Text: Thomas Hall, “Poe’s Use of a Source: Davy’s Chemical Researches and “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:28


[page 28, column 1:]

Poe’s Use of a Source:
Davy’s Chemical Researches and “Von Kempelen and His Discovery”

North Texas State University

Poe’s journalistic adaptation of material — of ideas and of names and places — to add interest to his stories is well known, as is his penchant for hoaxing. For example, Poe makes his intentions in “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” quite clear in a letter to Duyckinck, dated March 18, 1849. He states unequivocally that in this story his intention is to hoax the public (about the possibility of making gold by chemistry) with his “verisimilar style”:

If you have looked over the Von Kempelen article which I left with your brother, you will have fully perceived its drift. I mean it as a kind of “exercise,” or experiment, in the plausible or verisimilar style. Of course, there is not one word of truth in it, from beginning to end. I thought that such a style, applied to the gold-excitement, could not fail of effect. My sincere opinion is that nine persons out of ten (even among the best-informed) will believe the quiz (provided the design does not leak out before publication) and that thus, acting as a sudden, although of course a very temporary, check to the gold-fever, it will create a stir to some purpose (1).

Burton R. Pollin has already given extensive attention to Poe’s idea of the “verisimilar” in this story, especially to Poe’s use of the names of real people to add greater plausibility (2). However, Poe’s use of the name of Sir Humphrey Davy, the celebrated chemist, together with passages asserted to be from Davy’s “Diary” may receive a further glance. Pollin has suggested [pp. 13 and 16] that Poe “invented quotations from non-existent diary,” in the process of which he made use of a “vague recollection” of the Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphrey Davy, written by John Davy. Pollin has not, however, given Poe sufficient credit for accurate and clever use of his source. Careful study of Davy’s works shows that Poe carefully adapted a passage from the Collected Works of Sir Humphrey Davy. Below, the passage in “Von Kempelen” is given side by side with that from Davy’s Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (London, 1839) in the Collected Works.


[Commenting that the “Diary” of Davy was not meant for the “public eye” but instead was “merely a rough note-book, ” the narrator writes as follows.] 



At page 13, for example, near the middle, we read, in reference to his research about the protoxide of azote: “In less than half a minute the respiration being continued, diminished gradually and were succeeded by analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles.” That the respiration [column 2:] was not “diminished,” is not only clear by the subsequent context, but by the use of the plural “were.” The sentence, no doubt, was thus intended: “In less than half a minute, the respiration [being continued, these feelings] diminished gradually and were succeeded by [a sensation] analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles” (3).


Having previously closed my nostrils and exhausted my [column 2:] lungs, I breathed four quarts of nitrous oxide from and into a silk bag. The first feelings were similar to those produced in the last experiment; but in less than half a minute, the respiration being continued, they diminished gradually and were succeeded by a sensation analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles, attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling. . . . [p. 272, my italics]


It may be noted at once that there is no syntactic difficulty to be encountered in Davy’s writing; Davy’s sentence structure is quite as good as his scientific accuracy.

If, indeed, this passage from Davy’s work is Poe’s immediate source — and the similarity in actual wording is so great as to make any other conclusion hardly plausible — it is possible to see more clearly than before the clever way in which Poe has used the material to add “verisimilitude” to his fictional account. Poe provides “these feelings” instead of Davy’s pronoun “they,” the antecedent of which is “first feelings” in the first part of Davy’s sentence. Poe restores Davy’s phrase “a sensation.” Rather than having had a “vague recollection” of reading Davy’s work, Poe doubtless had at hand the passage which he quotes in only slightly altered form. Either the book itself, or a review of the book or notes from one of these sources, would account for the degree of accuracy found in Poe’s rendering of the passage from Davy. By pretending to puzzle out the cryptic notes of the great chemist’s “Diary” and then “interpolating” Davy’s own phrasing, Poe not only gained an extra measure of “verisimilitude” but also penetrated a small hoax within the larger hoax. In addition, it may be noted that Poe’s whimsical assertion that the story has “not one word of truth” is not the truth; the narrative rather obviously does have a quotation that is more than partially accurate. Thus did Poe adapt material to the needs of his fiction.



(1)  The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John W. Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), II, 433. That Poe actually thought such a story could check the California gold-fever is highly unlikely; he probably made this point merely to give Duyckinck some incentive to publish the tale, an attempt which was wholly unsuccessful; the story was finally published in The Flag of Our Union (April 14, 1849).

(2)  “Poe’s Von Kempelen and His Discovery: Sources and Significance,” Études Anglaises, XX (Jan. - March 1967), 12-23.

(3)  Complete Works, ed. James A. Harrison (New York 1902), VI, 247. Italics and brackets Poe’s.  


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]