chapter  5
CHEMISTRY
ByJAY LABINGER
Pages 12

The evolving relationship between literature and chemistry is intriguingly intertwined with the history of chemistry and its perception. We might even consider the origins of chemistry as primarily literary, not scientific, since the core concept of atomic theory was initially expounded by the ancients (Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, etc.) with little if any appeal to observational (let alone experimental) support. Experimental work was much more central to alchemy, the precursor of modern chemistry that flourished during the Middle Ages and beyond. Indeed, one commentator has proposed that many nineteenth-century representations of what would then be considered modern chemistry are actually responses to persisting images of alchemists (Schummer 2007). A bibliography of literature and science includes references to alchemy in works of authors right up to the present, including Hawthorne, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Poe, Strindberg, Yeats, Joyce, Nin, and Pynchon (Schatzberg et al. 1987). Alchemy and literature is treated at length elsewhere in this volume. Modern chemistry is usually considered to begin with Lavoisier, towards

the end of the eighteenth century, although many developments earlier in the eighteenth century – particularly those centered on the concept of affinity – are much more appropriately classified as chemistry than as alchemy (Kim 2003). And we have another reason to focus on Lavoisier: the chemical revolution that he helped initiate was not just experimental but literary.