Hart Crane, The Bridge

The BridgeThe Bridge by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bridge (1930) is a long poem seven years in the making. It was written under several varieties of duress, alcoholism and despair chief among them, by a poet who would, within two years of his masterpiece’s composition, take his own life at the age of 32. All the more remarkable, then, that it was a brief epic intended as an affirmation—a rebuttal to T. S. Eliot’s epoch-making 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which adumbrated the modernist’s sense of his time as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” (Ulysses, Order, and Myth”). Crane was a follower of Whitman and Emerson, a latter-day Transcendentalist, and wished to write a poem that would be “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.'”

In a review of Crane’s 1926 volume, White Buildings, I noted the difficulties of reading this poet: it is not so much, as with Eliot or Pound or Joyce, a matter of recondite allusion as it is his commitment to a high style combining Elizabethan grandeur with modernist abstraction. Crane’s words seem to live a life of their own, decoupled not only from easily understood reference (as in, say, Gertrude Stein), but also sometimes from conventions of grammar or usage. This is no less true of The Bridge than of White Buildings, and I will confess before I begin a commentary that there are a number of lines and passages I do not claim to understand. I am confident, though, that Crane intended his work as much to be experienced as a roiling verbal sea as he did for it to be decrypted—he was a Late Romantic, meaning to move us, to entrance us, to overwhelm us, more than to involve us in linguistic puzzles. In any case, even a first reading is enough for a reader to get the drift (the “sea drift,” Whitman might have said) of The Bridge.

The epic begins with a proem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” announcing the topic, tone, and theme. Crane imagines the eponymous structure, with its suspension wires like an instrument’s strings, as an Aeolian harp, that celebrated trope of the Romantics. Coleridge and Shelley saw a likeness between the poet’s service as a medium making ambient spiritual forces articulate, and the Aeolian harp’s transformation of the wind into eerie music.[1] The proem concludes by advising the bridge to “lend a myth to God”—in other words, and contra Eliot & Co., modernity is not a declension from an older spiritual wholeness, but a force capable of making its own spirit and forms of worship.

The first section, “Ave Maria,” is a fierce dramatic monologue spoken by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage, lauding God and the Virgin for guiding him to “Cathay” (i.e., China, the intended destination), before sounding blasphemously like Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses: “still one shore beyond desire!”

The next division is named for Pocahontas, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” and offers a morning montage, from the poet’s waking with his lover, allegorically both the titular Algonquin princess and America itself, in “The Harbor Dawn” (“a forest shudders in your hair“) to a brilliant scene of Rip van Winkle walking modern New York streets:

And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A,—

Next we follow “The River” and the laboring or lumpen life of America’s “ancient men—wifeless or runaway / Hobo-trekkers that forever search / An empire wilderness of freight and rails.” The section next envisions the poet’s (to me obscure) participation in a Native American dance and fusion of a Pocahontas-like figure with the “eternal feminine” for which America stands[2]:

High unto Labrador the sun strikes free
Her speechless dream of snow, and stirred again,
She is the torrent and the singing tree;
And she is virgin to the last of men…

Note that all these juxtapositions serve Crane to achieve his “synthesis” as different cultural elements come together: Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Native American culture, and Romantic literature. Finally, the division ends with “Indiana,” a pioneer woman’s moving monologue—generally judged mawkish and extraneous by critics for whom modern poetry is not supposed to tell a coherent story or share a legible emotion—to her peregrine son: “oh, I shall always wait / You Larry, traveller— / stranger, / son, / —my friend—”

The next division is “Cutty Sark,” a tribute to Melville wherein the speaker encounters an old salt in South Street Seaport speakeasy: “Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke, / and rum was Plato in our heads…” Another great American writer appears in the next division—my favorite and perhaps the most intricately organized; in “Cape Hatteras,” the speaker both encounters Walt Whitman and recounts the history of aviation, both the man and the science undergoing the same transformation from hope and promise (Song of Myself, the Wright Brothers) to violence, death, and despair (Whitman as wound dresser, aviation as Great War death from the air). Crane’s verse in this section goes from daring Futurism—

Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see
How from thy path above the levin’s lance
Thou sowest doom thou has nor time nor chance
To reckon—as thy stilly eyes partake
What alcohol of space…!

—to moving tribute: “yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt,— / Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman— / so—”

“Three Songs” gives three glimpses into different aspects of American life and desire, most notably a garish poem set in a burlesque theater (“Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh, / O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone”), and “Quaker Hill” provides an Eliotic (even unfortunately anti-Semitic) elegy over the decay from Quaker to commercial values in American life: “This was the Promised Land,” the speaker laments, before noting an “ancient” table purchased at a cut rate by “Powitzky” at “Adams’ auction.”

Penultimately is “The Tunnel,” a Homeric/Virgilian/Dantean subway katabasis where the poet, who had earlier soared with Whitman, now travels underground with Poe:

And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

Here the demographic and social shifts in American urban life are hymned, a new myth of fecundity, as Crane looks upon, let us say, my great-grandmother with a kindlier eye than Eliot (or Pound or James or Lovecraft or etc.) ever did:

And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?

Finally, the whole poem ends with “Atlantis,” reprising the theme of bridge as Aeolian harp, giving voice to all America:

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below—
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,—
“Make thy love sure—to weave whose song we ply!”
—From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream.

The Bridge has never had the prestige of either its admired precursor, Whitman’s Song of Myself, or its polemical target, Eliot’s Waste Land. Consider two data points: 1. Whitman’s and Eliot’s poems are printed whole in the canon-defining Norton Anthology textbook, while Crane’s is present only in brief excerpts; 2. a fully annotated scholarly edition of The Bridge was only published in the current decade, over eighty years after the poem’s first appearance.

Whitman’s greater accessibility is obvious: while his use of language was original in its context, it does not depend on extensive allusion. Similarly, while the earlier poet makes creative use of lexis and syntax, he rarely becomes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, as Crane’s does. Whitman is simply easier to read. Moreover, Whitman was writing in the nineteenth century, when it was still possible to take progress for granted, to see technological change as portending new wonders, to imagine that atrocities like slavery—often Gothicized by nineteenth-century American liberal writers (both white and black) as a feudal or even Catholic remainder—would be trampled in the march of progress and left in the dust. A progressive case in the aftermath of the Great War is less immediately creditable.

Eliot’s greater distinction is more of a mystery, except for the cynical explanation that he and his cohort (especially the impresario Pound) were much better publicists than Crane. For one thing, The Waste Land alludes to texts and ideas far more obscure, then and now, than anything in The Bridge: Eliot sends us, often in multiple languages, to Frazier’s anthropology, minor Jacobean drama, and ancient Sanskrit scriptures, while Crane’s primary allusions are to historical figures and classic writers that every American high-schooler knows: Columbus, Pocahontas, and the Wright Brothers; Poe, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman. Moreover, doesn’t Crane’s ultimate celebration of American possibility and progressive modernity fit in better with our civic religion, our incorrigible patriotism?

But perhaps these last two points are actually the problem: Eliot’s greater obscurity—which he both called attention to and partially helped to dispel when he annotated his own poem—is appealing to readers who want to feel as if they are being let in on a great secret. (This was in part, if I may be so crass, half the sales pitch of modernism.) Eliot’s seemingly greater difficulty is less trouble to decode—a matter of looking up references and translations, most of them provided by the poet himself—whereas Crane’s verbal surface, allusions aside, is often unintelligible no matter what research you do, which make you feel less intelligent as a reader.

Politically, Eliot’s conservative lament over the ruins of modernity allows him perceptions of social damage that even—or especially—the left accepts today: consider his prescient depiction in “The Fire Sermon” of a female typist being date-raped by a clerk, the scene witnessed and narrated by a mythically non-binary seer mourning the wounds inflicted by gender. Crane, by contrast, and despite his own stigmatized queerness and the poem’s homoerotic subtext, strikes the old poetic pose, going back to Dante and Petrarch and the Troubadours, of a male speaker and agent seeking consummation with a mute, abstract bride, a quest object as inert as its vulvic counterpart, the Holy Grail. The reactionary Eliot is here the true feminist and postmodernist, while the progressive Crane masculinizes and medievalizes.[3]

Even taking into account all of the above, The Bridge is magnificent. More than magnificent, it might even be exemplary. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” tasks modern poets not with turning their backs on the rapid changes in a scientific and industrial or post-industrial culture but with aestheticizing these dizzying shifts so that the imagination, fully as much as the reasoning faculty, may have access to them:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.

This is what Crane tries to do by articulating the “intrinsic Myth” that the Brooklyn Bridge is. He was writing, moreover, in the 1920s, which was in some spiritual sense the first decade of the twentieth century. As we approach our own century’s first decade—and these last few years are the first years that have felt like “the future” to me, something radically different both for worse and for better from the years in which I grew up—we could do worse than to emulate Hart Crane.
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 [1] This, by the way, is what “Romantic genius” means—the poet as receptive vessel, not as commanding—still less a swaggering—intelligence. Most of today’s attacks on “Romantic genius” are assailing a straw man. 

[2] The sexual politics of the poem are mixed—or maybe even deliberately split along exoteric-esoteric lines. For the hoi polloi Crane provides a poetic speaker seeking union with the bridge as holy bride and moreover traversing an American landscape feminized since the English Renaissance poetry of Donne and Drayton (“whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?”); but for the insider, the poet’s wanderings are a mythologized cruising near waterfronts and in speakeasies, a testament to occulted queer living.

[3] Perhaps a parable for the present: literary attempts to be politically up-to-the-minute, to be “on the right side of history,” not only fail to guarantee literary quality but cannot even promise permanent political value according to progressive standards themselves.

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H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of MadnessAt the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, what choice did I have in this Halloween season but to go on to the twentieth-century sequel to Poe’s only novel, namely, one of H. P. Lovecraft’s only novels, At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936)? Lovecraft’s characters twice refer to Poe, “hint[ing] at queer notions about unsuspected and forbidden sources to which Poe may have had access when writing his Arthur Gordon Pym a century ago”—in other words, Poe was a sort of secret documentarian of the Antarctic gothic, a new literary mode Lovecraft’s novel continues and extends by assimilating it to his overarching mythos about the squamous horrors from beyond the stars.

This Modern Library edition packages Mountains with Lovecraft’s literary-historical essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, wherein Lovecraft defines the features of the Gothic novel. It is worth quoting to see how, in this novel, Lovecraft borrows and revises these venerable tropes of a haunted modernity:

This novel dramatic paraphernalia consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with its awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends, as a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright. In addition, it included the tyrannical and malevolent nobleman as villain; the saintly, longpersecuted, and generally insipid heroine who undergoes the major terrors and serves as a point of view and focus for the reader’s sympathies; the valorous and immaculate hero, always of high birth but often in humble disguise; the convention of high-sounding foreign names, mostly Italian, for the characters; and the infinite array of stage properties which includes strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like. All this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel; and is by no means extinct even today, though subtler technique now forces it to assume a less naive and obvious form.

What could be less naive and obvious than to convert the Gothic castle into an abandoned alien megalopolis in Antarctica, to render the insipid and suffering heroine as a STEM grad student with a penchant for Poe and other horrific lore, to humbly disguise the highborn hero-villain as a tentacle-faced alien civilization undone by worser interstellar horrors (e.g., “the cosmic octopi”) and their own protoplasmic slave-class, and to take the “high-sounding foreign name” device so far beyond Italian that we arrive at R’lyeh, Tsathoggua, Kadath, and more?

At the Mountains of Madness is the first-person narrative of a geologist named Dyer; he has recently returned from an Antarctic expedition with his Miskatonic University colleagues, where new drilling equipment promised to enable the scientists to collect deeper rock and fossil specimens, “since the primal life-history of this bleak realm of ice and death is of the highest importance to our knowledge of the earth’s past.” But Dyer and team receive more of such knowledge than they wanted or expected, and Dyer—one of the mission’s few survivors—writes his narrative to warn away future polar expeditions. What did these scientists discover?

First, an expedition finds odd animal/vegetable specimens in the ice, one of which thaws out, returns to life, slaughters the humans, and flees to the mountains. Then Dyer and the graduate student Danforth fly out to the wrecked camp to investigate; finding the carnage, they pilot their plane toward the mountains and there discover a hidden city. Wandering its streets and squares, entering its halls and towers, they learn its origins by interpreting its lost race’s (apparently very thorough) friezes and reliefs. In short, the city was built fifty million years ago by the Great Old Ones, an alien civilization seemingly resembling a cross between a squid and a bat. The Great Old Ones once ruled the earth, but were forced back to their Antarctic landing site, also their holiest city, both by subsequent invasions of eviller alien entities and by revolts of their own slave-laborers, the Shoggoths, which they themselves constructed from protoplasmic matter. Eventually, our scientist-heroes decide that the Great Old Ones are not the enemy, but—in their civilizational drive—are actually something like humanity—

God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

—while the squalid slime-monster Shoggoths who overthrew the Great Old Ones are the novel’s prime villain. One of them slimes his way out of the cavern beneath the city to chase Dyer and Danforth back to the surface and out to their plane. While fleeing the Pole, Danforth gets a glimpse of the mountains beyond the city, where the myths of the Great Old Ones told of nameless horrors—

the terrible mountains of the forbidden land—highest of earth’s peaks and focus of earth’s evil; harbourers of nameless horrors and Archaean secrets; shunned and prayed to by those who feared to carve their meaning; untrodden by any living thing of earth, but visited by the sinister lightnings and sending strange beams across the plains in the polar night…

The novel concludes with a tribute to Poe’s Pym, as the cry of the giant birds at that novel’s Antarctic conclusion, “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” is here reprised as the call of the Shoggoth and the Poe-reading Danforth’s own maddened cry as Dyer pilots the plane from the Cyclopean city and the invertebrates whose “nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence [ooze]” beneath it.

The narrative is told in a deliberately dry scientific prose that allows the horrors it uncovers to seem all the more grotesque by contrast with Dyer’s literary decorum. While the novel gradually gathers force and then erupts to a crescendo, Lovecraft’s métier was the short story, and I am convinced he could have gotten his wanderers into the hidden city in twenty pages rather than forty, even at the risk of sacrificing some of the opening’s elaborate scientific verisimilitude. But this is, in comparison to the mishmash of Poe’s Pym, an artful construction, if less impressive than the concentric narratives of its other evident precursor, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, here re-written for the snowbound polar wastes as a heart of whiteness.

In an introduction to this edition, the Marxist novelist China Miéville ably explicates the political subtext of the Shoggoths’ successful overthrow of their erstwhile masters and the horror it inspires in both Lovecraft and his narrator by identifying the Shoggoths with The People in revolt:

The uprising of the masses is something Lovecraft views with evident terror. This is because he both views such masses as racially inferior (“sub-human Russian rabble” in the case of the Bolsheviks) and loathes them precisely because they are the masses. There is little more contemptible and terrifying to this elitist.

You might think this is tendentious, but it is not really less tendentious than the novel itself; reactionaries and revolutionaries alike are fond of the didactic, and Miéville gets in a few good lines (my favorite: “The Shoggoths are, literally, revolting”). For my part, I am less faithful to the essentially chiliastic religious dream of The Revolution—history has given us some cause to fear revolutions even if we are not otherwise in sympathy with Lovecraft’s illiberal politics, or indeed with oppression. (How can both oppression and revolution be bad? You would need not a revolutionary or a reactionary but a tragedian, or at least an ironist, to explain that.)

Anyway, if illiberal politics were all that mattered, we would have to toss out most of the books in our libraries, and not all of them by straight white men either, so the question of Lovecraft’s merit cannot be dispatched by a critique of his ideology, which was not much worse than that of all the other fascist or Stalinist or imperialist modernists we have grown used to admiring.

Lovecraft’s achievement is, as every critic has said by now, to recast modernity’s repressed nightmare not as the intractable remnant of Old-World daemonism or l’ancien régime, but as the inhuman vastnesses opened up by scientific materialism itself, as it has dispelled the illusions of metaphysics, displaced humanity from the center of the cosmos, and revealed life to be a chaos of rioting matter only ever contingently assuming form. Lovecraft provides, in essence, a new myth—and it would be hard to deny that we needed one in a century that cashiered Platonism, Christianity, and humanism in turn.

If I were wholly devoted to Lovecraft and resentful that he had still not quite gained the respect I thought he deserved, here is what I would say:

“While T. S. Eliot was inventing modern conservatism by half-heartedly trying to piece tradition back together, while James Joyce was inventing postmodern nihilism by happily spraying his ejaculate over the ruins, while Virginia Woolf was inventing elite left-liberalism by nervously pretending that spiritual-but-not-religious and privileged-but-really-guilty-about-it could somehow answer for the ruins, Lovecraft threw everything—including, above all, good taste—to the wind and devised a set of images to express something of what the world would actually look like if we ever succeeded in forgetting that we had once been Platonists or Christians or humanists. And, given that he takes his literary stand at the intersection of symbolism and naturalism no less than did Joyce, he should not even be denied a share in modernism.”

Is the above what I actually think? Hard to say, though probably not. The original writer must, said Wordsworth, create the taste by which he is to be appreciated. Lovecraft has not quite created the taste in me yet. But his essay on literary horror (some of which I admittedly skimmed, as it is partially intended as a reference work consisting of plot summaries) nevertheless impresses me with the breadth of his reading and the modernity of his judgments. His praise of Poe consists, for instance, in recognizing him as the first true artist of horror, on aesthetic grounds that Pater, Wilde, Joyce, and Woolf would readily appreciate:

[Poe] perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing—with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathiser, or vendor of opinion.

And his perhaps surprisingly extravagant praise for Wuthering Heights as one of the central novels of the nineteenth century is consonant with my own experience of that extraordinary and extraordinarily weird book. I was expecting criticism more archaic and stodgy, but Lovecraft-as-critic, in advocating for a literature of the unseen, is a true modernist.

And yet, and yet. As a fiction writer, isn’t he too literal and therefore too crude and childish? Isn’t the greatness of Poe (and Pym) in the sheer suggestive vagueness, the spiritual vagary, of his symbolism? Isn’t this why Mallarmé and Melville found inspiration in Poe’s almost empty picture of whiteness that they could never have found in trashy, puerile images of crawling slime monsters and things-from-another-world with tentacular faces?

Let me return to my imagined Lovecraft advocate and hear what he has to say:

“Consider how much of At the Mountains of Madness consists of Dyer’s description of the Great Old Ones’ wall friezes. A third of the novel is ekphrasis, like the book of the Iliad concerning the shield of Achilles. Consider too the mundanity of that ekphrasis. Lovecraft through Dyer tells us that the Great Old Ones ‘had passed through a stage of mechanised life on other planets, but had receded upon finding its effects emotionally unsatisfying,’ that last phrase redolent of advertising and popular psychology, and also goes on to detail the changing nature of their furnishings and home designs, such that we have to picture these winged mollusks as ‘they used curious tables, chairs, and couches like cylindrical frames—for they rested and slept upright with folded-down tentacles—and racks for the hinged sets of dotted surfaces forming their books,’ an image impossible to imagine without laughter. Lovecraft is too learned a critic and too conscious an artist to be producing such comic effects—precisely the emotional consequence of the over-literal fantastic—without design, so what, between the ekphrasis and the mundanity or near cuteness of his horrifying anti-divinities, is he trying to do? He is obviously trying to return literature to the naive concreteness of the epic, with its squabbling gods and strange journeys, its quotidian bizarrerie; he is trying to become the bard of the new age, the Homer of the scientific millennium, the de-spiritualized singer of the new gods we find on the threshold of our post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian perceptions. It is not a question of his being better than Joyce or Eliot, but of his truly accomplishing what they only wished for and gestured toward—not the invention of a new Gothic, but rather, at long last, after the Platonic, the Christian, the humanist centuries, a cyclic poem of the universe, nothing less than the restitution of the epic to modern man.”

Well, that is what a devotee would say. I would say At the Mountains of Madness is a strange, slow book, well worth reading and thinking over, if occasionally and in various ways hard to take. Maybe to say that—that a book can still be read some eight decades after it was written—is praise enough.

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

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of NantucketThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

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, even as 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 (“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) are picked up by the Jane Guy, a ship bound on an exploratory journey toward the South Pole. Pym records many geographical, geological, nautical, biological and other observations on this scientific mission, which he dutifully reproduces (as Poe reproduced them from his nonfictional sources) for the reader.

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, so that we are given to understand the islanders, who speak a vaguely Hebraic language that is also reminiscent of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Arabic, as perhaps 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 thus 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 nineteenth 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 bloodhirsty 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, thus raising the 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 is in effect mapping a metaphysical Platonic hierarchy onto a racial one derived from antebellum ideology, where 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.

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