Archive for May 7th, 2011

May 7, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

I’ve written about Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket on this blog before. This month it was the subject of my column at Kindle Magazine. Slightly longer version below.


There’s a bit at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a book too well known to ever appear in this column, but both out of copyright and brilliant) in which the narrator laments the filling in of the world map, as new places were explored. “It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery–a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

Unknown places allow for stories about them*. In medieval Europe India was a fantastic place, populated with all manner of strange creatures. Centuries later adventure novels (of the Rider Haggard variety) had people discovering hidden valleys and lost civilisations in parts of Asia and Africa and South America. As the world became more and more known we had to find other blank spaces to fill in – Jules Verne and Edward Bulwer-Lytton both went subterranean with Journey to the Centre of the Earth and The Coming Race; some writers turned to other planets (particularly Mars, and I think this is at least one of the reasons for the flowering of science fiction in this period).
Edgar Allan Poe goes south. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel, the title character stows away aboard a whaling ship. He is helped in this by his friend Augustus, whose father commands the ship. After some mutiny and wholesale slaughter they end up on another ship, this one dedicated to exploration. They sail towards the Antarctic, discover new lands, and have hair-raising encounters with native barbarians. All of this is quite normal as far as nineteenth century adventure stories are concerned.
But this is Poe, and so obviously it cannot be a normal adventure story. Throughout, it is infused with the sort of weirdness that Poe is so skilled at invoking. A sense of everything not being quite real lurks under everything. So when Pym hides himself on the ship, it has to be a nightmarish situation involving a coffin, rancid meat and feverish dreams. Later the few people left on the ship must see (or hallucinate) ghosts. As Pym sails south in the last moments of the book he feels “a sudden listlessness” and becomes more and more passive, as if in a dream. At times the unreality of it all reminds one of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The violence and gore of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is often ridiculous, particularly since the author seems to feel that each chapter must somehow surpass the last in sensationalism. Yet the adventure plot is only the structure; what elevates the book is the sheer strangeness that runs through it. This is only enhanced by the kind of ambiguous ending that most writers would not dare attempt.
Arthur Gordon Pym may not be as famous as other of Poe’s works, but its influence has definitely been felt. Elements of it can be felt in H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Jules Verne references it in The Sphinx of the Ice fields. Most recently, Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym tells the story of a man obsessed with Poe’s book. Ludicrous and over the top it may be, but it is somehow special.


*See also Daniel Abraham’s post defending “exoticism” here. I read a fantastic response to it by Jha on tumblr, but no amount of searching has produced a permanent link. If anyone does have the link, please post it?
Edit: Link to Jha here. (Thank you!)