Edgar Allan Poe. It is quite a famous name: an author renowned for his blood-curdling tales of horror. What avid reader has never heard of “The Raven,” or “The Tell-Tale Heart”? And in his final days, he was nothing less than exactly what we would expect of a man who wrote such horrific tales—a drunkard and a madman. Sadly, the image invoked in our minds at the sound of his name is one of a man ravaged by alcohol and a deep depression, driven to express his dark moods in such works as “The Pit and the Pendulum.” It is universally known, therefore, that Poe was a master of horror.
I myself make no secret of the fact that Edgar Allan Poe is my favorite author. The first time I read “The Raven” I was entranced. Poe’s grasp on the English language—as well as a veritable plethora of others—astounded me. Never before had I read anything so eloquent, so articulate as those magnificent stanzas! Indeed it was art, and before long I found myself sinking in a world of fantastic terrors. The only one who rivals Poe in eloquence and horror was H.P. Lovecraft, a true artist where words are concerned. Why then didn’t Lovecraft take Poe’s place as my favorite author? It seems an irrelevant question, but the truth is that the answer is the entire point of this essay.
Everyone who has heard of Edgar Allan Poe knows that he wrote horror, and most people are familiar with his mysteries—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” being one example—but how many people know of his satires? How many people have heard the titles “Lionizing,” “The Man That was Used Up,” or “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.”? The true genius of Poe did not lie in his horrors, but in his satires. Poe’s greatest work was not at all “The Black Cat”; it was “Mellonta Tauta,” a virtually unknown satire of such subtly blatant credences and thoughtful insights as to baffle the mind. I’ll only tough on a few of those points.
In the opening, it is vital to notice three things: the date, the setting, and the narrator—or, more accurately, the narrator’s purpose in writing. The date and the setting go hand-in-hand, for it takes place in the hear 2848 on board a hot air balloon, which is used much as we use airplanes. As may be noticed, the date is exactly 1,000 years from the time when this satire was written, which may not be so strange to modern readers, but would have been highly peculiar when it was written in 1848. Furthermore, it gives the narrator a unique perspective. One must realize when reading this piece that the narrator is not Poe, but rather a man named Pundita who is riding in the balloon. The entire piece actually takes the form of a letter written by Pundita for no other reason than boredom. In his letter, pundit speaks at length of the customs of the people who lived 1,000 years before and also, in passing, of a few common occurrences in his own world.
This may not sound very satirical yet, or exciting, and certainly not what we think of as typical for Poe, but in “Mellonta Tauta”—which means “these things are in the near future” in Greek—he manages to find an incredibly unique way of expressing his thoughts and beliefs on human nature. Plautus was a famous Roman author who wrote comedies on the various ridiculous behaviors of humans. But to avoid insulting Romans directly, he would give his characters Greek names. By setting the scene in 2848, Poe accomplishes much the same thing: he makes the opinions those of a man who lives 1,000 years in the future and who, therefore, could not possibly understand fully the time about which he speaks.
One of the more significant passages from the piece talks of a person who went overboard:
“Talking of drag-ropes—our own, it seems, has this moment knocked a man overboard from one of the small magnetic propellers that swarm in the ocean below us—a boat of about six thousand tons, and, from all accounts, shamefully crowded. These diminutive barques should be prohibited from carrying more than a definite number of passengers. The man, of course, was not permitted to get on board again, and was soon out of sight, he and his life-preserver. I rejoice, my dear friend, that we live in an age so enlightened that no such thing as an individual is supposed to exist. It is the mass for which the true Humanity cares.”
It may at first be supposed that Poe is simply making a prediction about the culture 1,000 years in the future. What he is really saying, however, is that the individual is already being overwhelmed by the needs of the mass. This is perhaps truer now than it was then! People have been reduced to numbers—library card numbers, student ID numbers, social security numbers, telephone numbers, et cetera. The individual has been overlooked in favor of the mass. It is also very important to notice, in the last two sentences, that there are two speakers, which attests to the literary prowess of Poe. The first and most obvious speaker is the narrator, Pundita. When he writes this portion of the letter, he is being incredibly sincere: he is genuinely glad to be part of a world where the individual is disregarded. The less obvious speaker is Poe himself. It can be discerned based on the heavy sarcasm of those lines that Poe is actually speaking not of the future, but of his own time. The nature of the average human is to think the very best of himself, and no one wants to think—or hear someone else think—that people really don’t care about individuals. And so, Poe avoids bluntly insulting his readers by placing those traits in the future.
Another important passage, rather more amusing than the first, concerns women’s fashion:
“The women, too, it appears, were oddly deformed by a natural protuberance of the region just below the small of the back—although, most unaccountably, this deformity was looked on altogether in the light of a beauty. One or two pictures of these singular women have, in fact, been miraculously preserved. They look very odd, very—like something between a turkey-c*** and a dromedary.”
The women, about whom Poe is talking, are not actually deformed. It was the fashion in 1848 for women to wear dresses which had a bunch of cloth around the area of the butt, a style which Poe considered to be utterly ridiculous and made women look like camels. In fact, this is not the only time he mentions it in writing. However, he is not simply commenting on the absurdity of that fashion. Through the course of the letter, the reader comes to realize how fantastically efficient the world is in 2848. So not only does Poe say that women look like dromedaries in those dresses, but he also suggests how impractical they are—so much so as to be incomprehensible as a form of fashion.
The final and most important point that he makes is illustrated throughout the letter and truly illuminated in the conclusion. He starts my giving an inscription of a cornerstone which was discovered and translated in 2848:
The Corner Stone of a Monument to the
was laid with proper ceremonies on the
19th DAY OF OCTOBER, 1847,
the anniversary of the surrender of
to General Washington at Yorktown,
under the auspices of the
Washington Monument Association of the
city of New York.
Almost every American alive today, whether or not they have a firm grasp on history, knows what this means, so I will not elaborate. This event, however, would be very far gone in history by the year 2848, and so Poe includes an interpretation of the inscription from the perspective of Pundita:
“This, as I give it, is a verbatim translation done my Pundit himself, so there can be no mistake about it. From the few words thus preserved, we gleam several important items of knowledge, not the least interesting of which is the fact that a thousand years ago actual monuments had fallen into disuse—as was all very proper—the people contenting themselves, as we do now, with a mere indication of the design to erect a monument at some future time; a corner-stone being cautiously laid by itself ‘solitary and alone’ (excuse me for quoting the great Amriccan poet Benton!) as a guarantee of the magnanimous intention. We ascertain, too, very distinctly, from this admirable inscription, the how as well as the where and the what, of the great surrender in question. As to the where, it was Yorktown (wherever that was), and as to the what, it was General Cornwallis (no doubt some wealthy dealer in corn). He was surrendered. The inscription commemorates the surrender of—what?—why, ‘of Lord Cornwallis.’ The only question is what the savages could wish him surrendered for. But when we remember that the savages were undoubtedly cannibals, we are led to the conclusion that they intended him for sausage. As to the how of the surrender, no language can be more explicit. Lord Cornwallis was surrendered (for sausage) ‘under the auspices of the Washington Monument Association’—no doubt a charitable institution for the depositing of corner-stones.”
It is blatantly evident from the interpretation of the inscription that the “antiquarians” of 2848 have no idea what they are talking about. To be quite honest, when I first read this passage I could not see any relevance in it, but as I thought about it, I came to realize that it does in fact, prove a point—a point which, in my opinion, is Poe’s entire reason for writing this piece. I believe most everyone realizes that, 1,000 years in the future, the people won’t know everything there is to know about who we are today. What many people don’t realize, however, is that the same can be said of our own knowledge of the past. The point that Poe is making here is that, when it comes to ancient history, all of our so-called facts are merely educated guesses. Pundita’s interpretation of the inscription, however false, is entirely logical and flawlessly so. Given what would be remaining of our culture at that time, it would not at all be unreasonable to say that we are cannibals, nor to assume that women were afflicted by a deformity. Because above all, Poe was a scholar, and he wanted people to realize that it is not ever possible to know for sure what happened in the past.
On the whole, Poe was undoubtedly a true master of horror, but it is important to realize that it wasn’t all there was to Poe. Edgar Allan Poe was truly a literary genius, not because of his ability to make one’s blood run cold with terror, but because of his ability to teach lessons and give valuable insights—which can be found only in his satires. The points which I highlighted from “Mellonta Tauta” are less than half of those that he makes. I would encourage any fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or any lover of learning and reading in general to read that satire: it is a masterpiece.