An excerpt from Murray Ellison’s 2015 MA Thesis from Virginia Commonwealth University on Poe and 19th-Century Science ©
Poe’s tale, “Some Words with a Mummy” (1845) provides one of the most revealing views about the low value he places in nineteenth-century science. Although the unnamed narrator of this short story, who also speaks in the voice of Mr. Poe, does not go anywhere special, he imagines that an ancient Egyptian Mummy is revived by an electro-voltaic shock to reflect on the relative values of ancient and nineteenth-century technologies, and is brought to his house in New York. 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 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 in Poe’s lifetime offered exhibits of Egyptian artifacts and entombed mummies (1175).
The 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 satiric because he begins to count many of the mistakes of nineteenth-century science. 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 not been much scientific advancement in the nineteenth century when compared 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. It is evident that he has accepted the idea of being awoken and discoursing with them. 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 examples of the nineteenth century (1192). The nineteenth-century 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 a particular 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. This humorous observation of the sole progress obtained in his lifetime demonstrates 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, commenting, “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 despairs that he would like to “get embalmed for a couple of hundred years” (1195). Perhaps he also wished that he could hibernate for two thousand years and wake up to enjoy the glorious future he imagined. We can only wonder if Poe would have been even more dismayed about the progress of twenty-first-century science if he woke up today.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales and Sketches, 1831-1849. Ed. Thomas O. Mabbott. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1978.