Popular Science

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For much of the nineteenth century the popular idea of science in general was based upon the notion of "vitalism," the belief that no living phenomenon could be defined or described by purely physical and chemical principles. Some unknown force, distinct from any other natural force, conditioned every action, whether it was magnetic, electric, or some other phenomenon of unseen waves.

Scientists at the time were fascinated by invisible fluids and forces in everything from miraculous gases to Isaac Newton's gravity and Benjamin Franklin's electricity. It was Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) who named this force "animal magnetism" and described it as an extremely subtle universal fluid that permeated all things, ebbing and flowing in a kind of magnetic tidal manner. Whoever could control this fluid as it entered the human body could control illness and heal various diseases.

Mesmer's invisible fluid incorporated both religious and scientific visions because his theory straddled both worlds, the spiritual and the physical, and accounted for the mysteries within them. While science soon discredited his explanation, his sense of a single animating force permeated Romantic theory, although one is hard pressed to suggest which came first: Mesmer or Romanticism. The concept of nature as one organic whole that was ultimately harmonious and unified served as the very foundation of Romantic poetry.

The vision of animal magnetism permeated most of the popular science, or what has come to be called the "pseudosciences," of the nineteenth century. These included phrenology, mesmerism, phrenomagnetism, and others, each of which slowly shifted the focus of scientific investigations from the theological conception of the soul to the more psychological conception of the mind.

The agenda for popular science included healing and curing in everything from water cures to the creation of the graham cracker for better digestion. Immediate remedies were sought by the public at large, so much so that the most popular lecturers and performers on the lyceum circuit from the 1830s to the 1850s were those popularizers of scientific wonders that included mesmerists, phrenologists, self-promoting showmen, con artists hawking the latest elixir and miracle drug, and various faith healers.

Popular science also embodied the seemingly miraculous triumph of technology. Transatlantic steamships first appeared in 1838. Samuel Morse (1791–1872) invented the first electric telegraph in 1837. Peter Cooper built the first steam locomotive in the United States in 1829. By 1830 one-third of the factories in Pennsylvania and a quarter of those in Massachusetts were run by steam engines. Gas street lighting first appeared in Baltimore in 1816, reaching Boston in 1822 and New York in 1823. The public's fascination with such inventions was endless and increased its belief in ultimate progress and material advancement.

The popular notion of the scientist and his work began with the image of the physician as amateur that gradually changed into the scientist as professional. Popular science involved observation, description, classification, and categorization and very rarely involved theory. By the 1840s the word "scientist"

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had replaced "natural philosopher" or "philosopher" in popular use.


The idea of a universal, electrically charged fluid that influences all of human psychology underscored the theory of animal magnetism, the most popular "scientific" notion from Europe that took America by storm. Though all of the popular pseudosciences in America originated in Europe, it was in the United States that business-minded performers succeeded in terms of promotions, exhibitions, and lectures.

At his salon in Paris, Mesmer held séances in which patients would hold hands and press their knees together—so that the universal fluid could more easily pass from one to the other—while sitting around an oval tub filled with water and iron filings. From this they would extract long rods and apply them to the afflicted parts of their bodies while Mesmer walked among them, accompanied by a piano or harmonica. Thus began the mesmeric process, which eventually grew into the hypnotizing of individuals by putting them into a trancelike state. The mesmerized individual became a medium, speaking freely about his or her illnesses and troubles or, in some rare cases, prophesying future events or possible cures.

Charles Poyen St. Sauveur's (dates unknown) arrival in Boston from France in March 1836 provides the link between European mesmerism and the American fascination with it. The self-proclaimed professor of animal magnetism, who likened himself to Galileo, Christopher Columbus, and Christ, would mesmerize individuals and try to heal whatever ailments were bothering them. He mesmerized Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866), who went on to devote his life to mental healing; he also mesmerized and cured Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement.

Other famous American mesmerists included the clairvoyant-medium Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910), who, after several sessions in which he was mesmerized, produced his monumental The Principles of Nature: Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. The tome sold nine hundred copies in a single week and went through four editions in a year. J. Stanley Grimes (1807–1903), a professor of chemistry at Emma Willard's school in New York City, adapted phrenology to mesmerism and later discovered the technique of posthypnotic suggestion. La Roy Sunderland (1802–1885), who began his career as a revivalist preacher, created what he called "pathetism," based upon electrical poles in the body that Mesmer had described.

In 1832 Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1786–1832) came to New York City to offer a series of lectures on phrenology, a theory developed by his mentor Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) concerning the materialistic and physiological incarnation of animal magnetism that attributed certain emotions and conditions to specific organs in and areas of the brain. The phrenologist "read" a person's psychology by tracing the bumps on the head, each one in terms of its size and placement indicating the amount or absence of one emotional attribute or another. Orson Fowler (1809–1887), an eager publicist for phrenology, opened his Phrenological Cabinet in New York, which, with its skulls, plaster casts, and skeletons, became a famous tourist site. His brother Lorenzo (1811–1896) examined Walt Whitman's skull in 1849, and Whitman published his chart at least four times in his career. The publishing house of Fowler and Wells, known for its publications on phrenology and other pseudoscientific, self-help marvels, distributed the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 and published another edition in 1860. Lorenzo even "read" Andrew Jackson's head in the White House.

Many of these popular pseudosciences were so creatively devised and transformed, often merging with one another (as in the case of "phrenomagnetism"), that they not only lent credence to transcendentalism and liberal Christianity but also eventually helped produce such lasting faith-healing denominations as Christian Science. While the "scientific" bases of these sciences were eventually discredited, many of them continued to play a popular role in the gradual progression of "moral philosophy" to "psychology" in the nineteenth century.

The scientific community was also torn between the works of the Swiss zoologist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) and that of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose 1845 book Kosmos by 1851 had sold eighty thousand copies. While Agassiz believed that all of nature was progressive, he also thought that each species was created in great numbers in particular regions, that when a catastrophe wiped out a species, the creator started all over again from scratch, and that special autonomous creations occurred at different times. Humboldt, on the other hand, viewed nature as a network of individual facts that could be collected and measured and that together revealed the sum total of all possible connections. Each viewed nature as developmental and progressive, but Humboldt's theories had more in common with the evolutionist ideas advanced by Charles Darwin (1809–1882) than they did with the natural theology favored by Agassiz.


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Walt Whitman (1819–1892), the most notably optimistic Romantics of what has been called the American Renaissance, fully accepted the concept of nature as an organic and harmonious whole, the idea generated by popular science's notion of a universal fluid, which existed inside and outside the human body.

In essays such as "Circles," "Self-Reliance," and "The Poet," and in poems such as "The Rhodora," "Brahma," and "Each and All," as well as in Nature, Emerson expressed the complete unity between mind and matter, the ultimate identity that lies at the core of a harmonious universe. This was something to be celebrated and cherished, as much for the individual's powers of intuition and divine consciousness as for the beauty and bounty of the natural world. Mesmer's invisible fluid became Emerson's "transparent eyeball," through which and in which man could see into the life of things, both into his own soul and nature's. Nature became the utmost symbol of the spirit.

Emerson admired William Paley's (1743–1805) Natural Theology (1800), which attempted to connect the emerging naturalistic sciences with religious belief in a creator. The natural world revealed and indicated the creator as a watch revealed its maker. The correspondences between the natural sciences and moral value and the idea of science as moral investigation dovetailed perfectly with Emerson's vision of the organic growth in nature that paralleled the organic growth of the soul, as he made clear in four lectures he gave in 1833 and 1834, which included as reference points the theories of Carolus Linnaeus, Johannes Kepler, Humboldt, Galileo, and Newton.

Henry David Thoreau decided to live life deliberately in his homemade cabin in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, to test Emerson's theories in his highly observant, minimalist manner, which famously included his recipe for bread, made without yeast, sal-soda, or other acid or alkali, following the idea of Sylvester Graham. This experience culminated in Walden (1854), the record of his two years in the woods, condensed into one year. For Thoreau, every natural fact expressed or contained an ultimate transcendent message of spiritual renewal and human hope. The pond at Walden, trees, stars, and sunlight each shimmered incandescently with the vision that man and his world were ultimately identical, instinctually linked and harmonious. Spring for him became the final declaration of regeneration and eternal rebirth.


The following is an excerpt from Lorenzo N. Fowler's phrenological analysis of Walt Whitman from 16 July 1849. The description of Whitman's character, based on the size and placement of bumps on his head, is followed by a chart giving number ratings to Whitman's "mental apparatus," "intellectual faculties," "self esteem," and "marvellousness" (the latter for which he received a "3").

You are very sympathetic and easily moved by suffering, and take much interest in those movements that are of a reformatory and philanthropic character. You are not any too fond of property but value it as a means—are not a penny-man, and despise narrowminded penuriousness—You have taste and considerable imagination but it does not blind you to fact or reality. You can adapt yourself to time place and company but you do not try to act out another's character but are yourself at all times.

You have both reason and perception, and hence can reason well. You have a strong desire to see everything and your knowledge is practical and available. You have a good mechanical eye and can judge well of and recollect forms and proportions well. You have a good sense of order either mentally or physically. By practice might make a good accountant. You can locate well and have a taste for geography. You are a great reader and have a good memory of facts and events much better than their time. You can compare, illustrate, discriminate, and criticise with much ability. You have a good command of language especially if excited.

The full text of Fowler's analysis, including Whitman's phrenological chart, is available at www.whitmanarchive.org.

While Thoreau was fascinated by the emerging science of botany and prided himself on his meticulous use of botanical categories and the names of insects, fish, birds and flowers, he finally decided that science was incompatible with poetic perception. For him, all naturalist observations were subjective. It was the relation between the self and nature that prompted his interest in the processes of nature, in seeds and the change of seasons that reflected human aspirations and development. In this he was more in tune with von Humboldt's teleological notions of nature as a web of interconnected facts that revealed a cosmic whole, a kind of protoecological holism, which suggests Darwin's later theories.

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), with its celebration of sex and the body, of the natural world and its intimate connection with the human spirit (both were inseparable from one another), caused a sensation when it first appeared. Its long sinewy lines, what Whitman called his "negligent lists," broke every conventional attribute of mid-nineteenth-century poetry and shocked many readers. Emerson, at first, was delighted and wrote, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career" (Kaplan, p. 17). And Whitman later admitted that "I was simmering, simmering, simmering . . . Emerson brought me to a boil" (Waggoner, p. 154).

Whitman delighted in the possibility of developing the mental faculties through exercise as described by Orson Fowler's lecture on perfectability in 1846. He was also taken with Fowler's description of "amativeness," a phrenological category that Spurzheim had added to Gall's theories, which identified the intense friendship that was possible between members of the same sex, and he treated sex in a frank and healthy manner, as seen in "I Sing the Body Electric." This theme also permeated most of Whitman's work, as well as his idea, in such poems as "Song of the Universal," "Song of the Open Road," "Song of the Broad Ax," and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," that the physical creation ultimately revealed a divine plan. Another of Whitman's interests, one in water-cure therapies, turned up in "Song of Myself," where he described the poet as filtering the blood of his readers.

Writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Herman Melville (1819–1891), and Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), however, had grave doubts about such popular ideas, although Poe was examined by Lorenzo Fowler and relied upon phrenological approaches in his introductions to "The Imp of the Perverse" (1850) and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), as well as in his description of Roderick Usher's temples in "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839). Both Poe and Hawthorne, however, viewed scientists as villains who often exploited their powers, particularly as men over women, and committed grave crimes against humanity. Evil scientists populated the popular fiction and the "penny-dreadful" popular press of the day; in such tales, poems, and novels as Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845), "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "Sonnet to Science" (1829) and Hawthorne's "The Birth-mark" (1843), "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844), "Ethan Brand" (1850), The Scarlet Letter (1850), and The Blithedale Romance (1852), the demonic scientist-mesmerist reached his full potential.

In "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," a dying man is placed in a magnetic sleep, but when he awakens months later, he dissolves into liquid putrescence. Roderick Usher is cursed with a kind of magnetic vision that can see into the horrible life of things and feel the oppressive sentience of even the stones in his house and that eventually results in his death. In "Sonnet to Science," Poe attacks science as a "vulture" who "preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart" and "whose wings are dull realities" (p. 9). His detective stories that feature Auguste Dupin also make use of phrenology's conception that certain parts of the brain drive humans to commit crimes or that phrenology can be used to analyze meticulously the criminal mind itself.

Hawthorne's relationship to mesmerism is particularly interesting because while he morally and philosophically despised it, he recognized its psychological powers and evil potential to dominate and control. His formula in writing the American romance was even constructed around the mesmeric trance: he would seduce his readers by focusing on strange objects, such as the scarlet letter, a minister's black veil, and a marble faun, spinning haunted tales about them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was very suspicious of the "new sciences" discovered during his lifetime as well as the Romantic celebration of an ultimately harmonic universe. In the opening paragraphs of his Blithedale Romance, he describes "the Veiled Lady" as "a phenomenon in the mesmeric line; one of the earliest that had indicated the birth of a new science, or the revival of an old humbug."

While Hawthorne warily eyed the latest humbugs, Ralph Waldo Emerson willingly yielded to what he saw as "the perfect whole":

Again I saw, again I heard, 
The rolling river, the morning bird;—
Beauty through my senses stole;
I yielded myself to the perfect whole.

("Each and All," ll. 48–51)

Hawthorne's villains, however, remained the cold, unfeeling scientists who experimented on others, worked their spells upon them, and commanded them to do their bidding. Ethan Brand commits suicide, recognizing how he has sinned by prying into others' minds with his dark arts. Rappaccini imprisons his daughter Beatrice in a poisonous garden to see how she will develop when isolated from all others, and his designs are undone by a fellow scientist, the envious Baglioni. Aylmer in "The Birth-mark," by trying to eradicate the mark from his wife's face to make her physically perfect, murders her. The two arch villains in The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance are the scientist-physician Chillingworth, who seeks revenge against his wife's lover by using his wiles and potions, and Westervelt ("western world" in German), the master mesmerist who imprisons the innocent Priscilla in his hypnotic spells and exhibits her on stage for public performances. Only the winsome Holgrave in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) manages to curb his mesmeric talents in order to win young Phoebe Pyncheon's true love.

Melville and Dickinson were very much aware of popular science and its misuses. Melville had read Darwin's Journal of Researches (first published in London in 1839) as well as essays in and introductions to astronomy, physiognomy, botany, and mineralogy. In Moby-Dick (1851) he described the whale from a distinctly phrenological point of view. He also suspected, however, that such scientists and physicians were con artists, a point of view that is particularly evident in his novel The Confidence-Man (1857), in which the title character adopts as one of his many disguises the snuff-colored surtout of an herb doctor. Here the "confidence man" is a peddler of panaceas who tries to persuade possible customers to purchase such dubious remedies as the Omni-Balsamic Reinvigorator, the Samaritan Pain Dissuader, and a liniment that will cure bone injuries and diseases. In the novel's characters of Mark Winsome and his disciple Egbert, Melville also skewers Emerson's and Thoreau's beliefs in the benign necessities of a persistently trustworthy universe.

Dickinson relied on scientific and medical images and metaphors as ways to explain the unexplainable, particularly in such poems as "There's a certain Slant of Light," in which the strange light gives us "Heavenly Hurt," after which

We can find no scar, 
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are—

(P. 36)

She enjoyed Edward Hitchcock's (1793–1864) science lectures at Amherst but could not believe in the religious orthodoxy within which he practiced his scientific investigations.


The high point of popular science and the pseudo-sciences it embodied probably occurred on 12 February 1850, when the noted Universalist minister John Bovee Dods (1795–1872) gave a series of lectures on what he called "electrical psychology" in the Hall of Representatives in Washington, D.C. (which included seven U.S. senators). Dods described phrenology and mesmerism as the most relevant sciences of human psychology and attempted to show that the connection that existed between the body and the soul was electromagnetic.

At all times Dods made it clear that these new sciences did not in any way undercut orthodox religion. In fact they helped underwrite it because spiritual activity in the brain generated electrical impulses that in turn caused the human body to act. All disease, he maintained (as had Mesmer before him), clearly indicated an imbalance in the electrical forces that ebbed and flowed within the body. The idea that the soul ultimately ruled and used the body remained the most important overriding idea through the rest of the nineteenth century in both medical and scientific thought.

Of course many of these pseudosciences were thoroughly denounced, particularly when mesmeric trances were used to contact the dead in what became known after 1848 as spiritualism. Robert Collyer, for instance, found the New York City of 1838 full of "humbugs . . . and so much quackery abounds, where any one who has the impudence may leave his foreplane, or lapstone, or latherbrush, and become a physician" (p. 4). Collyer himself must have ultimately appreciated such impudence since, after attending lectures on phrenology, he went on to imitate them, setting up his own traveling skulls, charts, and lectures, "rising out of the dense obscurity that had always enshrouded him, and claiming to be the greatest, the most learned phrenologist of his day" (p. 17). Collyer eventually appeared in Hawthorne's 1843 story "The Hall of Fantasy," wherein the narrator and his guide meet many characters who have been magnetized by Collyer.

In the 1830s it was common for practicing scientists to give public lectures on the lyceum circuit, but by the 1860s, most of them denounced the profit-minded popularizers that had taken over the marketplace. By 1870 over four hundred American scientists were listed in an international directory of scientists.

All of this was set within the context of religious revivalism and the founding of several utopian communities. People were eager to believe in gold tablets sent by angels, lost Indian tribes, prophetic voices, personal conversions, ultimate salvation, and prophetic mesmerists. For instance, between 1825 and 1835 there were 1,343 religious revivals alone in New York State, and whereas fifteen experimental communities were founded in the 1820s, sixty were founded in the 1840s. After 1815 and particularly during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, cultural nationalism and optimism thrived and contributed to the popular faith in science, health, and social reforms.

Until the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, religion and science remained flip sides of the same coin, each proclaiming the miraculous and intricate revelations of God's works in the universe. To know and understand God's works was to promote his word. It was popularly assumed that men preparing for the ministry became scientists because Protestantism for centuries had encouraged scientific research. For instance Benjamin Silliman (1779–1864), the first professor of chemistry appointed at Yale University (in 1802), was himself a religiously orthodox believer, and Edward Hitchcock, who claimed in 1845 that "a true naturalist cannot be a bad man" (Burnham, p. 69) and went on to become the most famous geologist in America, began his professional life in 1821 as an orthodox minister in the Congregationalist church in Conway, Massachusetts. He, in fact, met Silliman at the Yale Divinity School and was persuaded by him to become the second science professor ever appointed by Amherst College.

Before Darwin's book radically changed the focus of American science, men like Timothy Walker, author of the article "Defence of Mechanical Philosophy" in the June 1829 issue of the Edinburgh Review, could easily defend the relationship between science and religion. Mechanistic theories like gravity did not utterly destroy humanity's spiritual nature but only added to our knowledge of the universe as a whole. Mechanical devices, in fact, liberated the mind by liberating men and women from physical labor. Perfection, of course, was impossible, but human progress depended upon the machine and our necessary use of it.

In 1859 Darwin changed all that. The process of natural selection, which seemed to operate on its own with no need of some divine intelligence behind it, revealed a sequence of cause and effect, of development and decay, that required no first cause. What came to be known in social theory as "the survival of the fittest" seemed to be brutally enacted in the Civil War and became the guiding scientific principle, however embattled and assaulted by both scientists and traditional religious believers, for the rest of the century.

As the century evolved, American scientists became more professional, and, as they were hired by colleges and universities, they grew apart from the more popular perceptions of science. Scientists began to specialize, as scientific thinking became a distinct category of its own, divorced from both philosophy and religion. While the public perception of science focused on technological marvels and various mesmerists and mediums, scientists joined university faculties. By the end of the 1830s, one-third to one-half of all college faculties were occupied by professors in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and geology. At Brown University in 1850, for instance, four of the seven full-time faculty members were scientists, and at Harvard between 1845 and 1869 the percentage of scientists on the faculty rose from 33 percent to 56 percent.

Silliman had founded the American Journal of Science and Arts in 1818, and it flourished throughout the entire century, but the first meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science did not meet until 20 September 1848, at the University of Pennsylvania. By that time specialization was fairly well established in higher education, while in that same year, spiritualism burst upon the popular scene, linking mesmerism to mediums who, entranced, could summon up and talk with the dead. The split between popular science and professional scientists could not have been greater.

See alsoEthnology; Health and Medicine; Mental Health; Psychology; Science; Spiritualism


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Samuel Chase Coale