The Key to Unlocking the Secret of Poe’s Mellonta Tauta

By Gerry Therrien

Today, when we think of Edgar Allan Poe, we think of the writer of wild and fantastic tales, and of stories of that brilliant detective, C. Auguste Dupin (the anti-Sherlock-Holmes), and of wonderful poems, like The Raven, The Bells and El Dorado.

But we should also think of a young man (following the influence of his grandfather, David Poe, Quartermaster General in the Continental Army) who would leave West Point Military Academy and become America’s greatest ‘counterintelligence operative’ – doing battle against the Edinburgh branch of the British Secret Intelligence Service – the Edinburgh Review, and against their deployed literary hacks of the ‘Young America’ movement and the ‘transcendentalists’ under Ralph Waldo Emerson.

A full presentation on this lesser known side of Poe’s life as a cultural warrior was delivered at a seminar titled “The Edgar Poe You Never Knew” featured here.

The Secret of Mellonta Tauta

In his short storyMellonta Tauta’, first published in February 1849 (just months before his untimely death), Poe not only provides us with a masterful and devastating critique of British Empiricism of the Edinburgh clique, but he deftly inserts our story between two bookends – in the form of a political warning. 

[Mellon-ta Tau-ta, meaning Future Life – mellon tau, in Greek]   

At the very end of the story, Pundita (Poe) writes that “… I have, therefore, only time enough to add that, from a hasty inspection of the facsimiles of newspapers, &c, &c, I find that the great men in those days among the Amriccans, were one John, a smith, and one Zachary, a tailor.”  Aha!  Zachary Taylor was very soon to be inaugurated as the next President of the United States on March 5th 1849.  This leads us to assume that, perhaps, this story was written as a warning for him.

Martin van Buren

The story begins with an introductory note that “I have the honor of sending you, for your magazine, an article which I hope you will be able to comprehend rather more distinctly than I do myself.  It is a translation, by my friend, Martin Van Buren Mavis, (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’) of an odd-looking MS. which I found, about a year ago, tightly corked up in a jug floating in the Mare Tenebrarum – a sea well described by the Nubian geographer, but seldom visited now-a-days, except for the transcendentalists and divers for crotchets.”

This ‘odd-looking’ message, it seems, was found in a bottle in the Sea of Darkness that is only visited by the transcendentalists (i.e. people looking for eccentric opinions – crotchets) and the ‘translator’ is Martin Van Buren (i.e. the maven, or all-knowing seer) from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (i.e. Tough-keepsie), who was a founder of the ‘Democratic’ party, the former vice-President (1832-1836) under President Andrew Jackson, and then President (1837-1841).  This leads us to assume that, perhaps, this story is written as a warning against Van Buren, and against an ‘odd-looking manuscript’ of his.

In Van Buren’s inaugural address, on March 4th 1837, the ‘pro-slavery’ president stated that “… if the desire of those of my countrymen who were favorable to my election was gratified, I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists”.

While President Jackson, on his last day in office, recognized the independence of the Republic of Texas, Van Buren however, would oppose the annexation of Texas into the Union – angering the southern pro-slavery supporters, and he would also oppose the annexation of Canada into the Union, after its rebellions against the British colonial occupation – angering the northern anti-slavery supporters.

[One supposes that angering both sides is one way to maintain a balance between them.]

But then, in January 1840, in the ‘Amistad’ case, the circuit court in Hartford, Connecticut ruled in favor of the enslaved Africans who had rebelled and freed themselves, and rejected the claim of the United States Attorney (under President Van Buren) that argued for the restoration of the slaves, on the behalf of the Spanish government.  On orders from the President, the case was appealed to the Circuit Court for Connecticut District, the verdict was upheld, and it was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  Former President, and then Congressman, John Quincy Adams, represented the Africans at the appeal, and on March 9th 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court decree and the Africans were declared free.

Van Buren’s disastrous economic policies after the shutting down of the Second National Bank in 1836, and his proposal for an Independent Treasury, resulted in the defeat of his attempt at re-election in 1840, and the election of the Whig, General William Harrison, who unfortunately died after one month in office, and was succeeded by John Tyler.  

During Tyler’s presidency, debates were held to annex the territories of Texas and of Oregon into the United States, and an unsuccessful debate was had, to allow the annexation of Canada into the Union.

[In both 1837 and in 1845, the fate of Canada was politically-manipulated, tying it with the fate of Texas.]  However, in the few days before the end of his term, President Tyler, approved the annexation of Texas into the Union as a state, and set the stage for the Mexican-American war under his successor, James Polk.  Van Buren’s bid for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in 1844 was also unsuccessful, and James Polk became president, when the loss of Whig votes to the Liberty party was enough to win New York state for the Democrats, and to tilt the election in his favor. 

However, by the spring of 1848, Van Buren had written an ‘odd-looking’ manifesto supporting the Wilmot Proviso – opposing the expansion of slavery into the territory acquired from Mexico, and he would become the presidential candidate for the Free Soil Party – a fusion of disgruntled Whigs who had seceded from the New York Whig party, disgruntled Democrats (the Barnburner faction of Van Buren supporters) who seceded from the New York Democratic party, and the abolitionists from the New York Liberty party!  Van Buren had gone from supporting the southern slave-holders to supporting the northern abolitionists !?!

Had Van Buren suddenly become a convert to the abolitionist cause?  Or, was it simply, that at a time when William Lloyd Garrison’s radical abolitionist movement was demanding northern secession, and Albert Pike and the Knights of the Golden Circle were demanding southern secession – both leading to the question of the endurance of the Union, would the leadership of the Free Soil movement, perhaps, find itself in the position of controlling the balance of power? From the knickerbocker’s capital of New York?

While William Lloyd Garrison (left) advocated the northern secession of the free states into Canada, Albert Pike (right) promoted the southern pro-slavery secessionist movement

And now, back to our story, that begins on April 1st 2848 – on April Fool’s Day, a thousand years into the future.  On April 3rd, “Pundita’ gives a hilarious account of the philosophical method of the ram, of Aries Tottle, Neuclid and Cant (of deduction), and the method of the hog, of Bacon, Mill and Bentham (of induction) – that she calls the methods of creeping and crawling.  She then tells us of the method of Kepler ‘who admitted that his three laws were guessed at … that is to say imagined’ (adduction).

On April 4th, Pundita is discussing the balloon flight and suddenly says ‘do you remember our flight on the railroad across the Kanadaw continent?’ – the ‘Kanadaw’ continent, and not the ‘American’ continent ?!?  Well, it seems that the American Republic no longer exists, but it has all been absorbed into ‘Kanadaw’. 

The plan of the British Empire, as we have seen in ‘Aaron Burr and the British Empire’s Plot for Canada’ and in “Unravelling the Mystery of the Annexation Movement of 1849’, was to foster the splitting up of the United States and their confederation (i.e. absorption) with the British colonies of Canada.  In Poe’s story, this plan appears to have succeeded.  But how was this done?

On April 5th, 2848 (of which we print that whole day’s writings), Pundita says that ‘I am almost devoured by ennui.  Pundit is the only conversible person on board; and he, poor soul!  can speak of nothing but antiquities.  He has been occupied all the day in the attempt to convince me that the ancient Amriccans governed themselves! – did ever anybody hear of such an absurdity? – that they existed in a sort of every-man-for-himself confederacy, after the fashion of the ‘prairie dogs’ that we read of in fable.  He says that they started with the queerest idea conceivable, viz: that all men are born free and equal – this in the very teeth of the laws of gradation so visibly impressed upon all things both in the moral and physical universe.  Every man ‘voted’, as they called it – that is to say meddled with public affairs – until at length, it was discovered that what is everybody’s business is nobody’s, and that the ‘Republic’ (so the absurd thing was called) was without a government at all.  It is related, however, that the first circumstance which disturbed, very particularly, the self-complacency of the philosophers who constructed this ‘Republic’, was the startling discovery that universal suffrage gave opportunity for fraudulent schemes, by means of which any desired number of votes might at any time be polled, without the possibility of prevention or even detection, by any party which should be merely villainous enough not to be ashamed of the fraud.  A little reflection upon this discovery sufficed to render evident the consequences, which were that rascality must predominate – in a word, that a republican government could never be any thing but a rascally one.  

While the philosophers, however, were busied in blushing at their stupidity in not having foreseen these inevitable evils, and intent upon the invention of new theories, the matter was put to an abrupt issue by a fellow of the name of Mob, who took every thing into his own hands and set up a despotism, in comparison with which those of the fabulous Zeros and Hellofagabaluses (i.e. the Roman Emperors Nero : Zero; and Heliogabalus : Hell-of-a-gabulus) were respectable and delectable.  This Mob (a foreigner, by-the-by), is said to have been the most odious of all men that ever encumbered the earth.  He was a giant in stature – insolent, rapacious, filthy, had the gall of a bullock with the heart of a hyena and the brains of a peacock.  He died, at length, by dint of his own energies, which exhausted him.  Nevertheless, he had his uses, as every thing has, however vile, and taught mankind a lesson which to this day it is in no danger of forgetting – never to run directly contrary to the natural analogies.  As for Republicanism, no analogy could be found for it upon the face of the earth – unless we except the case of the “prairie dogs”, an exception which seems to demonstrate, if anything, that democracy is a very admirable form of government – for dogs.’

[Poe had earlier written of the dangerous use of the ‘Mob’ in the tale Devil in the Belfry – set in the Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittiss (Wonder-what-time-it-is)]

On April 8th, we discover the fate of America, when Pundita says that ‘you know, I presume, that laborers have for some months been employed in preparing the ground for a new fountain at Paradise, the Emperor’s principal pleasure garden’ in the land of the Knickerbockers (i.e. New York) – where they were ‘oddly afflicted with monomania for building what, in the ancient Amriccan, was denominated “churches” – a kind of pagoda instituted for the worship of two idols that went by the names of Wealth and Fashion’. 

This, perhaps, was Poe’s warning to President Taylor, and to us all, of the dangers of a Republic being destroyed by the ‘Mob’ – that it would soon be replaced by a fabulous tyranny, the Emperor of Kanadaw – to be doomed by the worship of Wealth and Fashion.

Zachary Taylor- the patriotic Whig president whose bold reforms may have steered America away from the deadly Civil War which unfolded in 1861 were unfortunately cut short with his death in 1850.

But, not to be despondent about the tale, Pundita ends by telling us that, while digging, the workmen unearthed a marble slab with the inscription – ‘This Corner Stone of a Monument to the Memory of GEORGE WASHINGTON, was laid with appropriate ceremonies on the 19th Day of October, 1847, the anniversary of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis to General Washington at Yorktown, A. D. 1781, under the auspices of the Washington Monument Association of the City of New York.’

This, as I give it, is a verbatim translation done by Pundit himself, so there can be no mistake about it.  From the few words thus preserved, we glean 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 American 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 could the savages wish him surrendered for.  But when we remember that these 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.’

(You must agree that Poe is the best,

And that ‘Van Buren delenda est!’)

[For more on the treasonous school of Van Buren, please read ‘Treason in America’ by Anton Chaitkin.]

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