The Longer Tales - Edgar Allan Poe - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The Longer Tales
Edgar Allan Poe
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Poe’s hostility to the long poem (and, by implication, to the novel) did not prevent him from writing the occasional novella or even short novel. We are here dealing with three items—“The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (Southern Literary Messenger, June 1835), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), and “The Journal of Julius Rodman” (Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine, January—June 1840). All three are variously unsatisfactory. The first is a broad parody of the tale of “extraordinary adventure,” although Poe makes determined efforts to convey the scientific plausibility of the Dutch protagonist’s voyage from Rotterdam to the moon, where he first comes upon “diminutive habitations” (54) and then the occupants of those habitations: “a vast crowd of ugly little people, who none of them uttered a single syllable, or gave themselves the least trouble to render me assistance, but stood, like a parcel of idiots, grinning in a ludicrous manner, and eyeing me and my balloon askant, with their arms set a-kimbo” (55). But although Pfaall spent a full five years on the moon, he provides only the most fleeting hints of the culture and civilisation of the people he encountered there, promising further revelations at a later date. Poe gives the game away at the end by noting that “Hans Pfaall himself, the drunken villain, and the three very idle gentlemen styled his creditors, were all seen, no longer than two or three days ago, in a tippling house in the suburbs, having just returned, with money in their pockets, from a trip beyond the sea” (57). And the fact that, at the beginning of the tale, we are informed that Pfaall’s balloon was made of “dirty newspapers” (13) suggests at the very least a parody of flamboyant newspaper writing. It is all very amusing, but manifestly inferior to “The Balloon Hoax” (obviously not titled as such in its first appearance—[New York] Extra Sun, 13 April 1844), a much more skilful satire on both journalism and science.

As for “The Journal of Julius Rodman,” it is perhaps the most disappointing tale in the entire Poe corpus, and for that reason has been largely, and on the whole justly, ignored. One would scarcely have thought Poe the author of this tiresome and unimaginative work had he not admitted it himself in a letter: “I can give you no definitive answer (respecting the continuation of Rodman’s Journal,) until I hear from you again” (L 132). This letter was written to William Burton, the owner of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, who had just fired Poe as editor but wanted Poe to continue the serialisation of the novel or novella; obviously, Poe declined. Even with the understanding that the work is a fragment, there is very little to say about it; it seeks merely to capitalise on the interest in western exploration by maintaining that Rodman had travelled across the Rocky Mountains in 1791—94, years before the Lewis and Clark expedition. But what Rodman saw on his travels is unremarkable—not surprisingly, since Poe himself never travelled west of the Mississippi River and was heavily reliant on earlier travel accounts for the details of the Rodman expedition.

And now we come to Arthur Gordon Pym. This work certainly has its devotees and has inspired a substantial amount of analysis from critics who continue to be drawn to its “enigmatic” features, but it is difficult to declare it anything but an aesthetic failure. Although it is tangential to our study because it contains no explicit elements of the supernatural (except perhaps toward the end), it is worth studying in some detail. Set in 1827, the short novel recounts the unplanned voyage taken by Pym, who with his friend Augustus Barnard boards the Grampus only to be caught up in a mutiny, during which Pym, Barnard, and one Dirk Peters take charge of the ship. After various horrifying (but purely physical) episodes, including cannibalism, the survivors are picked up by the Jane Guy, which is making its way to Antarctica. But this ship also suffers a sad fate, captured by bloodthirsty natives, leaving only Pym and Peters as survivors. These two manage to escape in a canoe. They enter a “region of novelty and wonder” (236), but very shortly thereafter the work ends, and an editor’s note declares that Pym died before completing his narrative.

If assessed as a straightforward adventure story, Pym has numerous flaws. First and foremost is the fundamentally incomplete nature of the narrative. Not only does the novel end abruptly, but no explanation is provided as to how Pym managed to get out of the clutches of the vicious natives and return to civilisation. Pym’s convenient death allows Poe to forego the effort to tie up a number of loose ends and, more significantly, to draw the narrative together into some kind of thematic unity. The exact date and manner of Poe’s composition of the work have never been satisfactorily explained and perhaps cannot be, in the absence of documentary evidence. Two instalments of the novel appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger (January and February 1837), but these take us only into the middle of chapter 4 (out of 25 chapters); it is unclear how much more Poe had written by this time, but I doubt that he had written the entirety of the work. (Poe’s one comment on the story in surviving correspondence is his offhand comment that Pym was “a very silly book” [L 130].) There is reason to think that Poe, wishing to establish himself as a writer of fiction, hastily completed the work and rushed it into print (it was published by Harper & Brothers in July 1838) after the failure of his attempt to land Tales of the Folio Club, which had been rejected by a Philadelphia publisher in 1835. The novel certainly lacks anything approaching a “unity of effect”: at times it adopts the crudest manner of extending a narrative—the diary (also used in “Hans Pfaall” and “Julius Rodman”)—then abruptly drops that device for orthodox narration. It is entirely lacking in thematic focus. Some commentators have maintained that the concluding portions, where Pym and Peters first encounter a realm where everything is black, then one where everything is white, is meant to reflect on the issue of slavery; but even if this is the case, what position we are to assume Poe takes on the question, and what bearing this has on the overall thematic coherence of the novel, are by no means clear.

To be sure, individual passages in the novel are striking and horrific—although, as I have noted, in a purely physical manner. At the outset, Pym, a stowaway, is enclosed in a very narrow space to conceal his presence aboard the Grampus; but this makeshift womb, from which a theoretically “new” Pym might be born, quickly comes close to being a tomb, as the mutiny on deck prevents any food or other aid to come to him, resulting in a near-death experience. The cannibalism scene is pretty dreadful, but it is artfully anticipated by the Grampus’ encounter with a Dutch ship (clearly a kind of Flying Dutchman) whose crew and passengers are all dead; in one particularly loathsome touch, a seagull drops a morsel of human flesh on board the Grampus.

The one means of saving Pym from aesthetic condemnation is to declare that it is a parody of some sort; and, indeed, a compelling case can be made for such, although I am not entirely convinced that it will cause us to elevate our opinion of the novel significantly. The fact is that the novel is full of details that make no sense—but the grisly nature of the overall scenario prevents our awareness of the fact until we have had time to reflect on the novel’s paradoxes and inconsistencies. To take a single example: At one point during Pym’s confinement in the hold of the Grampus, he comes upon a note, written by Barnard in his own blood: “I have scrawled this with blood—your life depends upon lying close” (92). Pym manages to read a portion of this note in the dark, although he had previously fallen into despair because, looking at the reverse of the paper, he ascertained that it was blank. Later, however, we are informed that the paper was “a duplicate of [a] forged letter” (91), so that its reverse could not have been blank. There are countless such instances—far too many to assume that Poe, the most meticulous of writers, could have failed to notice them. We are left, then, with the assumption that Pym is another of Poe’s deadpan hoaxes and satires—a hoax because, as its lengthy title page laboriously declares, it purports to be a true narrative by Pym, and a satire on careless readers whose emotions are so overwhelmed by its hideous accounts of mutiny, death, cannibalism, and savagery that they fail to notice its manifest internal contradictions.

Nevertheless, even if this reading of Pym is sound, it fails fully to rescue the work from its aesthetic deficiencies. Poe was wise to stick to short stories from this juncture forward.