Friday, July 3, 2015

Some Words with a Mummy by Edgar Allan Poe

Coffin humor
Edgar Allan Poe
Some Words with a Mummy, a story by Edgar Allan Poe, was originally published in the April 1845 issue of American Review: A Whig Journal. Though considered a short story, it’s a relatively long one, perhaps approaching novella length. Here Poe tries his hand at humor, and succeeds quite admirably. Despite the living dead subject matter, this is not a horror story, but rather a satire, and at times is quite hilarious.

The unnamed narrator is invited to a scientific event at the home of his friend, Dr. Ponnonner. The doctor will be opening an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus to examine the mummy within, and a select group of colleagues gather to watch. Given the title of the story, I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that these modern men of science have a conversation with the mummy. As the American tomb raiders grill their newfound acquaintance on life in ancient Egypt, and vice versa, it becomes difficult to tell which of the two cultures is the more advanced and which the more primitive. Poe satirizes the hubris of scientists and historians, and along the way manages to take digs at everything from the transcendentalist movement to American democracy.

I’m not a diehard Poe fan. I find his work hit-and-miss, but I enjoyed this story greatly and was impressed by his comedic skills. Here Poe exhibits the sort of cynical humor and biting wit that one might expect from Voltaire. A lot of times humor doesn’t hold up well over time, but this work, though published over a century and a half ago, is still fresh enough to make today’s reader laugh out loud.
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