American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM OF NANTUCKET (1838). The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is the only complete, novel-length work by Edgar Allan Poe* (1809-1849). In it, Arthur Gordon Pym relates a series of wild adventures that he experienced at sea, dating his adventures from June 1827 to March 1828.

Each of Pym’s adventures has little or no relation to the others, and each one occurs on a different vessel. In the first, he takes his sloop Ariel on a nearly disastrous midnight cruise off the coast of Nantucket*; then, as a stowaway aboard the brig Grampus, he undergoes extreme privations and danger from savage mutineers. When the brig is wrecked by a storm, Pym and a few companions drift southward on the wrecked hulk for more than 1,000 nautical miles. After enduring starvation, cannibalism, and sharks, Pym is rescued with one other survivor by the schooner Jane Guy, whose captain he persuades to explore the southerly areas of the Antarctic,* where the entire ship’s crew is killed by the natives of an island. Pym, his companion, and a captured native escape in a canoe, which is carried still farther south into warm, milky waters. His narration ends abruptly as the canoe plunges toward a gigantic, shrouded white figure at the South Pole.

The first portion of the novel appeared in the 1837 January and February issues of the Southern Literary Messenger. In the novel’s preface, Pym states that he had permitted a “Mr. Poe” to publish the earlier part of the adventures in the Southern Literary Messenger but adds that subsequently he decided to relate the narrative himself. A note at the end announces Pym’s death and elucidates “facts” that “have, beyond doubt, escaped the attention of Mr. Poe.”

Other features of the novel tend to confuse time periods and narrative voices. There are occasional discrepancies in calendar dates. Sections of digressive material, which Poe copied more or less directly from various sources, interrupt the adventures to discourse on nautical maneuvers and stowage, the Galapagos* tortoise, the nestling habits of albatross and penguins, and earlier voyages into south polar waters. Occasionally, the tale makes use of loglike daily entries aboard ship as a narrative device.

There is an odd structural symmetry to the episodic, seamed narrative. The preface and final note are equal in length, as are the first and last “voyages” in the sloop Ariel and the frail canoe. The adventures in the brig Grampus balance the adventures in the schooner Jane Guy. The central section, which is the longest, includes the adventures on the hulk of the wrecked Grampus.

In Pym, as in Poe’s other sea tales, the situation of being at sea provides the setting for an account of terrifying adventures that the narrator has endured and survived. Pym confronts life-threatening dangers at sea: each vessel in which he voyages is fragile and unstable; each captain and crew prove to be irresponsible and rebellious; and in each adventure Pym experiences extreme self-consciousness and a sense of helplessness and surging terror, but his irrational, frenzied activity somehow enables him to survive. The final image of the huge white figure concludes Pym’s narrative enigmatically, perhaps echoing the completely white world of “Captain Adam Seaborn’s” Symzonia* (1820), a fictional rendering of a recent theory claiming that the earth’s poles were hollow and habitable.

Poe used at least twenty sources for Pym, a number of which are nonfiction accounts of the sea: a manual of seamanship, stories of maritime disasters from the 1806 Mariner’s Chronicle, the 1836 Remarkable Events and Remarkable Shipwrecks,* the 1832 Narrative of Four Voyages, attributed to Captain Benjamin Morrell,* and Jeremiah Reynolds’* writings that urged U.S. exploration of south polar regions. Poe may have used such sources to impart a tone of authenticity and to pique the curiosity of contemporary readers who were interested in expanding the territorial domain of the United States into the area of the South Pole. Additional sources Poe used for Pym are still being discovered. [See also MUTINIES]

FURTHER READING: Kopley, Richard, ed. Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1992; Pollin, Burton R., ed. The Imaginary Voyages: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, the Journal of Julius Rodman. By Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. 1 of Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. 4 vols. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Joan Tyler Mead