is murmuring"the
word 'stereotomy,'a term affectedlyapplied to this species of
pavement"(2: 535-36). Accordingto the OxfordEnglish Dictionary,the word stereotomyliterallyrefersto "the science or
art of cutting, or making sections of, solids; the art of cutting
stoneor othersolidbodiesinto measuredforms,as in masonry."
Therefore,the applicationof the word to a particularform of
road paving does seem, as Dupin says, somewhataffected.But

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 199

recallthat what interestsus here is not so much the fictivechain


of associations in the narrator'smind as the real chain of associations in Poe's. By calling attention to the affected use of
the word stereotomy,Poe seems to be encouragingthe reader
to inquireinto its more normaluse. And as one of the historical
citations in the OED makes clear, stereotomywas, at the time
and place in which the story is set, a word with very specific
technical connotations: "Stereotomy ... in the scientific lan-

guage of the Polytechnic School, signifies that part of stonecutting,on which Frezierand De la Rue have writtenso much."
Indeed, in the curriculumfor the Polytechniquethat Monge
drew up in 1794, half of the time allotted for mathematical
study"wouldbe given overto 'stereotomy,'or civil and military
engineering,"an area of study that "included descriptivegeometry, mechanicaldrawing,theoriesof shadowsand perspective and their applications to stone and wood cutting techniques"(Molloy 104) for use in roadbuilding,bridgeand canal
construction,and harborimprovementsand fortifications.Poe's
use of the word, then, almost certainly reflectshis own Polytechnique-basedschooling at West Point and possibly reflects
as well his sense of the influence that the Polytechnique'sscientificinnovationshad had on daily life in Franceby the 1830s.
And, indeed, I think we can detect here some of the associations at work in Poe's own mind that led him to use this
odd technicalterm connectedwith the Polytechnique.The chain
of associationswould seem to beginwith Poe's choice of a name
for "the little alley" whose pavingremindedthe narratorof the
word stereotomy. He calls the alley "Lamartine."Mabbott is
undoubtedlycorrectin thinkingthat the name is an allusionto
"the voluminous poet" Alphonse de Lamartine(1790-1869).
Accordingto Mabbott,Poe consideredLamartine"a bore, and
slyly gave his name to a little alley" (2: 571nl 8). But there is
clearlymore involved in his use of the name thanjust a passing
slap at a boring poet. Like Andre Dupin, Lamartinewas one
of the figuresdiscussedat lengthin Lomenie'sSketchesof Conspicuous Living Charactersof France, the book that Poe reviewed in the same issue of Graham'sMagazine in which he
published "The Murdersin the Rue Morgue." In the chapter
devoted to him, Lamartineis depicted as a man who has succeeded in a dual career-being both a brilliant poet and an
adept politician. Having held various diplomatic posts under
the restoredmonarchy, Lamartineeventuallybecame a member of the Chamberof Deputies in 1834, servingin that body
at the same period when Andre Dupin was its presidentand

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200

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Charles Dupin, another member, was appointed minister of


marine affairs.
At the beginning of his political career, Lamartine endeavored,says Lomenie, "to respondboth to the inspirationof
the poet and the functions of the deputy" (121), but as time
passed, he tended to regardpoetry as the "humble vassal of
politics" and to resent those who "would confine him to his
poetic inaction" at the expense of his "social labour" (122).
The sight of one of France'sgreatestpoets preferringpolitical
involvement to artistic achievement gave rise, says Lomenie,
"in the literaryworld to gravediscussionsupon the mission of
the poet in modem societies" (122), as well as to a feeling on
the partof many in Francethat while the countryhad "no want
of politicians" it had "only one poet" like Lamartine(123).
The image of Lamartinethat emerges,then, from the book is
that of a poet-politician;and since CharlesDupin (who is mentioned in the chapter on his brother Andre) was an eminent
mathematician-politician,one wonderswhether,in designating
the MinisterD_ as both "poet and mathematician,"Poe recalledfrom Lomenie'sworkthat a famouspoet and a renowned
mathematicianhad both been importantpoliticalfiguresin the
Chamberof Deputies over which Andre Dupin presided.
If for Poe the name of the poet-politicianLamartinewas
associatedwith the name of his opposite, the mathematicianpoliticianCharlesDupin, then it would have been a short step
from the latterindividual,a star pupil of Monge'sat the Polytechnique, to a word closely associated with the Polytechnique's curriculum-stereotomy. That Poe's use of the word
was promptedby its associationwith the Polytechniqueis furtherconfirmedby the factthat in the narrator'strainof thought,
as explicated by Dupin, "stereotomy"leads him to think immediately of atomies, the theories of Epicurus,and finally of
the way in which "the vague guesses of that noble Greek had
met with confirmationin the late nebularcosmogony"(2: 536);
and we know from Eureka the name of the French mathematician whom Poe always associated with that "most magnificent of theories"-"the Nebular Cosmogony of Laplace"
(245). Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827), whose calculus of
probabilitiesprovides, as we noted earlier, a kind of mathematical-philosophicalbackgroundfor the second Dupin story,
was, like Monge, associated with the Ecole Polytechniquein
both a mathematicaland political capacity, though often this
relationshipwas more adversarialthan otherwise.When Napoleon seized power in 1799, Monge became the director of
the Polytechnique,and Laplacebecame for a briefperiod min-

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 201

ister of the interior,head of the governmentaldepartmentthat


administeredthe school. Laplace favored the legislative bill
changing the curriculumof the Polytechnique from an engineering school to a school of pure and applied mathematics,
and the bill became law in December 1799 (Molloy 78). Several
years later Laplace again alteredthe structureof the Polytechniquewhen, afterthe fall of Napoleon, he headeda commission
to reorganizethe school in 1816 (Molloy 88). It would seem,
then, that besides being linked in Poe's mind with the calculus
of probabilities,the author of the nebularcosmogony may also
have been associatedwith that peculiarlyFrenchblend of mathematics and politics that characterizedthe Polytechnique,the
school whose curriculumhad been the basis of Poe's own mathematical education.
If the mention of the nebularcosmogony (with its implicit
link to Laplace and thence to the Polytechnique)does indeed
representanotherecho of the connectionbetweenmathematics
and politics in Franceat this period,then we can perhapsdetect
the image patternthat triggeredPoe's own mental associations
as he createdthe narrator'sfictive train of thought. Recall that
the incident begins with the narrator'sbeing bumped by a laborerin the streetand his fallingagainsta pile of pavingstones.
Since the narratorseems to be of the same upper-classsocial
stratumas the ChevalierC. Auguste Dupin, his being jostled,
inadvertentlyor not, by a common laborergives added significance to the detail of his fallingagainstthe pavingstones. Since
the French Revolution the most readilyavailableweapons for
the Parisianmob in the periodic uprisingsthat convulsed the
countrywerethe pavingstonesin the streets,torn up and hurled
at the enemy. And the narratoris in fact slightly injured by
being thrust againstthe pile of stones.
I would suggestthat what governsthe imageryin the narrator'strain of thoughtis preciselythis opposition betweenlow
and high, betweencommon laborerand aristocrat,betweenthe
lowly pavingstones (at which the narratorcontinuesto gaze for
several minutes as he walks) and the constellation Orion (to
which he directs his attention when the chain of associations
leads him to think of the nebular cosmogony). At the period
in which the tale is set, the most recent example of a popular
uprisingin Paris would have been the revolution of 1830, the
uprisingin whose wake the poet Lamartine,a descendantof an
upper-classfamily, became a member of the popularlyelected
Chamber of Deputies. If we are correct in thinking that Poe
antitheticallyassociatedthe figureof Lamartinewith that of the
Baron CharlesDupin-one a poet, one a mathematician;both

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202

Reading Poe's Mind

involved in politics as members of the legislature;one bearing


the same name as the detective who traces the associationsin
the narrator'sthoughts-then thereis probablyboth a highroad
and a low road leading to the next link in the chain (the word
"stereotomy").The high road leads from Lamartineto Charles
Dupin, and then to Dupin's associationwith the Polytechnique
and the use of the word stereotomy in its curriculumto refer
to the type of civil engineeringthat includedtechniquesof stonecutting for road building.The low road leads from the laborer
who jostles the narratoragainstthe pile of pavingstones, to the
little street called Lamartine,to the sufferingsof Lamartine's
aristocraticfamily at the hands of the mob duringthe French
Revolution as recountedby Lomenie, to Lamartine'ssurvival
to become a popular figureand a member of the Chamberof
Deputies (a body that both representsthe populaceand tries to
preventits risingup and restoringthe chaos of the Revolution),
and finally to the particularform of paving in the little alley
named Lamartine, a paving that employs "overlappingand
riveted blocks" (2: 536) that are clearly difficult to dislodge,
stones that cannot rise out of their place and hurt the people
that walk on them. (We should note that afterits militarization
in 1804, the Polytechniquechangedfrom being a school open
to any brightyoung studentof whateversocial class to a school
"for the sons of the middle and upperclasses" [Molloy 86], so
that this road-buildingtechnique meant to keep the paving
stones in their place [and associated with the Polytechnique
throughthe word "stereotomy"]suggeststhe way in which the
technical and scientific advances that grew out of the revolutionary spirit which created the Polytechniqueeventually became middle-classtools for discouragingcontinued revolution
by the lower class.)
Clearly, the symbolic equation at work in the narrator's
train of thought identifiesthe members of the lower class (the
laborersin the road) with the paving stones beneath the narrator's feet-each (person and stone) being a basic, atomlike
elementin a largerstructure(stateand street).Giventhis implied
comparison, it is not surprisingthat Dupin continues his explication of the narrator'sthought processesby remarking,"I
knew that you could not say to yourself 'stereotomy'without
being broughtto think of atomies, and thus of the theories of
Epicurus;and since, when we discussed this subject not very
long ago, I mentionedto you how singularly,yet with how little
notice, the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with
confirmation in the late nebular cosmogony, I felt that you
could not avoid casting your eyes upwardto the great nebula

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 203

in Orion" (2: 536). From the implicit imagery of common


laborersand paving stones as atoms in a largerbody, the chain
of associationsruns to the theory of the ancient Greek philosopherEpicurusthat all thingsare composed of atoms, and then
on to a modem derivationfrom that theory, Laplace'snebular
cosmogony. In Eureka Poe discussesthe link betweenthe work
of Epicurusand Laplace by noting that Laplace's
originalidea seems to have been a compound of the true
Epicureanatoms with the false nebulae of his contemporaries;and thus his theory presents us with the singular
anomaly of absolutetruth deduced, as a mathematicalresult, from a hybrid datum of ancient imagination intertangledwith modem inacumen.Laplace'srealstrengthlay,
in fact, in an almost miraculousmathematicalinstinct:...
in the case of the Nebular Cosmogony, it led him, blindfolded, througha labyrinthof Error,into one of the most
luminous and stupendoustemples of Truth. (266)
Recall that when Dupin originallylisted the "largerlinks"
in the narrator'schain of thoughtthe list ran:"Chantilly,Orion,
Dr. Nichol, Epicurus,Stereotomy,the street stones, the fruiterer."But in his subsequentexplanationof this sequence,Dupin
never tells us who Dr. Nichol is or how he fits into the chain
of associations. Mabbott notes that "Dr. John PringleNichol
(1804-1859), Regius Professorof Astronomy at GlasgowUniversity,publishedin 1837 [a] popularpresentationof the findings and theoriesof currentastronomy,"in which he quotes at
length from the work of Sir William Herschel on the Orion
nebula and "describesthe nebular hypothesis" (2: 570n16).
Thus Nichol's book, in describingthe Orion nebula, forms the
connectinglink between Laplace'snebularcosmogony (which
Poe takes to be a modem scientific restatementof Epicurean
atomism)and the constellationOrion.That Poe did not include
Dr. Nichol in Dupin's explication of the narrator'schain of
thought seems simply to be an oversight.
As the narrator'sgaze rises (throughhis thoughts of Epicurean atomism and Laplace's nebular cosmogony) from the
individual paving stones to the great nebula in Orion, the sociopolitical aspect of this movement from low to high is made
clear by the final link in the associativechain. Having seen the
narratorlook up at the constellationOrion, Dupin says, "But
in that bitter tirade upon Chantilly,which appearedin yesterday's 'Musee,' the satirist, making some disgracefulallusions
to the cobbler's change of name upon assuming the buskin,

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204

Reading Poe's Mind

quoted a Latin line about which we have often conversed. I


mean the line
Perdiditantiquumliteraprima sonum
I had told you that this was in referenceto Orion, formerly
written Urion.... It was clear, therefore,that you would not
fail to combine the two ideas of Orion and Chantilly"(2: 536).
Earlierthe narratorhad told us thatwhen Dupin suddenlybroke
in on his unspokenchainofthoughtthe subjectof his meditation
at that moment had been this same Chantilly, "a quondam
cobbler of the Rue St. Denis, who, becoming stage-mad,had
attemptedthe role of Xerxes, in Crebillon'stragedyso called,
and been notoriouslyPasquinadedfor his pains" (2: 534). The
Latin line that Dupin cites is, as Mabbottnotes, from a passage
in Ovid's Fasti (5.536) "concerningthe birth of the 'Boeotian
Orion'" and the derivation of his original name "Urion" (2:
571n22). According to Ovid, Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury
had been journeyingone day and acceptedat nightfallthe hospitality of a farmernamed Hyrieus. In returnfor his kindness
they grantedhim a favor. Hyrieus was old and widowed and
had never had a son but wanted one. The three gods granted
his request: they took a bullock's hide, urinated on it, then
coveredit with earth,and in ten monthsa son was born.Hyrieus
called the boy Urion because of the manner of his begetting,
the name deriving from the Greek word for urine; though as
Ovid remarksin the line Dupin quotes, "The firstletter of his
name has lost its original sound." Dupin's learned allusion,
evokingthe notion of a name changethat disguisesa laughable,
not to say faintly obscene, origin, is undoubtedlymeant as a
furtherslap at Chantilly, suggestingthat the cobbler'schange
of name may hide an origin equally comic.
Accordingto Dupin, then, the link between the ideas of
Orionand Chantillyis simplythat each has undergonea change
of name, but for Poe the connection between the two is more
complex than that. Clearly,withinthe high/low oppositionthat
governsthe passage'simagery,Chantillyrepresentsa member
of the lower class who has attemptedto rise above his station
by playing the role of a king, and his new name, the same as
the French city famous for fine lace (a common ornament of
the aristocracy),makeshis upper-classaspirationsobvious.Given Poe's associationof the lower classeswith the pavingstones,
it is only appropriatethat Chantillyshouldbe a formercobbler,
someone whose tradedependsupon the literalcontact between
shoe leather and cobblestones ("cobbler"and "cobblestone"

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AmericanLiteraryHistory 205

share a common root). The associative link between the constellationof starscalled Orion and the actor Chantillyis, then,
not just that both had had other names at one time but that
Chantillyhas attemptedto rise in society from his formercobblestone-orientedtradeby becoming a starin the theaterin the
tragicrole of a king. The use of "star"to referto the principal
actorin a theatricalproductionhad, as the OED shows,become
commonplace by the 1820s.
From a would-be theatricalstar to the image of stars in
the heavens is an easy mental step, but a stellar translation,
whetherin the theateror in ancientmythology,is more difficult
for a groundlingto effect, particularlywhen the groundlingin
question is built too close to the ground to reach that high.
Dupin says that when the narratorthought of "the poor cobbler's immolation" by the press, he changed his posture: "So
far,you had been stoopingin your gait;but now I saw you draw
yourselfup to your full height.I was then surethat you reflected
upon the diminutive figureof Chantilly.At this point I interrupted your meditations to remark that as, in fact, he was a
very little fellow-that Chantilly-he would do better at the
Theatredes Varietes"(2: 536-37). That the narratorinterprets
the public humiliation of this lowly upstartas having a larger
social significance,a significancethat bears on the narrator's
being jostled in the street by a common laborer, seems clear
from the fact that aftergazingdown at the pavementand stooping in his gait followingthe incident with the laborer,the narrator appearsto recover himself, to rememberwho and what
he is by drawing himself up to his full height. This almost
subliminaldramaof the tensionsbetweenhigh and low in postrevolutionaryFranceis, of course, wholly appropriateto a tale
in which a humanlikeanimal slave firstmimics or, if you will,
apes its master(the shavingepisode)and then breaksloose from
its master'scontrolto spreadterrorthroughthe streetsof Paris.
That the fallen aristocratDupin intervenesin this case of master/slave reversalto help restoreorderbespeaksa political orientation that later becomes explicit in "The PurloinedLetter"
when he intervenesagain, this time on the side of royalty, to
thwart another master/slave reversal-an orientation that no
doubt reflectedto some degree the political sentiments of the
fallen Virginia gentleman who invented Dupin, a gentleman
who, after his wealthy foster father had disowned him, spent
the restof his life tryingto regainhis lost social statusby playing
the role of the mastermind,hopingto risethroughthe uncertain
social ranks of JacksonianAmerica by the power of sheer intelligenceto occupy his rightfulposition in an American aris-

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tocracy that would be based, as Jeffersonsaid, not on wealth


and birth but on brains and ability.
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