A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (James De Mille)

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Keywords: science fiction, 19th-century, canlit, fantasy, lost worlds, atlantic provinces, popular authors, 1800s

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A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was posthumously serialized in Harper’s Weekly magazine by Harper & Brothers of New York and then published as a book in 1888.

The manuscript was found among the author’s papers after his death. The somewhat abrupt ending suggests the work was unfinished. A letter by De Mille’s brother claims it was actually one of De Mille’s earliest and although more or less complete De Mille was not happy with the ending.

De Mille was very successful and critics have commented that many of his works appear to have been written in haste and are styled to suit the popular demands of his time. It should be noted that De Mille managed to pay off massive debts from his father’s lumber business and his own bookstore so his eagerness to satisfy the mass market is understandable.

A powerful intellect, he was fluent in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek as well as possessing a command of Sanskrit and Arabic. No doubt his intellectual life was satisfied in his role as a leading professor of history and rhetoric at Dalhousie College, Nova Scotia, so his ability to command a significant royalty and have fun at the same time in his writing life demands some respect and need not be seen as contradictory.

His novels are widely recognized as having a sense of humour and parody. This is in keeping with a man who it is said would take fishing trips with a fellow professor during which they would only speak Latin so as not to “profane the mysteries” of fishing.

A Strange Manuscript is Swiftian in its upside down exploration of morality and life and death. The story-within-a-story theme is used by De Mille as a form of literary self-parody as his four adventuring Englishmen debate the contents of the cylinder. Indeed, exegesis is a common theme in his works.

He was a contemporary of Jules Verne (1828–1905) and was closely followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950), among others, all of whom enjoyed success through the popular fascination with the soaring pace of science and exploration of the last reaches of the planet. De Mille includes references to Sir James Ross (1800–1862) a contemporary antarctic explorer still in the public mind as a means of enhancing this.

The appeal of the lost-lands themes seems quaint in an age of Google Earth and the Mars Exploration Rovers, but of course the opportunity to flip social conventions upside down and explore the result has simply been moved to another solar system, galaxy, or even universe providing the authors standing on De Mille and Verne’s shoulders a bit more time before they in turn become quaint.

Modern readers may be stunned by the racism evident in this work. The cannibals More meets are “black” and worse in appearance than the “wretched aborigines of Van Dieman’s Land, who have been classed lowest in the scale of humanity.” It is a commentary on De Mille’s times that the genial professor described by colleagues and students is comfortable throwing this pseudo science into his work as casually as his references to explorers and geography. With the Kosekin, originally Roman Jewish slaves, De Mille toys with the infamous blood libel in his presentation of human sacrifice by the Kohen.

That this is presented by a university professor who could speak Hebrew, hence, one assumes, would have been familiar with Judaism, and be presented in a leading magazine of the day, is a telling confirmation of the extent of racism in nineteenth-century North America.

One can argue that De Mille’s satire in this work is actually aimed at a different target. Early Christians did indeed face death in the arena, some saintly souls apparently fearlessly. The sacrement treats bread as the body of Christ. One might accuse De Mille of victimizing one group to cover up his satiric treatment of another.

The descriptions of De Mille’s personality lead one to speculate if he would have had different attitudes and taken a different approach had he been writing today. He does not appear to present as hateful. Were he alive at Dalhousie today would his black or Jewish colleagues find him good company and would he be so willing to poke fun at others over their sensibilities? In looking back at De Mille to wonder, we see an interesting glimpse of where Canada was and how far we have come.