In the early nineteenth century, the hieroglyph was the subject of great puzzlement and wonder in Europe and America. Egyptian pictographs, when deciphered, would offer untold insight into a world in some measure proximal to Moses and to Christ. Hieroglyphs were powerful symbols because they offered a rich key to unlocking the historical identity of western societies (Christian societies with pockets of persecuted religious minorities). When Champollion translated them, it was significant for many reasons. For one, the act represented a mythic connection between the present and the past. The fact that the "natural sciences" had made possible an achievement of such stunning intellectual difficulty seemed to testify to the blessed superiority of western civilization, even as it pointed back toward its origin in the "Logos", or the gift of language/knowledge by God to western man (above and beyond the animals or even, it was thought, other cultures). It was an achievement that inspired people to say "look how far we've come" in a very grand sense. It was also significant because the mode of the decipherment of the hieroglyphs required multiple methods of interpretation, a multiplicity which would enrich the epistemological perspicuity of the Romantics. Hieroglyphs were of three kinds. They were phonetic, symbolic, and figurative. In other words, they either functioned in the manner of modern English syllables and letters, or they were pictographic representations of ideas and concepts, or they were visual figurations of real objects in the world. Sometimes a single marking functioned in different ways in different contexts (Irwin, 6).
As a result, the hieroglyph in literature became a symbol of ambiguity and inscrutability, with specific overtones of historical inscrutability and ambiguity. Starting with Hawthorne, American writers would employ the hieroglyph over and over again when posing the questions "Who are we?", "How do we know who we are?", and "How does that knowledge express a relationship between ourselves and our (historical or mythic) origins?" These questions had a heightened urgency in a country which at the beginning of the century still held the promise of a Christian "city on a hill", and which by the end of the century would be an industrial powerhouse positioned to become one of the most politically important cultures in the world.
In American Hieroglyphics, John T. Irwin explores the history of the employment of the figure over one hundred years of American literary history. Irwin's driving concept is the notion of "hieroglyphic doubling", or the process by which American authors deploy the glyph to express binary epistemological and metaphysical relationships. Just as Christians were inclined to see in Champollion's work a reflection of their origins, the American Romantics saw in the glyph myriad reflections and identities, a number of which anticipated Pynchon's own struggle with the problem of American cultural identity. Irwin's explication of two authors in particular - Hawthorne and Poe - brings into relief a series of American Romantic themes that foreshadow Pynchon's encodings.