A picture of a Kindle with the book cover of 'A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder' on display.
A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille (Photo by me)

Rating: 🌕🌕🌑🌑🌑

There’s a tale in my family of a great-granduncle who went sailing one day and never returned. We had a photo of him in the family home, and I assumed he died at sea. They say he came upon riches in a faraway land and decided to stay. They also say he was the captain of the ship. That is not true; we like to exaggerate. Everyone I know who has ever sailed on anything was, I’m told, the captain of the ship, and every soldier the commander of the army.

This book reminded me of him. It is a book within a book. A few sailors find a manuscript in a cylinder at sea and begin to read it. The manuscript tells the fantastical story of Adam More, a lost sailor who comes upon strange lands and strange people, full of bizarre animals and customs. It’s hard to tell if any bad writing in the manuscript (making up about 90% of the book) is intentional, or if James De Mille is just a bad writer.

Let’s first bear in mind that this was written in 1888. It is full of racist, sexist ideas, but I will not judge it based on that. I was completely and perfectly bored for the entire first half. Things get mildly interesting in the second half, but that’s it. It’s a wonderful concept poorly executed, and I feel free to criticize the book in this way because the author is very dead.

James explains things in childish detail, not in a way that helps you build the world in your head, but often as an attempt to explain possible plot holes. It comes off as condescending, and assumes the reader has no ability to think through the ideas on their own.

At some point in the story, the sailors comment on how poorly written the manuscript is, implying that Adam More is a terrible writer. Some might think that James De Mille is a genius for pulling that off, but the fact that he had to spell it out tells me otherwise. Adam More isn’t a bad writer, because Adam More doesn’t exist in this story. James failed to bring him to life. I think that this bit of commentary shows De Mille’s lack of confidence in himself, and feeling the need to tell us ‘Don’t you see? He writes bad because he’s a sailor and this book was written by him, not by me’. It is at that point that the entire illusion crumbles, and I see the author standing in front of me once again, worried that I might misunderstand a line or fail to see his genius.

This is an excerpt from page 222, where one of the sailors speaks of the manuscript they found:

His plan is one thing, and his execution quite another. His plan is not bad, but he fails utterly in his execution. The style is detestable. If he had written in the style of a plain seaman, and told a simple unvarnished tale, it would have been all right. In order to carry out properly such a plan as this the writer should have taken Defoe as his model, or, still better, Dean Swift. […] But this writer is tawdry, he has the worst vices of the sensational school—he shows everywhere marks of haste, gross carelessness, and universal feebleness. [..] He is a gross plagiarist, and over and over again violates in the most glaring manner all the ordinary properties of style."

Am I supposed to think that clever? Maybe, but I think the opposite.

I of course enjoyed some parts of the story, and still think the concept is intriguing; but I’m not in a mood today to talk about nice things.

As for my strange granduncle who went sailing over a century ago, I think he survived. A few years ago, while digging through some library records, I found a few Egyptians in the United States with the family name Elbedwihy. Someday I’ll chase them down and ask them of their great granduncle who was the captain of the ship that sailed off the coast of Egypt in the 1800s, of his adventures along the way, and whether they found among his belongings a strange manuscript in a slimy, mossy copper cylinder.

Some tidbits:

“Do you not understand,” said I, “that death is abhorrent to humanity.”

“Abhorrent!” said the Kohen; “that is impossible. Is it not the highest blessing? Who is there that does not long for death? Death is the greatest blessing, the chief desire of man—the highest aim. And you—are you not to be envied in having your felicity so near? above all, in having such a death as that which is appointed for you—so noble, so sublime? You must be mad; your happiness has turned your head.”

“I—I help you!” said the Kohen, in new amazement. “Why do you come to me—to me, of all men? Why, I am nothing here. And help you to live—to live! Who ever heard of such a thing?” […] “Such a request,” said he, “is revolting; you must be mad. Such a request outrages all the instincts of humanity. And even if I could do such violence to my own nature as to help you to such a thing, how do you think I could face my fellow-men, or how could I endure the terrible punishment which would fall upon me?”

“Punishment!” said I. “What! would you be punished?”

“Punished!” said the Kohen. “That, of course, would be inevitable. I should be esteemed an unnatural monster and the chief of criminals. My lot in life now is painful enough; but in this case my punishment would involve me in evils without end. Riches would be poured upon me; I should be raised to the rank of Kohen Gadol; I should be removed farther away than ever from the pauper class—so far, indeed, that all hope in life would be over. I should be made the first and noblest and richest in all the land.”

“Death is near—it is almost certain. Why should we do anything to distract our minds and mar our joy? For oh, dear friend, the glorious time has come when we can give up life—life, with all its toils, its burdens, its endless bitternesses, its perpetual evils. Now we shall have no more suffering from vexatious and oppressive riches, from troublesome honors, from a surplus of food, from luxuries and delicacies, and all the ills of life.”

“ ‘Not to be born surpasses every lot;
And the next best lot by far, when one is born,
Is to go back whence he came as soon as possible;
For while youth is present bringing vain follies,
What woes does it not have, what ills does it not bear—
Murders, factions, strife, war, envy,
But the extreme of misery is attained by loathsome old age—
Old age, strengthless, unsociable, friendless,
Where all evils upon evils dwell together.’ ”

“I’ll give you the words of a later poet,” said Melick, “who takes a different view of the case. I think I’ll sing them with your permission.”

Melick swallowed a glass of wine and then sang the following:
“ ‘They may rail at this life: from the hour I began it
    I found it a life full of kindness and bliss,
  And until they can show me some happier planet,
    More social and bright, I’ll content me with this.
  As long as the world has such lips and such eyes
    As before me this moment enraptured I see,
  They may say what they will of their orbs in the skies,
    But this earth is the planet for you, love, and me.’