Poe’s tale, “Some Words with a Mummy” (1845) provides one of his most informative views about the value of nineteenth-century science. Although the narrator of this short story does not go anywhere special, Poe’s imagined mummy travels from ancient Egypt to the nineteenth century to reflect on the relative values of ancient and the technologies of Poe’s lifetime. This literary device allows the mummy to provide a view of nineteenth-century science that was significantly different from the one that was widely understood by professional nineteenth-century scientists. Mabbott notes that the public, at that time, was fascinated with “Modern Egyptology.” The 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone revealed much previously unknown information about Egyptian civilizations and several major museums offered exhibits of Egyptian artifacts and entombed mummies (1175).
The un-named narrator invites nineteenth-century “gentlemen” friends to his house to “unwrap” and examine a mummy that they have borrowed from the “Directors of the City Museum” in New York (1178). They invigorate “Count Allamistakeo” with a voltaic shock. His name is both ironic and satiric because he begins to count many of the mistakes of nineteenth-century science and civilization. As soon as he wakes up, the gentlemen boast about nineteenth-century advances in phrenology, mesmerism, transportation, steam engines, and metaphysics. After listening to their claims, the mummy is unconvinced that there has been much scientific advancement in the nineteenth century in comparison to the innovations of Egyptian civilizations. He informs the “gentlemen” that ancient Egyptians lived for thousands of years and could exist in a state of hibernation for as long as they wished. He boasts that his civilization practiced an extremely advanced system of Phrenology. He suggests that the “gentlemen” look at Egyptian architecture and notice that it is far superior to the best building examples of the nineteenth century (1192). The railroads, he adds, are “rather ill-conceived” in comparison to the “grooved causeways” built by the Egyptians. The Count argues that the Egyptians determined that what the nineteenth-century gentlemen referred to as “Progress,” was “quite a nuisance” (1193). He discounts the high value placed by the scientists regarding the developments of the nineteenth century and western civilization. In his criticisms, he is suggesting that culture and the quality of life are more important than scientific progress when attempting to determine whether civilization is advanced.
It is ironic that the only triumph of the nineteenth century that the mummy concedes to the “gentlemen” is its development of blood-purifying laxatives and cough lozenges. These remedies demonstrate that Poe lacked faith that science could cure the ailments of humanity, and that he wanted to get as far away from the assumptions of the nineteenth century as he could imagine. The narrator is profoundly congested by the mummy’s revelations. He comments: “The truth is I am heartily sick of this life and the nineteenth century in general. I am convinced that everything is going wrong.” He states at the end of the story that he would like to “get embalmed for a couple of hundred years” (1195). Perhaps he also wished that he could also hibernate for two thousand years and wake up to enjoy the glorious future he imagined. We can only wonder if Poe would have been equally or even more dismayed about the progress of twenty-first-century science if he woke up today.
*The commentary above is an excerpt from Murray Ellison’s Virginia Commonwealth University Master of Arts in Literature Thesis on Poe and Nineteenth-Century Science, © 2015. Blog also published on www.poemuseum.org
Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales and Sketches, 1831-1849. Ed. Thomas O. Mabbott. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He will be teaching literature classes in OSHER Program at the University of Richmond and offering book club discussions at the Midlothian Library (Virginia) beginning in January 2017.