My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Calm block fallen down here from some dark disaster
—Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Tomb of Edgar Poe”
Edgar Allan Poe must have the strangest legacy in modern literature: he invented both pulp fiction and the literary avant-garde.
While these two tendencies may—in their shared commitments to sensationalism and formalism—be allies in a high-low war against the middle mind (exemplified in literature by the realist novel and the expressive lyric), it is quite a feat to have birthed them both. But Poe codified several important popular genres that would later flourish in the era of mass literacy and mass media (horror, detective fiction, science fiction) and thereby influenced such proto-pulp and pulp writers as Doyle, Stevenson, Wells, and Lovecraft. At the same time, his theoretical insistence on a “pure” (i.e., non-mimetic) literary writing designed to affect the reader through the manipulation of form and surface, not to mention his depiction of disordered psychological states and waking dream-worlds, bequeathed a legacy to modernism and the avant-garde through Baudelaire and the French Symbolists and Decadents as well as such other admirers as Dostoevsky, Wilde, and Kafka.
Whether pulp fictioneer or avant-garde poet, Poe is the founder of a literature concerned with the production of forms (well-constructed generic tales or abstract sound-surface lyrics) rather than of truth or meaning. Neither a thriller nor an avant-garde poem can really be read as one is supposed to read Keats or Hawthorne, whose texts are dense entanglements of allusion and implication; thrillers and avant-garde poems are rather absorbed as intellectual structures and interpreted as sensational events. In this sense, Poe is one of first writers who, as in the German critical judgment that opens his story “The Man of the Crowd,” does not permit himself to be read.
All of this is an apology for the egregious amount of time it took me to read Poe’s brief only “novel,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and the egregious amount of skimming I did while “reading” it. Scare quotes abound, because The Narrative is not really a novel at all—it is a faux memoir/travelogue that eventually becomes a visionary romance (the introduction to my edition says that it “starts like Defoe and ends like Coleridge”)—and it cannot be read, because its seemingly mimetic passages are plagiarisms or hoaxes mimicking genuine travelogues (these are the parts I skimmed) while its visionary passages are not only meaningless in themselves but are allegories of the meaningless.
The tale: the title hero—a fictional double for the author, as the similarity of their names (Edgar/Arthur, Allan/Gordon, Poe/Pym) suggest—wants to escape his bourgeois family, so he runs away to sea by stowing away on the Grampus, a whaler whose captain is the father of his best friend Augustus. (Even before this, in the novel’s overture-like first chapter, Pym and Augustus take a boat out on a drunken night and suffer a wreck that should have warned them away from the water.) But the Grampus falls first to mutiny and then to stormy weather, until Pym and the few survivors of the drifting, disabled vessel have to resort to cannibalism to stay alive.
Eventually, Pym and the only other survivor, the brawny Dirk Peters, are picked up by the Jane Guy, a ship bound on an exploratory journey toward the South Pole. (We’re told that Peters is “the son of an Indian squaw of the tribe of Upsarokas, who live among the fastnesses of the Black Hills, near the source of the Missouri…[whose] father was a fur-trader,” sounding the novel’s themes of race and anxiety over racial proximity.) Pym records many geographical, geological, nautical, biological and other observations on this scientific mission, which he dutifully reproduces for the reader, as Poe reproduced them from his nonfictional sources.
Then the novel departs entirely from realism as the crew encounters a fantastical tribe of black islanders, who seem friendly at first; but the islanders observe a taboo concerning all things white, including white men, which leads them to attempt to massacre the explorers. Eventually, Pym, Peters, and Nu-Nu, a native of the island (called Tsalal), escape to the Antarctic Ocean and drift toward the South Pole, a region of perfect whiteness (as Tsalal had been a place of omnipresent blackness). Pym’s narrative famously, mysteriously concludes with this:
Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.
Following which conclusion, a strange editorial note informs us that Pym, who had somehow survived his Antarctic sojourn, has died in an accident in the United States before finishing his narrative. Then the editor makes some crytographical observations about cave markings Pym had recored on Tsalal, implying that the islanders, who speak a vaguely Hebraic language reminiscent of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Arabic, are an ur-tribe of humanity keeping at bay the white inhuman mystery at the bottom of the world.
When summarized, Pym/Poe’s narrative sounds thrillingly bizarre, but in execution, it is tedious hodgepodge of disparate elements, thickened for pages at a time with endless nautical and other detail probably meant to contribute to the book’s “hoaxing” element (the inveterate hoaxer Poe perhaps wanted, like his model Defoe, to convince readers this was a real memoir) and possibly even to pad out the length, given Poe’s aversion to and apparent incompetence at long-form writing. In his “Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Poe argues for the aesthetic primacy of the lyric and the tale over the epic and the novel, since the latter forms are too long to be read at one sitting and therefore unable to have a unified effect on the reader:
If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with any thing that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones — that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose — a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions — the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of effect.
It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting — and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe,” (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem.
However dubious we might find this as a universal literary theory, it certainly applies to the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, whose intensely affecting sequences (the Grampus mutiny, the subsequent cannibalism among the abandoned survivors, the Jane Guy‘s encounter with the Tsalal islanders, the strange journey to the South Pole) could be cut out of the main body of the text and re-arranged as a cycle of brief short stories. Poe’s model, though, was Robinson Crusoe, which “demand[s] no unity,” and so he provided none to his haphazard narrative.
To put my judgment on Poe’s only novel with maximal bluntness: we would probably not now be reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym if it did not have Poe’s name on it; it is a lax production even by the standards of the early 19th century, when only a small handful of people (mainly Goethe, Jane Austen, and Stendhal) had figured out how to write a novel as a unified artistic composition that would not bore the discriminating readers of the future to death.
Even so, the book’s manifest flaws have not prevented critics from finding all manner of allegory in Pym’s narrative. Today its most salient theme is that of race. One of the narrative’s precipitating events is a shipboard rebellion led by a bloodthirsty black cook; the annotations to my edition direct us at that point to the recency of Nat Turner’s rebellion and its probably importance to Poe and his audience as Southerners. The editors fall silent when the mysterious black tribe on Tsalal island replays the rebellion near the novel’s conclusion, almost burying Pym and a crew of sailors alive in a black chasm, which raises the whites’ fear of slave rebellion to a global and existential matter wherein there is always the potential for whiteness to be swamped by blackness. Pym the white man survives the islanders’ attack, however, only to confront, at the novel’s abrupt ending, the mysterious white giant at the South Pole.
This mute whiteness, signifying the end of life and meaning, is both transcendence and the peace of death, while blackness in the novel evokes vitality and the violence of life. (This is Toni Morrison’s gloss on Poe’s novel in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.) Poe maps a metaphysical Platonic hierarchy onto a racial one derived from antebellum ideology: whiteness is the unreachable bodiless goal of the striving soul and blackness the materiality of life that immures the soul and keeps it from its communion with the pure and ineffable. It must have been this fleshless white communion that entranced some in the avant-garde (though not Baudelaire or Dostoevsky or Kafka), inspiring their visions of mute poems about the absent Ideal, but the restive Poe is always half on the side of the rebellious and clamorous life he cannot keep himself from depicting.
As in “Ligeia,” where the awful, awesome life force overruns death (and a dark woman supplants a fair one) in a beautifully cloying atmosphere of strange and erotic sensuality, as in “The Cask of Amontillado,” where the decaying aristocrat Montresor uses the tools and the weapons of his enemy, the freethinking Freemason arriviste Fortunato, to accomplish his counter-revolutionary revenge in an act of murderous—what else?—masonry, Poe is all irony and reversal, all allegory and depth psychology. If he is more interesting than many of his successors on Parnassus or in the pulps, it is because he means more than they do, can be read more than they can, and is, in spite of himself, more akin to his own figuration of blackness than he seems.