Literary Illusions
Click for bigger picture
Tutankhamen's succesful rise to ancient superstar status inspired Americans to write about the boy king. Americans created their own illusions about Tut in trying to get their audience to relate to what they were reading. Archie Bell's 1923 novel about King Tut (Bell, Archie. King Tutankhamen: His Romantic History. Boston: St. Botolph Society, 1923.) offered Americans a romantic history: a fictionalization of the king's life. It's interesting to note that the book focuses more on Tut's love interest than it does him--in fact, he doesn't even get named as Tutankhamen until half-way through the book. He also dies rather quickly, as a mysterious plague suddenly strikes the court.
Click for bigger picture
The title page reveals the focus of the story: King Tutankhamen, His Romantic History
Relating how, as Prince of Hermonthis, he won the love of
and through her interest achieved
The book begins with Tut's father-in-law, who has just turned the kingdom to a monotheistic religion, due to the influence of Mesu (Moses) on the king. Tut later returns the kingdom to its worship of many gods and Bell explains that Tut and his Queen hated Moses.

Many readers of the New York Times took the time to contribute odes to King Tut. Here are a few samples that were published.

Puportedly written before his tomb was found (in 1922). April 2, 1921, Published on Jan. 4, 1923 (p. 18):


Tut-Ankh-Amen, thy face benign,
Reveals a spirit rare and fine;
I gaze enraptured, I confess
It equals Khonsu's comeliness--
He teh pure god of blonde moonshine.

So true in contour and in line,
It warms my fancy like strong wine.
Thy smile is like a soul caress

So I erect thee this frail shrine
Because of that sweet face of thine;
The sculptor's perfect art I bless
That could such charm on stone impress
A beauty that appears divine.

Published Feb. 9, 1923 (p. 14):


Through the ages
Still survives your fame.
You appear on countless pages,
Millions speak your name.
Tell me, theme of fool and sages,
Was this just your game?

Was your longing
Not to cease to be?
Midst the billions ever thronging
Still to live and see
Fighting, scrambling, righting, wronging,
Through eternity?

Still our life here
Goes on much the same.
Wickedness and want are rife here;
Sheared and shearer, hale and lame,
Rich and poor are still at strife here,
Life's the same old game.

Did life's puzzles
Hack your youthful brow?
Did the priesthood fit you muzzles
Just to teach you how
Truth between their mitres nuzzles
Even the same as now?

In your sadness
Did you dream of love?
Did you meet your bride with gladness?
Have you kept her glove?
Or did rapture turn to madness,
Tiger grow from dove?

That dear child-wife--
Was she heavenly fair?
Did she want to dance a wild life?
Would she bob her hair?
And was wedded bliss beguiled strife
Sometimes--here and there?

Keep on sleeping,
Do not lift your head.
Vain the laughter and the weeping,
All the prophets said.
Take your rest now in good keeping
And stay safely dead.


(More works cited, better text available on 5/10).

Tutankhamen and Social Mores

Tutankhamen also created a starting point for Americans to think about religion in America. Since Tutankhamen had returned the Egyptians to a polytheistic society, some Americans thought he could be the persecutor of the Jews described in Exodus.(102) A novelization of Tutankhamen's life in 1923 by Archie Bell put forth the idea that Moses (Mesu in the book) had influenced his father, Akhenaton, to worship one God.(103) The connection between religion and art during Tutankhamen's reign also influenced people to look again at spirituality. After all, Egypt in part held such fascination with Americans because of its place in the Bible.(104) The arts and crafts of Egypt held lessons of "spiritual worth" as well as "material value." Dudley Corlett argued that "the mighty lesson that Art founded on Religion endures forever"--as opposed to, say, art founded on machinery.(105) T. George Allen agreed that the freedom from deities in Tutankhamen's father's period mimicked a freedom in art.(106) Allen viewed the find as a recreation of the earliest achievements in "spiritual and artistic freedom."(107)

In this portrayal of Tutankhamen as a religious find, some shaped the story of Tutankhamen's religion to their own ends. One Rabbi wanted people to look at Moses, rather than the richer Tutankhamen.(108) In yet another view, Dr. Kaufman Kohler suggested that we look on the lesson of Tutankhamen's father: "no man on earth, however wise and powerful, could invent a new religion and impose it on the people…religion must emanate form the soul of a people."(109) Tutankhamen had become the latest bible lesson. When a reporter asked Thomas Edison, then 76, about Tutankhamen, a staff member said "'now wait a minute…You are not about to ask Mr. Edison any questions about religion.'" Edison said it was good that the ancients were being talked about in papers, but newspapers should also look at the work of modern scientists.(110)

While there wasn't a direct response to Edison, at the least the newspapers addressed the modern even as they examined the old--or they recorded the modern interpretations everyday readers made about Egyptians. Objects from Tutankhamen's tomb "'helps us to visualize,'" Carter wrote, "'that the young king must have been very like ourselves.'"(111) Coverage of the tomb shows that Americans very much tried to identify with the characters of ancient Egypt. Princeton Egyptologist David Paton compared General Allenby's Egyptian campaign to an ancient Egyptian king's campaign. "He shows that the actors and events were much like those of our own time."(112) Other connections to the past were more innocuous. One New York Times story reported finding the first evidence of "Pharaonic underwear." "It probably fitted loosely, else he was hugely built," the Times correspondent wrote.(113) This kind of everyday detail appealed to the everyday reader; he too was like the pharaoh. Americans could be kings in their own rights, if not through wealth, then through the progress of civilization. Still other comparisons showed the social tensions of the 1920s. "A man's social position might be measured by the magnificence of his coffin"(114)--or car--then and now. According to one report, mummies often had to be moved because crooked builders told robbers about the location of treasure, or even robbed it themselves. The "crooked building contractor is one of the earliest figures in history or fiction."(115) When explaining how the undertakers rushed the job, the reporter wrote they "failed to supervise their men with the result that as often happens today in similar cases of lack of control the work was rushed."(116) Here the Times betrayed its conservative readership: only a superior could groan about the inferiority of a rushed job. In a report that mirrored the obsession with the stockmarket for Americans of the 1920s, a Johns Hopkins math professor estimated what the Tutankhamen tomb's treasures would be valued at had they been "put in safe 6 per cent. bonds and compounded" from 3,400 years ago to the present day.(117)

Even before Tutankhamen was making headlines, Americans looked to the past for answers to the controversy surrounding the 1920s "new woman." A French Egyptologist revealed in June 1922 that the "skirt controversy" was over 40 centuries old. He had found statuettes that showed two dress lengths.(118) In April, Scientific American, writing about the latest American excavation, described "a young queen who would look all right today with her bobbed air and her pet dog sitting under her chair." Ancient Egyptian women's bobbed hair became nothing less of an obsession for Americans, as the media portrayed it. As a woman visited the Metropolitan Museum to examine the artifacts, she exclaimed, "'So they had bobbed hair then, too!'"(119) In a poem published in The New York Times, the author wrote "Tut-ankh-Amen,/Still our life here/Goes on much the same…That dear child-wife--/Was she heavenly fair?/Did she want to dance a wild life?/Would she bob her hair?"(120) Tutankhamen's widow's attempts to get remarried soon after his death also struck a chord with 1920s Americans: "She was hardly a widow before she wanted a new king," said one Times article.(121) Another article quoted an expert that said that divorces were quite usual in ancient Egypt. The press coverage allowed those fearful of the new woman to think that after all, nothing was new about her. In this way, Americans could relieve some of their anxiety about their current social problems through realizing that even an ancient people had to deal with such issues.

While many of the articles in the New York Times attempted to equate aspects of Egyptian culture with American culture, the Los Angeles Times ran an entire feature on the similarities between Hollywood--one city--and Egypt. The title of the article, "Ancient Egypt Lives Again in Hollywood: Even the Bobbed Hair Reincarnated From the Flappers Who Lived When Tombs Were Built"(122) explains a lot of what the story claimed. Grace Wilcox wrote, "Is modern Hollywood with its bobbed-hair beauties linked in some mystic bond with ancient Egypt in the days when King Tutankhamen walked the earth in stately splendor?"(123) In the article, Wilcox interviewed Dudley Corlett, an agricultural expert for the British government in Egypt and India. Corlett claimed that there were similarities between the "artistic colony" of Hollywood and ancient Egypt. Wilcox theorized, "It will probably show us that, without knowing it, we have taken up the torch thrown down by dead and forgotten leaders of ancient thought in ways that we do not dream of."(124) In his interview, Corlett rattled off a number of similarities supposedly unique to Hollywood and Egypt: sun worshipping, wearing scarab jewelry, bobbed hair, similarly colored makeup, fashions, nutrition and architecture. Corlett even claimed that the faces of people in Egypt reminded him of those in Hollywood. Wilcox wrote: "We are apparently [mimicking Egyptians] just through sheer instinct--obeying a strang [sic] mystic impulse that we only half understand."(125) In the land of dress-up, Hollywood dwellers wanted to feel as if they played the part of the Egyptian.

While not as dramatic as the Los Angeles Times story would have described it, Tutankhamen's tomb presented a battleground where the modern and ancient civilizations could meet. Standing at the door of Tutankhamen's tomb, American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted looked at the seals on the door: "Only the soft rays of the electric light suggested the modern world into which these amazing survivals from a past so remote had been so unexpectedly projected."(126) When Carter was confronted with the paradox between the ancient and modern world, he saw the ancient world as superior. "We find that culture in the way of intellectual development, and the arts in general, were in those ancient times, in many ways, higher than they are today."(127) Americans struggled to bridge the gap between the Egyptian "high" culture and their own culture, and even attempted to bring the excavation closer to home.

Full paper and footnotes.


Uncovering Tutankhamen I The Boy King I Buried Treasure I Metropolitan Connections I Cinematic Contributions I Stop the Presses I Literary Illusions I Fashion is King I Americans Abroad I Main