Sunday, April 10, 2011

*The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allan Poe

Dodo Press, 2011
originally written in 1838

I bought The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket because I wanted to read Mat Johnson's recently-published book Pym (now finished) which is based largely on parts of this book.  Poe's novel is the story of a young man who eventually winds up stowing away in the hold of a ship called The Grampus -- and who gets much more than he bargained for.  It's not Poe's usual short horror fare, nor is it a novel of detection. It is at once a metafictional  adventure story and fantasy, serialized in The Southern Literary Messenger in the 1830s.  That it was written as for serial publication shortly becomes obvious as you delve into the book.

The plot revolves around the adventures of the title character, and the book purports to be Pym's narrative of a series of strange occurrences at sea.  A preface authored by Pym tells of how he was encouraged to offer his narrative to the public, and Pym's subsequent refusal to do so in fear that he would be ridiculed by the public. In short, he felt like no one would believe him, because what happened would be construed as so far fetched as to be impossible -- and that perhaps the reading public would see his story as mere fiction.  So, a Mr. Poe of the Southern Literary Messenger talks Pym into letting him publish it in this magazine "in the garb of fiction" -- allowing Pym's story to finally be told.  The subtitle of this novel is as follows, probably the longest I've ever encountered.

" Comprising the Details of Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery on Board the American Brig Grampus, on Her Way to the South Seas, in the Month of June, 1827. With an Account of the Recapture of the Vessel by the Survivers; Their Shipwreck and Subsequent Horrible Sufferings from Famine; Their Deliverance by Means of the British Schooner Jane Guy; the Brief Cruise of this Latter Vessel in the Atlantic Ocean; Her Capture, and the Massacre of Her Crew Among a Group of Islands in the Eighty-Fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude; Together with the Incredible Adventures and Discoveries Still Farther South to Which That Distressing Calamity Gave Rise."

Young Pym hatches a plan with his friend Augustus Barnard to stow away on the ship The Grampus, which is captained by Arthur's father. The two concoct a fake two-week visit to a relative's home in New Bedford, thinking that after the Grampus is safely away at sea, Pym would send news to his parents of his whereabouts via a passing ship.  The plan is launched, and Pym finds himself in the hold, safely stowed with provisions until Augustus can get back to him later.  But it's a long time until Augustus returns -- and as Pym is in trouble down below, the situation becomes a bit desperate for him. Eventually Augustus returns and  informs him that a mutiny had occurred on the ship and all is not well.  When Pym eventually is able to come up from below, things go from bad to worse -- an adventure involving storm, shipwreck, starvation, sharks and a rescue.  But wait -- rescue is a relative term in this case -- and Pym and his remaining companions from the Grampus find themselves aboard the schooner Jane Guy, heading down to the Cape of Good Hope and eventually  toward Antarctica. Somewhere around latitude 83 degrees 20', longitude 43 degrees 5' west, the Jane Guy sails into an inlet on the hitherto-uundiscovered island of Tsalal, where the crew encounters some natives who've never come into contact with the outside world, and the strangest and most fantastical adventures of all begin.

The story is told via the means of first-person narrative along with a number of journal entries. Part adventure story, ongoing travelogue, scientific exposition (although it's really obvious much of the science is in Poe's head), and definitely part fantasy, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym  is also a glimpse into the pre-Civil War southern white mindset, most especially in terms of white superiority. Frankly speaking, this aspect of the narrative just doesn't let up, and pretty much anyone not white is given less than honorable treatment.  For example, the worst of the mutineers ("a demon") was the black cook.  Upon the Jane Guy's arrival at Tsalal, everything, including the landscape, is black. The natives there  tremble with fear at the sight of anything white, they are black down to their teeth, and Poe affords us the image of the sneaky and ruthless savages who can't be trusted and speak gibberish.  Even one of Pym's companions throughout his adventures is known throughout the story as a "half-breed," and I could go on.  While I understand completely that this was typical of the time, and I'm not making any judgments here, it's quite obvious that Poe had an agenda.  He pushes it to the point where the message at the end comes through loud and clear:  salvation comes by virtue of  one's very "whiteness." But this is impossible to explain without giving away the show, so I'll leave it up to other readers to figure it out. And before I forget, there's also the issue of the superior white man exploiting other lands for resources, which seems to have been status quo in the mid-1800s as well. 

I've seen this book described in Amazon reviews as a book of horror -- this it is definitely not, so if you were expecting a horror story, don't pick this one up.  It is still worth the read, because a) it's kind of a fun adventure story and b) it's spawned a number of other works from later authors -- none the least of which is HP Lovecraft's most excellent At the Mountains of Madness.  As far as the racist component, well, I'm someone who likes to think in context of the times and this book definitely puts you there. Not that it's correct, but it was what it was, and that's just a fact.   I have to admit skimming through some of the book, for example, the long-winded descriptions of the Galapagos tortoise, the brief but tedious history of Antarctic exploration and so forth, because frankly it was quite dull and sometimes downright laughable; Poe seems to have read a bit on each topic and filled the rest in with his imagination. There are also a few plot holes that you can't help but notice.  But when all is said and done, if nothing else, it's a great book for a rainy day -- recommended for Poe fans, for fantasy readers and for those interested in a good old seafaring adventure story.

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