Thursday, July 30, 2009

The perfect whiteness of the snow

The New York publishers Harper & Brothers published a short, two-volume work on July 30, 1838. Presented as an apparent true story with the help of a "Mr. Poe, lately editor of the Southern Literary Messenger," its title, in full, was:

THE NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM OF NANTUCKET: 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.

The book was Poe's only complete novel. It was mostly critically panned. One critic noted the book was clearly a fantasy, despite an "impudent attempt at humbugging the public" into believing it a true account. Another critic, William Evans Burton, called it "a very silly book." Critic Lewis Gaylord Clarke found it confusing, noting the story was "told in a loose and slip-shod style, seldom chequered by any of the more common graces of composition." Modern Poe scholar Scott Peeples summarizes the book this way: "a mock nonfictional exploration narrative, adventure saga, bildungsroman, hoax, largely plagiarized travelogue, and spiritual allegory... one of the most elusive major texts of American literature." He's right on all counts.

The irony is that Poe wrote the book specifically to appeal to mass market tastes in a declining economy amidst the Panic of 1837. Readers, he understood, were looking for long narratives instead of the short stories he had been writing. They wanted adventure, sea stories, exploration narratives — and especially true stories. He even acquiesced to the suggestion that the book be published in two volumes (his publisher called it "the magical number").

The plot is fairly obvious from the novel's subtitle — but, what it doesn't say is that the book is almost senseless. Each chapter introduces more and more unrealistic elements, from the main character hiding in plain sight from his grandfather to his nearly starving to death hidden in a ship's cargo hold right before conveniently finding food and water to his being caught amidst a group of savages on an unknown island. Throughout the very short novel, there are plotholes, inconsistencies, a disappearing dog, shark attacks, overly-detailed descriptions of maritime life and maritime exploration history, and an infamous scene featuring cannibalism.

Oh, then there's the strange part: the ending.

If Poe hadn't convinced you that this could not possibly be a true story (even after plagiarizing word-for-word from a true account by Jeremiah N. Reynolds), nothing could prepare you for the final scene. Traveling closer and closer to the Antarctic region and, ultimately, the South Pole, the ocean surrounding Pym (who is suddenly a nautical expert, though he had no experience with boats on page one) begins to swallow itself, creating dangerous whirlpools. Still, the little boat presses on. Then, from nowhere, a huge figure arises — its skin "of the perfect whiteness of snow." Sorry to give away the ending; that was the last line of the story.

Readers in Poe's day must have been perplexed (as are scholars today). How seriously should we take this novel? Is it just a fun adventure story? Is it a complicated, deeply-allegorical tale strewn with symbolism? Is it the best example we have that Poe was incapable of writing a long, coherent narrative? What the hell is happening at the end??

I don't know. But I can tell you this: it's worth reading.


Poe Forward said...

My reading of PYM considers the concept that Poe is, as usual, subverting genre expectations. He's messing with us. My favorite sequence in PYM is when the plague ship passes the castaways.

Rob Velella said...

I agree - that scene is more than memorable.

TODOMODO said...

Of course the novel can be considered as a parody of sea adventures tales or memories (as "MS found in a bottle").

But it is something more than that.

For instance alcohol's topic seems to be very imortant in the novel : it begins with a tremendous scene of the two friends drunk on Pym's boat. The mutineers are always drunk. And a bottle of porto wine help the 4 survivors note to dead.

All the novel can be read as Pym's progress toward light and white : from Pym's hiding place in ship's hold to the white giant vision.

"Fancy" topic is very important too.

I think that Poe as man, thinker and writer is very present in that novel wich is not only a parody or o joke to mess with us.