First Published: 1831 (Penguin Classics ed.1986)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “For the bright side of the painting I had limited sympathy. My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown.”
While many of the greatest classic novels are hugely influential, some novels are considerably less great but no less influential – and those are still interesting reads because of their far-reaching literary legacies. Arthur Gordon Pym was Poe’s only complete novel and it very much falls into that latter category. Young and headstrong, Arthur Gordon Pym thirsts for action and he finds it in no small measure when he stows away on The Grampus, a whaling brig captained by his best friend’s father. Mutiny, starvation, cannibalism, shipwreck, uncharted waters, unknown tribes and uncanny experiences; careering as it does from one disaster to the next, at times this book just felt like a grisly catalogue of catastrophe and there are a few genuinely gruesome moments. Pitched as a real account, the tone of the narrative slowly evolves from the action packed seafaring adventure yarn of the first half to become more of a travelogue, a voyage of exploration in uncharted polar waters, before it finally morphs into something altogether stranger and much more akin to a weird tale.
I enjoyed the powerfully evoked claustrophobia and breath-taking action scenes of the early sections onboard The Grampus most of all, but the stranger second half is an interesting early example of the imaginative lure of Antarctica. Poe’s narrative clearly draws on real life accounts of southern exploration such as those of Cook, Weddell and Biscoe. But although interest in polar exploration was high in 1838, at this time the Antarctic regions were still largely uncharted and unknown. The far Southern waters therefore gave Poe the perfect setting to pique public interest and allow him to present his tale in journalistic terms, while at the same time allowing him enough space to fully indulge his flights of creative fancy. Just as it does in Lovecraft’s later (and clearly Pym-influenced work) At The Mountains of Madness, in Poe’s novel the Southern Polar region serves as a compelling Terra Incognita which can be imbued with much symbolic meaning. In fact, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is stuffed with morally symbolic images of blackness and whiteness, although the author’s depiction of race will not feel entirely comfortable to a modern reader and his overall meaning isn’t always apparent. Even having finished the book I felt there was much meaning that had eluded me, but I think this might be intentional. Poe does seem to set out to ridicule and explode the limits of alleged autobiography and the novel definitely deals more in sensation than in coherence.
Overall, I didn’t find this as successful or as atmospheric a read as many of Poe’s shorter stories, but then in my experience horror usually is more powerful in concentrated doses. But it was fascinating to read this novel in the light of several other works clearly influenced by it that I have enjoyed over the past year, most notably perhaps, the aforementioned Lovecraft, and, of course, Moby Dick. Not a great read then, but certainly never dull and very interesting in its wider literary and historical context.