Deception as a Literary Device: E.A. Poe and the Great Moon Hoax of 1835
In 1835 the upstart New York Sun skyrocketed to become the most widely read paper in the world when it published a starting account of new discoveries being made by astronomer John Herschel from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Utilizing a revolutionary new “hydro-oxygen telescope,” the Sun reported, Herschel had been able to resolve detailed images of the lunar surface, revealing a menagerie of natural wonders.
The first image projected was, tellingly, of a poppy field, followed by forests, seas, and “wild castellated rocks.” As the series progressed, still more fantastic discoveries were reported: bison-like creatures, unicorns, sheep, bipedal beavers that dwelled in huts warmed by fires, and, finally, a civilization of lunar man-bats that had constructed mysterious temples and produced exotic works of art. In a cultural climate where scientists and theologians openly speculated about life on other worlds, the public was prepared to accept the Sun’s claims, and the newspaper’s offices were quickly inundated.
Purporting to be a reprint from a supplement of the Edinburgh Journal of Science, the moon hoax was the work of Sun editor Richard Adams Locke. His moon series was widely republished not just in US newspapers, but in countless European countries, inspiring popular a New York play, and a variety of art and merchandise intended to capitalize on the sensation. Though it soon became apparent that the moon story was a hoax, there was little public backlash. Even rival newspaper editors found themselves expressing admiration for the Sun’s ingenuity. The public had been deceived, it was true, but they had gotten their pennies worth of fun and excitement out of the story, and so there were no hard feelings…for the most part.
Just two months earlier, Edgar Allan Poe had published the first installment of “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” in the Southern Literary Messenger, purporting to be an account of a voyage to the moon by airship. The first half of the story describes the construction of the vessel and its journey into space. Poe had intended to produce a sequel, describing the exotic creatures his hero would discover on the moon, but when he learned of the Sun hoax, he abandoned the idea in frustration, believing that Locke, anticipating the direction of his narrative, had plagiarized and supplanted his idea.
Poe’s story would thus remain unfinished, but the success of Locke’s hoax made a deep impression upon him. A literary genius, his work had gone unnoticed in the Southern Literary Messenger, where readers expected to find works of fiction, while a comparable story, published in a newspaper, had became a worldwide sensation. Locke’s fantasy was believed, whereas Poe’s had merely been believable. Later, Poe would attempt a hoax of his own in the pages of the Sun, an account of the crossing of the Atlantic by gas balloon, but with considerably less success (Poe is reported to have gotten drunk and announced his authorship of the hoax to customers arriving at the newspaper office).
The contrast between the success of Poe and Lockes’ respective moon stories illustrates the value of deception as a literary device. In a conventional story, the reader merely peers into the author’s frame of reality, as a theatre-goer watches a play; drawn-in, but detached. Deception projects the author’s reality into the real world, expanding the frame of the story to include the reader and the universe he or she inhabits. A hoax is thus a fiction that is experienced, rather than simply imagined, and the effect it produces may be far more profound.
“The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth Century New York,” by Matthew Goodman (New York: Perseus Books. 2008). Amazon Profile
The Moon Hoax; or, a discovery that the moon has a vast population of human beings, by Richard Adams Locke (New York: William Gowans. 1859). Google Books