It’s a welcome return to Poe this week over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones.
Review: “Some Words with a Mummy”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1845.
The plot on this one is pretty straightforward, and it’s less weird fiction than sort of American proto-science fiction as well as being a satire. A mummy is revived and discusses Ancient Egypt and nineteenth century America with the narrator and three other men.
So, with some help from Stephen Peithman’s annotations, let’s look at this one.
Poe’s humor doesn’t always work here. Jokes tend not to age well in literature. After all, many modern Shakespeare productions omit some of his humor which, if you’re reading it, often has to be footnoted to get the joke. A joke explained is no longer a joke. Still, the story does have its funny moments.
Anyway, one of the objects of humor here is the narrator, a rather gluttonous figure also given to drink. After eating way too much Welsh-rabbit and drinking way too much stout the night before and going to bed very late, he wakes up with a headache and his wife showing him a note from his friend Dr. Ponnonner. The doctor’s name is one of the puns in the story: Ponnonner as in “Pon honor”, French for “Upon my head.”
Ponnonner has permission from a museum to unwrap a mummy.
There was something of an Egyptmania going on at the time in Europe and America. Peithman points out the sources Poe used for his story: Ancient Egypt (1843), an 1841 review of John Gardner Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837-1841), Egyptian History deduced from the Monuments still in Rosellini(1840), and some articles out of the Encyclopedia Americana. They certainly helped Poe in sucking the reader into his fantastic concept, but they also had some erroneous ideas about Ancient Egypt as we’ll see.
At Ponnonner’s house are Gliddon and Silk Buckingham. (One James Silk Buckingham, a writer of travel books and critical of the South and slavery, was a man Poe disdained.)
Poe uses his sources to give us a description of the coffins containing the mummy. And we get his name, another pun: Allamistakeo.
Ponnonner gets the bright idea to use a Voltaic pile, i.e. galvanic battery, to revive the mummy. (Electricity was a little understood phenomenon at the time. After all, the eponymous doctor revives a dead body using it in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)
After some hurly burly action when the mummy wakes up and gets his nose pinched among other things, he begins to speak calmly and in a dignified matter – in “very capital Egyptian” which Ponnonner translates.
Count Allamistakeo is not surprised at Ponnonner’s bad behavior. He is more disappointed in Gliddon and Buckingham. They are men of the world. And what’s with taking all his clothes in this “wretchedly cold climate”?
The narrator tells us that, in the ensuing conversation, there were some problems of interpretation. The Egyptian doesn’t have a word for “politics”, so Gliddon sketches out a politician giving a stump speech. To explain “wig”, Buckingham has to take his off.
Allamistakeo accepts their apologies, and hands are shook. The mummy is given some modern clothes, and then the conversation begins in earnest.
Buckingham expresses astonishment at the obvious, “I should have thought . . . that it is high time you were dead”.
He’s only a bit over 700, the mummy replies. His father lived to be over a thousand.
There is a discussion of Egyptian mummification techniques including the mistaken belief of contemporary scholarship that bichloride of mercury was used. Allamistakeo also says that, of course, Egyptians knew about electricity. In fact, he remarks “you are yet in the infancy of Galvanism”.
Allamistakeo explains that real embalming was done to “arrest all the animal functions”, to hold the body in “perpetual abeyance”. (Suspending “animal functions” is an idea, of course, at the center of Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”.)
However, the mummy explains he’s a special case. He’s of a “very rare patrician family”, the Scarabaei. They’re embalmed while alive. In fact, all the mummies found, he says, are of the same family.
Gliddon says he thought the Scarabaei were gods.
The mummy is astonished. Egyptians have only one god.
At this point, Poe begins his satire in earnest.
The Scarabaie have a peculiar job. They write history books and then go into a state of suspended animation, via mummification, for a few centuries and then correct their histories which, inevitably, have been
converted into a species of hap-hazard note-book – that is to say, into a kind of literary arena for the conflicting guesses, riddles, and personal squabbles of whole herds of exasperated commentators [whose] “annotations, or emendations . . . so completely . . . enveloped, distorted, and overwhelmed the text
Ponnonner wants to know what percentage of these historical works didn’t need correcting.
Not a one, replies the mummy, they were all “totally and radically wrong”.
The talk turns to a bit of theology when Ponnonner asks the mummy about the Creation. The mummy says he’s vaguely heard of “Adam”, but it was a generic term. The Egyptians know that “five vast hordes of men” were spontaneously generated in different parts of the world. Lest you think this is Poe anticipating evolution, Peithman notes that spontaneous generation was an idea going back to the Greeks.
At this point, Poe turns to satirizing his America.
Gliddon remarks that, given Ancient Egypt’s “general development and conglomeration of knowledge”, the fact that they didn’t advance in “the particulars of science” must be to being literally thickheaded.
The mummy is puzzled until he gets a lecture on phrenology and “animal magnetism”.
Allamistakeo says, yes, phrenology, was a thing in Egypt – long before he was born and abandoned as foolish likewise “the very contemptible tricks” of Mesmer.
The narrator at this point begins to get involved in questioning the mummy and shows he’s not very educated when he asks the mummy if the Egyptians knew how to calculate eclipses. The mummy contemptuously smiles and says of course they did.
The narrator asks about glass manufacturing and, again, is quietly reminded by one of the other men that, yes they did.
Looking for more ways to prove Yankee superiority over Ancient Egypt, Ponnonner asks if Allamistakeo is impressed with modern architecture.
Of course, he isn’t and points out the vaster dimensions of Egypt’s monuments compared to America’s. He will allow, though, he’s never seen anything like America’s buildings in Egypt or anywhere else. (One of the pieces of modern architecture mentioned is Bowling-Green Fountain in New York City which Poe hated and ridiculed in an article.)
The narrator asks about railroads. Had them, replies the mummy. (Egyptologists at the time thought they had discovered evidence of them in Ancient Egypt.)
The mummy is plied with more questions. What about “gigantic mechanical forces” and artesian wells? The mummy concedes Americans seem to know “something in that way” but then points out the monumental architecture of his country and its use of copper to carve stone.
Determined to prove Yankee better than Egyptian, the men decide to switch to metaphysics and read a chapter from a book about the “Great Movement of Progress”.
Count Allamistakeo replies:
that Great Movements were awfully common things in his day, and as for Progress, it was at one time quite a nuisance, but it never progressed.
Well what about the “great beauty and importance of Democracy”?
The subject interests the Count. He recalls some mention of a movement way in Egypt’s past where “Thirteen Egyptian provinces” set up a government. It became “the most odious and insupportable despotism that was ever heard of upon the face of the Earth”, run by a tyrant named Mob.
Since that argument didn’t go anywhere, the narrator brings up steam power. Again, another member of the party reminds him the ancients knew about it. (Reference is made to Hero of Alexandria, but he lived int the second and third centuries AD, not in Egypt.
The Yankee side has been foiled, so Ponnonner makes one last argument. Did the Egyptians “seriously pretend to rival the moderns in the all-important particular of dress?”
The Count looks at what they’ve dressed himself.
. . . his mouth extended itself very gradually from ear to ear, but I do not remember that he said anything in the way of reply.
Ponnonner presses the Count. Did the Ancient Egyptians have patent medicines?
At last, the Count has to concede one area where America has it over Egypt.
The narrator, saying he cannot bear the mummy’s subsequent embarrassment, leaves.
Returning home, he goes to bed and wakes up to write his account.
In the final paragraph, he tells us he’s sick of life and his shrewish wife and
the nineteenth century in general. I am convinced that everything is going wrong. Besides, I am anxious to know who will be President in 2045.
He’s going to Ponnonners to be “embalmed for a couple of hundred years”.
Peithman notes that the idea of sleeping your way into the future was later used by Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward and H. G. Wells in The Sleeper Wakes. That’s true, but the idea also shows up in Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle and fairy lore has a variation with people finding out that way more time has passed in Faerie than their world. Poe’s innovation, which Wells and Bellamy didn’t use, is the idea of deliberately and repeatedly using this process to move through time.
The story is science fiction in another sort of way if we want to look at the superior and unknown technology the ancients, a la von Daniken et al, as science.
The usual way to puncture scholarly pretensions about the past is to have future archaeologists coming up with spectacularly wrong conclusions about our world as in those stories about a future Paris in French roman scientifique. Poe reverses that in this story with the past directly confronting us with our misunderstanding. It’s also notable for being Poe’s clearest objections to the world he found himself though, to a lesser extent, that shows up in “Mellonta Tauta” and “The Man That Was Used Up”.