Image: Charles Piazzi Smyth, The Great Comet of 1843
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” is one of the earliest examples of American post-apocalyptic fiction (the earliest, in fact, that I’ve been able to track down). It’s a nineteenth-century version of Deep Impact or Armageddon. Written in the form of a philosophical dialogue between two survivors of an apocalyptic comet impact, “Conversation” first appeared in the December 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine. The previous years were marked by the appearance of two comets, Halley’s Comet in 1835 and Encke’s Comet in 1838. Then, in 1843, in the midst of Miller’s predictions of the end of the world, and after the spectacular appearance of the Great Comet, Poe’s story was republished in the April 1st issue of Philadelphia Saturday Museum, under the new title “The Destruction of the World: A Conversation between Two Departed Spirits.”
The March 18 issue had featured a lengthy report on “The Comet Now Visible in the South-West,” accompanied by illustrations from Thomas Dick’s The Sidereal Heavens and Other Subjects Connected with Astronomy.
It’s significant that Poe’s story was reprinted in the following issue, the April Fool’s Day issue. While “Conversation” is presented as a follow-up piece, it’s also probably intended to satirize the Millerites’ apocalyptic expectations, and the apocalyptic expectations that are more generally attached to comets. The publication’s anti-Millerite stance can be seen in this short article from another part of the issue:
The Mischief at Work. Several respectable families of this city, in easy circumstances, have become infected with Millerism, which leads them to waste their means and act the part of lunatics, under the full impression that the world will be destroyed next month. They are to be pitied.
Conversely, Miller satirized the naturalistic/scientific attitude in “A Scene of the Last Day,” in which he imagines a “sinner” witnessing the celestial signs of the Second Coming and trying in vain to rationalize them away:
Another phenomenon to frighten poor, ignorant fanatics. I will not be afraid. Let Nature play her fantastic gambols. My soul’s too brave to shake, too big to be afraid. When the stars fell like hailstones I stood unmoved, and laughed at others’ fears. They passed away, and all was calm again. It was one of nature’s freaks.
I don’t know enough about Poe to judge his own attitude toward apocalypse. He clearly knew the Book of Revelation, to which he alludes in “Conversation.” Eiros’s statement that “I hear no longer that mad, rushing, horrible sound, like the ‘voice of many waters'” is a clear reference to Revelation: “And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder.” Later Eiros refers to “the final destruction of all things by fire,” which is an allusion to 2 Peter: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
Of course, after 1945, Americans would increasingly interpret this passage not as a prediction of a doomsday comet, but rather as a prophecy of nuclear war.
The editor of The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. 2 (Harvard, 1978), points to an additional text from the same issue of Philadelphia Saturday Museum that may explain Poe’s intentions. Poe may have written it himself.
We invite attention to the singular article, on another page, entitled “The Destruction of the World.” It details an imaginary conversation supposed to occur between two departed spirits, at a period subsequent to the Great Catastrophe which few doubt will, at some future epoch, take place. The views embodied in this conversation are in strict accordance with philosophical speculation. The danger to be apprehended from collision with a comet is, to be sure, very little, and, from the gaseous nature of these erratic bodies, it has been contended that even actual contact would not have a fatal result; but the purport of the article in question seems to be the suggestion of a mode in which, through the cometary influence, the destruction of the earth might be brought about, and brought about in accordance with Prophecy.
From the celestial visitant now present, we have, of course, nothing to fear. It is now receding from the earth with rapidity absolutely inconceivable, and, in a very short period, will be lost, and perhaps forever, to human eyes. But it came unheralded, and to-morrow its counterpart, or some wonder even more startling, may make its appearance. A firm reliance upon the wisdom and goodness of the Deity is by no means inconsistent with a due
sense of the manifold and multiform perils by which we are so fearfully environed.
Whatever Poe’s religious convictions, what I find especially interesting about “Conversation” is that it is an early example – perhaps the first in American literature – of the science-fictionalization of Christian apocalypse. In other words, Poe’s story is distinguished by its attempt to provide a scientifically consistent account of biblical prophecy in fictional form. (To be sure, this attempt has a much longer history outside of fiction, as detailed in Perry Miller’s classic “The End of the World,” for example.) In the first issue of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback defined “scientifiction,” the clunky neologism that preceded our current term “science fiction,” as “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Alan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” This sounds like a pretty good generic classification of “Conversation.”