The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is the Voynich manuscript of American literature. As the only novel written by Edgar Allan Poe, its historical importance is unquestionable; as a literary work, it is mystifying. Its catalog of atrocities and incidents, which includes cannibalism, drownings, ax murders, shootings (with muskets and pistols), a ghost ship crammed with rotting corpses, a shark feeding frenzy, a landslide, and a mass-casualty explosion, combined with a nightmare symbolism have inspired both interpretation and incredulity.
Long forgotten after Poe had been buried both literally (in 1849) and critically, Pym moldered in ragged omnibus editions for nearly 100 years before W. H. Auden and the New Critics resurrected it for the Age of Academia. Since then, every subsequent critical school has interpreted Pym through its own narrow aesthetic, or increasingly political, perspective. It is a metaphor for the creative imagination; a meditation on God and Providence; a pre-Freudian return-to-the-womb allegory; a rite-of-passage myth; a parable about race. The most recent critical trends generally focus on Pym’s self-reflexive qualities. It’s a book whose metatextual enigmas attracted credulous postmodernists in hordes from Yale to the University of California, Irvine.
But the real mystery surrounding Pym, aside from its shocking and indeterminate ending, is whether it is a flawed work produced by an author under duress or a conscious literary hoax. This is, after all, a novel that begins with a preface from the narrator, “Arthur Gordon Pym,” that stresses the implausibility of the events he is about to recount and ends with a postscript from Edgar Allan Poe, the “editor,” who refuses to complete the story because of his “disbelief in the entire truth of the latter portions of the narrative.”
Not long after the boom in Pym studies began, a few sharp-eyed critics realized that Poe, with his long history of hoaxes and pranks (to go along with perpetual hardship) had produced something dubious. In 1963, L. Moffitt Cecil published “The Two Narratives of Arthur Gordon Pym,” and a few years later J. V. Ridgely and Iola S. Haverstick followed with “Chartless Voyage: The Many Narratives of Arthur Gordon Pym.” Both essays, interestingly enough, appeared in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, but only Ridgely and Haverstick point out how Poe might have been partly driven to write Pym based on distress.
The riddle of Pym is closely tied to the harrowing personal circumstances Poe underwent during its composition. Notorious for a life of misfortune and dissolution, Poe had already dropped out of the University of Virginia, abandoned the army, and been dismissed from West Point, all before he was 22. Alcoholism, poverty, and professional failures marked his life thereafter.
In June 1835, Poe found some measure of stability when he accepted an editorial position with the Southern Literary Messenger in Richmond, Virginia. Poe had been in straitened circumstances ever since his foster father, John Allan, had disinherited him a few years earlier, but this time there was a marked difference: now he had dependents. With him now were his child bride Virginia and his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. And while his salary at the Messenger kept him from languishing in seedy boarding houses or rooming with distant relatives as he might have in his genteel bachelorhood, it was scarcely lucrative for a family of three.
Even so, Poe had managed, for more than a year, to create the steadying family atmosphere that he had craved for so long, having been orphaned as a small child. His inability to remain sober, however, soon threw his serene new household into a vortex that left Poe, not yet 30, on the verge of starvation. He was fired from the Messenger in late 1836 or early 1837 for the same reasons that would dog him for the rest of his life: what was known during his time as dipsomania.
Poe had begun writing The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket just before his termination, hoping to earn extra money by serializing the story in the Messenger. After two installments, Pym vanished from its pages. Poe now found himself at loose ends, with few prospects other than piecemeal hack work in the offing. Despite developing a reputation as a first-rate hatchet man on the Messenger and despite causing something of a stir with a pair of stories—“MS Found in a Bottle” and “Berenice”—Poe found little interest while shopping his collection Tales of the Folio Club. In fact, Harper and Brothers, who had rejected the manuscript, gently chided Poe on his arcane worldview and advised that he “lower himself a little to the ordinary comprehension of the generality of readers.” Harper and Brothers also told him that they were interested mainly in novels, and that if he could produce one, they would consider publishing it.
From Richmond, Poe moved to New York City, hoping for a position at the New York Review, one he failed to obtain. Then, as Kenneth Silverman notes in Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, Poe essentially disappeared from the public record.
For two and a half years, Poe suffered from extreme poverty, the kind that Jacob Riis might have chronicled a few decades later in How the Other Half Lives. Occupying threadbare rooms in Greenwich Village, the Poes survived for long stretches on a diet of bread and molasses. During the Panic of 1837, when jobs were scarce, especially jobs as a magazinist, Poe published only two stories, neither particularly distinguished, much less remunerative. These dire circumstances forced Poe to accept the conditions Harper and Brothers had mentioned when they rejected Tales from the Folio Club in 1836. He began working on his only novel, using the first two installments of Pym published in the Southern Literary Messenger as a springboard.
Understanding Pym is impossible without delineating the personal challenges Poe faced when he composed it. Starving, with a teenage wife to support, and unemployed during one of the worst depressions America had yet seen, Poe needed to deliver a manuscript as soon as possible, in hopes of a quick payout. That meant repurposing material from the Southern Literary Messenger, plagiarizing from several nonfiction books, and possibly, fusing two different narratives and passing them off as one.
What he delivered to Harper and Brothers was only part hoax; it was also an act of desperation.
In a letter to a friend who asks about his method of writing (specifically concerning his short story “Berenice”), Poe responded with an answer that illuminates not only Pym but most of his prose work: “You ask me in what this nature consists? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque; the fearful colored into the horrible; the witty exaggerated into the burlesque; the singular wrought into the strange and mystical.”
Nothing could describe The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket any better. Chronicling the seemingly never-ending ordeals of a teenage stowaway who emerges from days of privation in a coffin-like crate in the hold to discover a mutiny and subsequent calamities above deck, Pym is a gruesome adventure story that eventually morphs into an odd yet disturbing fantasy with an unforgettable supernatural climax.
As Pym progresses, with page after page of disasters and near-disasters, there are several lapses in continuity, a few technical errors, one major gaffe, and several events that make suspension of disbelief problematic, if not impossible. From the beginning, Poe underscores the bizarre nature of his tale. Two Nantucket teenagers decide to take a sailboat, the Ariel (an allusion both to Shakespeare and Percy Bysshe Shelley), out into the Atlantic past midnight, sneaking away from the house after a late-night party. The sailboat belongs to the narrator, Arthur Gordon Pym (whose name is a cryptogram for the author, Edgar Allan Poe, in one of his self-reflexive winks) and is piloted by his friend Augustus Barnard, the son of a sea captain. Barnard is so drunk that he is essentially sleepwalking. Unable to control the sailboat when a storm hits, Pym and Barnard are at the mercy of the waves—until an onrushing whaler obliterates the Ariel. The crew rescues both teenagers, Barnard afloat on a fragment of the Ariel, and Pym discovered because a threadbolt has pierced his neck and has pinned him to the hull of the whaler. Incredibly, Pym and Barnard return home just in time for breakfast, where they join the table directly from their near-fatal adventures, bloody, drenched, and surely exhausted after suffering from everything short of keelhauling. The Ariel, now afloat in smithereens somewhere in the Atlantic, is never mentioned again. This opening reminiscence foreshadows the nautical chaos to come, but it also sets the novel’s tone—a strange mix of terror and the absurd.
An illustration from Jules Verne's essay "Edgard Poë et ses oeuvres" (Edgar Poe and his Works,1862), drawn by Frederic Lix or Yan' Dargent (Public Domain/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
A year and a half later, Pym, aided by Augustus, sneaks onto a whaler, the Grampus, where his phantasmagoric odyssey officially begins.
While Poe is best known for his gothic tales and his proto-detective stories sparked by an obsession with cryptography, his work also includes numerous satires and parodies—many obscure to modern readers unfamiliar with the objects of his ridicule. In Pym, the target is probably the reading public, the everyday philistines Poe had been advised to appease by Harper and Brothers. This vengeful motivation likely explains some of the novel’s most bizarre elements. One of the main characters, for example, Dirk Peters, who heroically battles the hostile universe alongside Pym from beginning to end, is such an outlandish creation that one wonders if Poe is deliberately testing the reader. “He was short in stature—not more than four feet eight inches high—but his limbs were of the most Herculean mold,” Poe writes. “His hands, especially, were so enormously thick and broad as hardly to retain a human shape. His arms, as well as legs, were bowed in the most singular manner, and appeared to possess no flexibility whatever. His head was equally deformed, being of immense size, with an indentation on the crown . . . and entirely bald. To conceal this latter deficiency, which did not proceed from old age, he usually wore a wig formed of any hair-like material which presented itself—occasionally the skin of a Spanish dog or American grizzly bear.”
While Peters may be a nod to the American tall tale, he also borders on the surreal. A dwarf described as a “hybrid” (half Native American), he is a one-man-wrecking crew, surviving calamity after calamity alongside Pym in a manner that suggests the heroic exploits of the most sensational pamphlets and page-turners of the day. Gothic or supernatural fiction had been a minor if distinguished part of the crude American literary landscape for decades. Just over 15 years after the Treaty of Paris, Charles Brockden Brown published Wieland, or the Transformation, the first of his strange and uniquely American gothic novels, and Washington Irving popularized both the ghost story and a certain kind of numinous tale based on European folktales. But in the 1820s and 1830s, the American novel was also as sensational as anything to be found in a Stephen King paperback. Works by now-obscure writers such as John Neal, William Gilmore Simms, and Laughton Osborn featured enough thrills, spills, and chills to titillate the masses Poe had hoped to satisfy. Such were the artistic times that Henry David Thoreau would eventually opine: “In literature, it is only the wild that attracts us.” And Poe went far beyond wild with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
After Pym, Peters, Augustus, and a sailor named Parker annihilate the mutineers (who spend much of their time drunk and disorderly), what Pym describes as a hurricane strikes, battering the Grampus. With the hull flooded, the men lash themselves to the deck, where wave after wave threatens to drown them or wash them into the ocean. Miraculously, they survive, and, in one of several instances where appearances prove deceiving, they spot a ship on the horizon.
Overjoyed at the prospect of rescue, the four men wave and holler at what appears, from a distance, to be a sailor nodding and grinning at them. “We poured out our whole souls in shouts and thanksgiving to God for the complete, unexpected, and glorious Deliverance that was so palpably at hand,” Poe writes. “Of a sudden, and all at once, there came wafted over the ocean from the strange vessel (which was now close upon us) a smell, a stench, such as the whole world has no name for—no conception of—hellish—utterly suffocating—insufferable, inconceivable.” The sailor is dead, his grin is the skull beneath the skin, and his movements are generated by a seagull pecking away at his decaying flesh.
When the men finally succumb to hunger, they draw straws to decide their next (unholy) meal. The loser is promptly slain and cannibalized. After one more death and a final torment—the Grampus capsizes—Pym and Peters are rescued by the Jane Guy, a schooner, headed to the South Seas.
More than halfway through the text, Pym becomes a fantasy-adventure tale with hints of Swift and the Land of the Houyhnhnms. In the dream realm Poe conjures, the Antarctic region has a mild climate, strange animals—including a giant polar bear that attacks a survey boat and is killed by the four-foot eight-inch Peters—purple water, and an archipelago full of black natives terrified of the color white. These natives, named Tsalalians, speak a language similar to Hebrew and plot to kill the crew of the Jane Guy.
Here is where the gloss of Pym as a racial parable emerges. Although Poe was born in Boston, he identified as a Southerner. Staunchly pro-slavery and openly hostile to abolitionists, Poe may have imbued his fears of a slave insurrection into Pym, fueled by memories of Nat Turner. Because Pym is a divided narrative, however, a single, cohesive reading is hard to pinpoint.
If the novel has a consistent theme—other than the sheer precarity of life—it is the question of meaning. Throughout Pym, messages appear and are misunderstood. In addition, reversals of fortunes, ironies, and even hieroglyphics materialize from page to page; deception and delusion, along with signs and symbols, saturate Pym, where things are seldom what they appear to be.
The second half of Pym clearly shows a break in style, tone, plot, and method, with hardly a mention of the tribulations that had taken place on the Grampus. In fact, Pym has only this to say about his recent terrifying ordeals: “In about a fortnight . . . both Peters and myself recovered entirely from the effects of out late privation and dreadful suffering, and we began to remember what had passed rather as a frightful dream from which we had been happily awakened, than as events that had taken place in sober and naked reality.”
Several other infelicities mar the Arctic section of Pym. To pad the novel and ensure its timely delivery to Harper and Brothers, Poe plagiarized pages worth of mundane prose from encyclopedias and contemporary travelogs. Descriptions of historical expeditions, nautical traditions, and animal behavior clog the last quarter of the book, but between these digressions, Poe skillfully describes a netherworld hostile to the crew of the Jane Guy.
In a mad scramble from Tsalal, Pym and Peters eventually escape on a canoe, paddling for days until the ocean turns a murky, curdled off-white. Then they approach a whirlpool or vortex and meet an unknown fate. At this point, the narrative concludes abruptly, the last cliffhanger in a novel overloaded with them.
Literary history is full of unfinished texts, usually published posthumously, such as those written by Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ralph Ellison. But Pym is incomplete by design, a distinction that might have delighted the prankster in Poe. The literary establishment, however, found little amusing in it.
Greeted by critics with a mix of befuddlement and credulity (i.e., some absurdly believed it to be a true account) when it was published on July 30, 1838, Pym disappeared almost immediately, with only negligible sales in America. “A more impudent attempt at humbugging the public has never been exercised,” railed William Burton. Despite his obsession with cryptograms and ratiocination, Poe was unable to crack, for him, the most important riddle of all: the popular literary market. Throughout his career as a writer, he achieved isolated successes, such as “MS in a Bottle,” “The Gold Bug,” and “The Raven,” long a high school staple, which made Poe a minor celebrity. (In those days, that kind of renown had limited upside: Poe earned five dollars for “The Raven.”)
In keeping with his knack for misfortune, Poe discovered that his name had been accidentally omitted from the title page. Perhaps that was not important to him; his method for Pym remains secondary to his motives. Later, in a letter to William Burton, Poe called Pym a “very silly book.” Like Henry James, however, who dismissed The Turn of the Screw as a mere potboiler, Poe infused Pym, a throwaway work, with fitful genius. An anonymous critic of The New Yorker offered the rare positive contemporary assessment of Pym, one that stands above the scholarly din of the last 50 or 60 years: “Those who delight in the wonderful and horrible have a feast before them.”
Top Photo: An 1898 illustration by A. D. McCormick, from Arthur Gordon Pym: A Romance by Edgar Allan Poe, published by Downey & Co., 1898 (Public Domain/Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)