Monday, February 20, 2017

Arthur Gordon Pym

We all know Edgar Allen Poe for his brilliant, terrifying, and macabre tales, but his one novel-length work, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is far less familiar. And yet, I would claim it as quite possibly his finest work, a tale whose conceit -- that Poe is merely shaping and refining a narrative given to him by Mr. Pym -- and whose deft evocation of the genre of travel and exploration narratives, were so effective that the London office of Wiley and Putnam was prepared to publish it as "an American contribution to geographical science" -- until they learned that Pym was, in fact, a fiction.

The effect was very carefully obtained. Poe had devoured any number of nautical narratives, and always had some navigational manuals, along with the Encyclopedia Brittanica, close at hand. The giving of facetious specifics, such as the name of the ship "Grampus," and the illustrated plates of the strange hieroglyphics, all added to the sense of realism. Most significantly, Poe drew from the hollow-earth theory of John Cleves Symmes, along with the exhortations of Jeremiah Reynolds, both of whom argued that an expedition should be dispatched to investigate the "hole" in the earth at its Southern pole. Remarkably, the U.S. Congress voted to fund exactly such an expedition, but by the time of its launch less fanciful heads had prevailed, and the United States Exploring Expedition -- the first launched by its young nation -- made remarkable progress in the "South Seas."

In Britain, the seeming marks of authenticity caused some to mistake it for an actual travel narrative; among those duped was the publisher George P. Putnam, who planned a join publication with his friend David Appleton, declaring that "this man has reached a higher latitude than any European navigator. Let us reprint this for the benefit of Mr. Bull." Putnam later ruefully noted that "the grave particularity of the title and of the narrative misled many of the critics as well as ourselves, and whole columns of these new ‘discoveries,’ including the hieroglyphics found on the rocks, were copied by many of the English country papers as sober historical truth”

Nor everyone, of course, was taken in by the initial ruse; the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine castigated the book, declaring that:
A more impudent attempt at humbugging the public has never been exercised; the voyages of Gulliver were politically satirical, and the adventures of Munchausen, the acknowledged caricature of a celebrated traveller. Sinbad the Sailor, Peter Wilkins, and More's Utopia, are confessedly works of the imagination; but Arthur Gordon Pym puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his ipse dixit.
Together with this novel, we'll be seeing Peter Delpeut's film Forbidden Quest, which assembles an enormous amount of "found footage" of polar expeditions to lend reality to an equally facetious tale, this time lent an "air" of reality by an elderly Irish ship's carpenter. Like Poe, Delpeut draws from the "hollow earth" theory, using it to explain the presence of Eskimos at the South Pole, as well as his narrator's otherwise miraculous return to civilization.

In the end, both narratives are best enjoyed when the ruse is realized -- for it's only then that we can, unlike other creatures, take pleasure from traveling along the edge of our own deception. But what did you think? Did this seem to you a real narrative? Or at some point, was the spell, perhaps abruptly, broken? And what did you think of it then?


  1. It was interesting watching the film today in class after reading most of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and to see this type of "real fiction" in both the narrative and doc/mocumentary formats. When I was reading the novel, although some parts can come across a little absurd or silly, Poe's attention to detail made it very credible. It seemed to tell a real story, or at the very least, we closely based on one.

    If I hadn't known that the film we saw was not real, I probably would have believed it. The narrator was pretty convincing and the inclusion of the footage added to the believability of the whole film. I think both the film and the novel really play on our concept of credibility. Like we talked about in class, there are certain markers that make documentaries appear more real. Things such as footage and the quality of footage are pretty crucial to how we interpret the documentary and the event it depicts. If we see a grainy, low quality image or video, we are more likely to believe that it is authentic because many real-life events are not well-documented. For example, most people do not walk down the street with an HD camcorder recording their every move. If something were to happen to them, they are more likely to pull out their cellphone and get a small clip of whatever the action is. This is part of what makes these short, incomplete, low quality clips seem so much more believable.

  2. This is my second time reading the novel and, despite all of its horrors and sublime marvels, I still find the description of Dirk Peters to be the most interesting passage, especially after having now read Moby Dick and seeing Peter’s reflection in Quequeeg. He is not simply a noble savage or a hybrid trope. His physical description makes him sound as if he is a totally different species. He is extremely short at 4’8”, yet Pym describes him as having Herculean limbs. His hands “hardly retain a human shape.” His hybridization continues into a description of his clothing and accessories. He wears some type of fur on his head, but it’s unclear what type of animal. This could be some type of play the raccoon hat of made famous by Benjamin Franklin, a play on his dual roots as a Native American and American. Franklin wore the hat in France as a symbol of genuine Americanness and Peters, as a Native American, may be trying to make the same claim, although it becomes ironic because he has a claim as a genuine American. To me, Peters is a character who fits on the sea, especially the sea of Poe. The sea, like the Arctic, is one of the places where characters with such radical physical qualities can better fit into the more liberal imaginary potential. It seems these 19th century white protagonists seem to need one of these hybrid characters in order to navigate the bizarre worlds their journey takes them to.

  3. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is truly an entertaining and fascnating piece. One has to wonder though what may have come about if Arthur himself lost his obsession for traveling the open sea. What would have changed? Would the narrative still be as believable if the story hadn't taken place at sea?

  4. While reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket I think that nature and destiny played an important role in the text. Throughout the narrative Poe writes about the struggles that they underwent in such detail. I love the idea that nature can be so timid and so powerful at the same time. Nevertheless, throughout the narrative it seemed like Pym thought he was destined to be a part of that voyage. He says “Fortunate, indeed, was it that the incident occurred-for, upon this incident, trivial as it appears, the thread of my destiny depended” (Poe 50). This passage reminded me of the puritan ideology. Puritans believe in predestination and believe that they must go through trials throughout their lives as a test of their faith. I’m not a hundred percent sure how to interpret the ending where he is confronted with the white figure however put into a religious context the white figure Pym sees at the end of the story could serve as some sort of religious awakening or rebirth; as he has gone through many obstacles and will be the same person he once was.

  5. The work of fiction in this book really stood out to me. Like I mentioned in class the usage of specific dates in the beginning made it seem like there had been some type of documentation, like a journal, making it seem more believable. Throughout the novel, the dates continue. At the beginning this may have made it seem more realistic, but by the end it started to appear as fiction. After so much time it is hard to believe that they are still keeping track of every day. Personally, even with a calendar, technology and constant reminders, I still don't know what day it is. Never mind if I was on an exploration in the middle of an unknown place enduring many harsh storms and illnesses. By the end of the novel I began to see the fiction in the story.

  6. I have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in previous classes before and each time I have a different opinion on it. I had never particularly enjoyed the novel; I am a massive fan of Poe’s short stories and this just seemed so different than those, making it inferior in my opinion. However, after reading the previous novels in this course I obtained a bit more knowledge about exploration and began to understand the incentive behind this novel. I found the novel far more intense than I ever had before; the sequence in which the men have to draw straws to decide which of them will be killed for food was a real eye opener for me. Although it is fiction, I am aware that such events most certainly could have occurred on real expeditions such as this one. It gave me a newfound appreciation for explorers, especially during this time period. Poe really works to make Pym’s mental demise clear throughout the novel; it is as if we are on this psychological journey with him. Not only is he physically changed by the events but he is psychologically changed as well.

  7. I wanted to point out an important quote that reflects on the idea of destiny in this one and only novel by Poe. It states, "Fortunate, indeed, was it that the incident occurred—for, upon this incident, trivial as it appears, the thread of my destiny depended." This quote can be found on page 50. From the quote, it explains how Pym believes that the entire journey was predestined for him. He sees it as his journey and truly experiences the true realities of life and death. It was almost as if this journey to the South Pole teaches him more about the journey of life and its extremities. Pym captures new knowledge and has seen things that so many humans have not seen in their lifetime.