Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Man from Nantucket

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Edgar Allan Poe, Read by Jamie Hanes, Recorded Books, LLC, 1988

Much like his short story falsifications “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall” and “The Balloon Hoax,” The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym presents itself as a bit of trickery. As an editor for the magazine, Southern Literary Messenger out of Richmond, Virginia, Poe printed several essays, reviews, criticisms, poems, and sketches in the magazine, as well as many of his stories. Any number of pieces therefore showed up with is byline attached.

In January 1837, Poe published the first of two pieces of the Narrative in the Southern Literary Messenger; a month later the second piece brought the tale as far as a portion of the fourth chapter. The next year, as a novel, Poe had the entirety published under his own name but including a preface as written by Pym. In fact, Poe has rather one-upped the usual standard deceit by nesting his trick within a protest that this is not, in fact, a trick. Describing how he, Pym, on return from his journeys met several men interested in his tale, he notes: “Among those gentlemen in Virginia who expressed the greatest interest in my statement, more particularly in regard to that portion of it which related to the Antarctic Ocean, was Mr. Poe, lately editor of the Southern Literary Messenger.”

This Poe fellow, Pym tells us:

proposed …that I should allow him to draw up, in his own words, a narrative of the earlier portion of my adventures, from facts afforded by myself, publishing it in the Southern Messenger under the garb of fiction… and, in order that it might certainly be regarded as fiction, the name of Mr. Poe was affixed to the articles in the table of contents of the magazine.

Poe even goes so far as to have Pym make a slight jeer at Poe himself by noting that the observant reader will easily figure out where Poe’s contribution ended in the composition and where Pym himself took over the writing: “the difference in point of style will be readily perceived.”

This is a bit of fun Poe is having with the idea of literary hoaxes and tall-tales and from the very beginning Poe is toying with us a bit. It is an idea with some novelty for those who only know Poe as this dreary, moody drunk pining for ladies lost to consumption or buried alive — a Poe with a sly wit.

What then follows is a terrific adventure tale of the sea filled with manifold disasters, sufferings, pitched battles, explosions, cannibalism, and speculations on the hollowness of the earth. While Poe’s stories are often categorized as gothics, there is little of the closed, cramped atmosphere in this tale, save for when Pym is locked in an enormous box below deck in the hold. He has done this, it transpires, as his means of stowing away on board a ship belonging to the father of his his friend Augustus Bernard.

Indeed, the novel opens with the two boys drunkenly stealing a boat, then being crushed by a ship running over them, Gordon being dragged under and caught by a bolt through his neck while Augustus is later rescued clinging only to the deck of their little craft. The novel itself bears more a resemblance to the pirate adventures of Stevenson than to Poe’s other writings or the novels of Ann Radcliffe.

Not deterred by this near fatality, the two boys make the plans which put them on board the Grampus, unluckily for them on the voyage with the mutineer first mate. Deprivation, pitched battles on board, the boys’ rescue at the hands of the half-Indian of the Upsarokas tribe, Dirk Peters, form the bulk of the novel’s first half, with the anti-mutineers rising up in a bloody rebellion against the superior forces of the mutineers and defeating them. The listing about of the remaining survivors, four in all, feature some of Poe’s more familiar territory.

Adrift after several storms force them to cut down their mainmast and leave them with no means of navigation, they espy another brig coming their way. “(O)ur hearts leaped up wildly within us, and we poured out our whole souls in shouts and thanksgiving to God for the complete, unexpected, and glorious deliverance that was so palpably at hand” Pym writes, only to have their deliverance ripped from their grasp nearly instantaneously.

First there is the smell, “hellish — utterly suffocating — insufferable, inconceivable” followed by the view: “Twenty-five or thirty human bodies, among whom were several females, lay scattered about between the counter and the galley in the last and most loathsome state of putrefaction.” A bird, alighting from eating one of the faceless, rotting corpses, flies over the deck of the Grampus and drops from its beak “a portion of clotted and liver-like substance.” Worse yet, Pym and Augustus both eye the morsel ravenously and are only turned from their course by seeing the hunger in each other’s faces.

This is perhaps the most horrific moment in all of the Narrative; horrible even more still than when the crew does finally turn to cannibalism, choosing one of their own by lot to be the sacrificial victim. Pym, too shell shocked still from his experiences, glosses the moment over. “Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality.” (He does inform us then that they drank the blood and ate their companion “piecemeal, during the for ever memorable days of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth of the month,” though the depiction never quite equals the plague ship scene above.

The second half of the novel picks up with Pym and Peters, the only two survivors, rescued by and joining the crew of the Jane Guy, an English schooner sailing for the South Seas and the Pacific. What follows for the majority of this second half of the novel is a Melville style tale of a journey, replete with many asides on the proper manner for packing cargo, for traveling the latitudes where ice fields are common, on the kinds of islands in the South Seas and their flora and fauna, and many other subjects.

The action Poe kept at a steady pace for the first half of the book noticeably slackens at this stage and he lacks Melville’s gift for transfixing nautical symbolism. Indeed, the form of the novel now takes is made up of journal excerpts along these lines: “January 5.- We had still held on to the southward without any very great impediments. On this morning, however, being in latitude 73 degrees 15’ E., longitude 42 degrees 10’ W, we were again brought to a stand by an immense expanse of firm ice.” In Poe’s rather baroque style, there is simply pages and pages and pages of this kind of stuff.

At certain points the narrative does take on a peculiarly supernatural bent, almost allegorical in its vagueness and elusory manner, such as in the mysterious animal they discover while hunting, the cat-headed, dog-eared, rat-tailed snow white animal with brilliantly scarlet claws and teeth, of which little is made despite its taxonomical oddities. More is made of the odd multiple hued purple colored water that refuses to mix and is more akin to a gum arabic infusion.

Our heroic crew is then taken in by a tribe living near the South Pole. This tribe lives in a deep cavity near the pole, leading to a kind of Hollow Earth scenario. While this theory is quite rightly poo-poohed today, it is important to recall that in 1837, Hollow Earth scenarios still retained the respect of many in scientific fields. Even Edmund Halley for whom the famous comet is named, one hundred years earlier proffered his own multi-level theory of what was contained beneath the earth’s surface.

At any rate, Poe kicks back into adventure mode when the natives of the pole prove to be less than friendly, to be in fact leading the crew of the Jane Guy down the garden path with their seeming hospitality. The engaging battles, chases, hiding and exploration, culminating in the text’s rather hanging ending are rather queerly depicted and the closing pages never return us to the Pym of the preface who was supposedly relating his adventures to Mr. Poe. Instead, there is affixed a note at the end supposedly written by yet a third party who informs us of the death of Pym, the loss of the Narrative’s concluding two or three chapters, and Mr. Poe’s reluctance to continue the story due to his disbelief in the story’s veracity.

What Poe finally constructs out of all of this is a fragmented narrative, incomplete for the sake of adding a dash of mystery and authenticity to a tale already stretching one’s credulity. Many have disparaged the novel as a failure due to its lack of a cohesive structure and many of the other artificial constructs required by certain artistic theoretics.

Yet it’s clear from how Poe structured the novel, including the fictional preface and concluding note, the portions that are straightforward narrative and those that are journal sketches, Poe had little interest in composing a typical novel of his day. The novel’s second half moves it clearly from the kind of sea adventure making up the first half and instead puts the novel on a more mythological basis.

What then can we make of Poe’s stated belief in his “Philosophy of Composition” that “Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen”? If we take the author at his word, then, this not with a bang but a whimper conclusion to Pym’s flight from the natives, and he and Peters’ sailing into a whitish fog toward an immense white cataract is mysterious deliberately. It has overtones of religious allegory and concludes with the lines:

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.

Poe never explains this conclusion. Instead, thereupon follows the note which not only informs us of the death of Mr. Pym, but hints that there was something remarkable in the manner of his death describing it as “sudden and distressing’ and “well known to the public.” The effect is an ending more mysterious than anything that came before it and one that is never resolved to the reader’s satisfaction.

The maelstroms that so fascinated Poe are a kind of mystery unto themselves. The Narrative is a kind of maelstrom in which we are sucked ever deeper down into the book’s enigmas, in which instead of the typical adventuring explorer story where facts and knowledge are returned to us, the safe at home, we are sucked down into not-knowing, and we return with even more questions.

This actually makes for one of my favorite kinds of ending, the kind in which a matter of some moment is cut off without possibility of being answered. It is the best kind of hanging thread, the kind that really and truly matter. While Jules Verne may have written a two volume novel that takes up this question, it is not one that greatly distresses me in not being provided. Poe has written the story he wanted written, almost a warning to those who seek out the edges of our maps and our knowledge. What lies beyond our understanding can be dangerous, can be mysterious, but is alluring nonetheless.

Jamie Hanes is quite a good reader, making Poe’s somewhat opaque text clearer than merely reading inside your own mind might, and he offers a number of plausible accents. The book was acquired through, an online service associated with local libraries for the downloading of eTexts and eAudiobooks. If there is a drawback in NetLibrary and its Recorded Books service it is that, while free, the books download as one single enormous file locked up with Microsoft Media’s DRM licensing and are then only available for portable media if your device synchs up with Windows Media Player (meaning not the best selling portable device, the iPod, Apple having already made a deal with, though the savvier marketers there don’t make their books so format exclusive). I’m dubious I’ll use NetLibrary's service much in the future, though such beginnings are a good sign of things to come.


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