Monday, June 8, 2009

Poe, Pym, and Reynolds

On June 8, 1844, the Spy — a periodical based in Columbia, Pennsylvania — printed the fourth in a series of "dispatches" by Edgar A. Poe. Written from New York, the series of weekly articles gossiped about his experiences wandering Manhattan, the public's reaction to "The Balloon-Hoax," and occasional notices about recent New York publications. The June 8 issue, however, included a discussion of an explorer named Jeremiah N. Reynolds.

Years earlier, Reynolds had sailed to the Antarctic: a treacherous yet exciting voyage which Reynolds wrote about in a pamphlet entitled Address on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas. Poe reviewed the work in January 1837 and praised Reynolds's words, which had originally been presented to Congress, and he supported efforts to fund future expeditions in the Pacific Ocean and South Seas. Of Reynolds himself, Poe notes he is "the originator, the persevering and indomitable advocate, the soul of the design." Science would benefit from further exploration, he writes, and "the people demand it, and thus there is a multiplicity of reasons why it should immediately be set to foot." Poe admits he wants to inspire his audience to read the original pamphlet — it's that good.

Reynolds and his voyage were the biggest inspirations to Poe's own major sea voyage — the fictitious one in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The first installment of the serialized novel was published in the same issue as Poe's review of Reynolds. In fact, Poe borrowed verbatim about 700 words of Reynolds's address in Chapter XVI, amounting to nearly half the content of that chapter. The novel, one of Poe's most bizarre and confusing works, is based on the public's interest in sea voyages and expeditions to the Antarctic in particular. Like Reynolds, the title character of Pym heads as far south as he can go, and Pym eventually reaches the Polar regions. What he finds there is the single strangest ending to any of Poe's works — and amongst the most debated to this day.

Poe's notice about Reynolds in the Spy was published six years after the novel was published in two volumes. It's an indication that Poe was such a strong supporter of Reynolds and Polar exploration that he thought about it throughout his life. This life-long interest has also led to speculation on Poe's death. In the couple days before his death at a Baltimore hospital in 1849, Poe was delirious and incoherent. The doctor noted he screamed out in the night, repeatedly calling out the name "Reynolds!" There is, of course, as much speculation on Poe's death as there is on Pym's final chapter


Poe Forward said...

Do we know if Poe ever met or befriended Reynolds?

Rob Velella said...

I don't think anyone has proven a direct interaction between the two - at least not yet. I have seen some horrible speculation, as is typical with Poe, based on no evidence at all. It's certainly intriguing!