Text: Daniel Walden, “The Coastal Frontier and the Oceanic Wilderness in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 2011


­[title page:]

The Coastal Frontier
and the
Oceanic Wilderness in
The Narrative of
Arthur Gordon Pym

Daniel Walden

Baylor University

[page 1, unnumbered:]

Arthur Gordon Pym was from Nantucket. It is very important that we recognize this simple fact; indeed, so important a detail is it that Pym claims not just to be from Nantucket, but to be of Nantucket. And while the long, descriptive title, a convention of the travel narratives after which Poe modeled his novel, is usually abbreviated as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the format and arrangement of the first edition title page indicates a more accurate abbreviation should read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.(1) Poe seems to want us to realize that Nantucket is more than merely the place of Pym’s birth, that there is some quality about the island that is intrinsic to Pym’s identity. The opening lines of the narrative seem to support an emphasis on this significance, plainly stating: “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym. My father was a respectable trader in sea-stores at Nantucket, where I was born” (Poe, 4). As we begin to follow this gentleman on his journey, it seems that we can be sure of only two things: that his name is Arthur Gordon Pym, and that he is of Nantucket.

But Pym’s critical history complicates even these assumptions: as scores upon scores of studies have made clear, very little in Pym’s narrative can be taken at face value. G. R. Thompson has pointed out, for example, that the novel provides very little concrete information, and ultimately “veils rather than unveils” (Thompson, 198). Similarly, Doug Robinson has commented that the nearly unlimited suggestibility of Pym’s narrative makes it, in an oft-cited phrase, “the interpreter’s dream text” (Robinson, 47). The concept of meaning is so ethereal in Pym that it has become the organizing principle by which scholars frequently present their analysis. So much scholarship on the story begins in a similar manner, with a brief statement of how meaning is obfuscated in Poe’s only novel, [page 2:] followed by a brief discussion (often bordering on lamentation) of the myriad interpretations which have already been offered that apply in some way to the reading about to be given. Most of these studies proceed to focus on the mythical Antarctic island of Tsalal, a place seemingly created entirely of archetypes. So predictable is the form of much Pym scholarship that one could follow Poe’s parodic lead in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and compose an essay on “How to Write a Pym Article.”

Again, let me repeat the two “facts” with which readers are presented before Pym’s tale ventures into the oceanic interpretive void: that the narrator’s name is Arthur Gordon Pym and that he is from Nantucket. Lest we forget that nothing is as it first appears in Pym, the Preface straightaway reminds us that there is little we can take for face value here, including who is telling us the story. Pym admits to his readers that the two installments previously published were, in fact, written by “Mr. Poe,” not by Pym himself. And while Pym will eventually begin to tell his own story, he does not say where — only that it will be obvious to the reader because “the difference in point of style will be readily perceived” (Poe, 3). Ignoring the inescapable point that Pym is a fictional character, we have his direct statement that the novel’s opening lines, the concrete statements of identity, patrimony, and heritage, were not, after all, written by Pym. Taking these attributions literally, he who wrote “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym” was not Pym at all, but Poe. Thus our first assumption about the novel, concerning the most basic narratorial information, must be suspect.

On, then, to Nantucket. If in the Preface Pym complicates the assumption as to who precisely is telling the story, he at least affirms that it is the same story being told. There is no indication that the place of his birth is a falsehood. He does seem to live in Nantucket, and does claim to depart from there with Augustus. In this novel where everything is open to interpretation, if we cannot ask “what,” perhaps we can ask “why.” Why is Pym from, nay, of Nantucket? In short, it is because he has to be. Poe’s decision to locate Pym as a Nantucketer, as opposed to a New Yorker, Bostonian, Philadelphian, or even Baltimorean, grants him a wealth of material with which to create an ideal Gothic character. It is Nantucket, and uniquely Nantucket, that engenders the Gothic sensibility that so pervades The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. [page 3:]

The Coastal Frontier and the Oceanic Wilderness

At least one other critic (and, as far as I can tell, only one other critic) has questioned the significance in the specificity of Pym’s birthplace. Geoffery Sanborn opens his article “A Confused Beginning: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket” with the direct question, “Why must Arthur Gordon Pym, the protagonist of Poe’s only book-length fiction, be identified as someone who is of Nantucket?” (Sanborn, 163, emphasis in the original). He goes on to argue that Pym wishes to reject his filial identity in preference for “what so many of Poe’s narrators and protagonists desire: the air of self-generation” (Sanborn, 163). But Sanborn extends his assessment Pym’s self-generative drive beyond the constraints of family to include a desire to free himself from the identificatory forces of location; in other words, Pym wants to be identified neither by his family nor his birthplace. For Sanborn, then, Nantucket has no significant meaning; it is, simply, somewhere: “Psyche-wise and plot-wise, it seems to be nothing more than what westering Americans in the mid-nineteenth century called a ‘jumping-off place,’ a town where travelers assemble to make preparations for an upcoming journey” (Sanborn, 163).

Although I disagree with Sanborn’s conclusions about Pym’s psychic connection to Nantucket culture, his identification of Nantucket as Pym’s “jumping-off place” is a useful point of access for understanding the significance of Poe’s use of Nantucket. In linking Nantucket with towns along the American western frontier, Sanborn calls attention to the fact that while it is coastal, Nantucket is essentially a frontier town. And while a popular interpretation of Pym reads it as, in Leslie Fiedler’s words, “Poe’s Western” (Fiedler, 393) or, as does Edwin Fussell, a tale of western exploration disguised as Antarctic exploration,(2) the emphasis on the Western frontier overshadows our awareness of Nantucket’s connection to the other, original American frontier — that facing the Atlantic Ocean.

“At first,” claims Frederick Jackson Turner in his famous paper on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), “the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American” (Turner, 11). While Turner’s comment begins with [page 4:] the realization that the Atlantic coast can be a kind of frontier border, his gaze is unflinchingly western. Turner’s predisposed conception of the frontier as inherently westward-facing, despite the critiques of many of his underlying assumptions, survives in contemporary manifestations of his Frontier Thesis: Border Studies and analysis of Early American “contact zones” have largely turned their backs to the Atlantic. This terrestrial focus stems from the common assumption that the struggle for “civilization” in America was solely enacted between European colonists and the “savagery” of natural wilderness and human wildness that they encountered in the American interior. While the space separating European civilized society and American untamed territories was the frontier line, as the distinction between wilderness and wildness indicates, the frontier need not necessarily be physically identifiable. As Mark Busby, David Mogen, and Paul Bryant explain in the Introduction to The Frontier Experience and the American Dream, the frontier is not determined merely by population density — it is rather a psychic delineation:

a group of images, ideas, and expectations that came into focus during the European Renaissance and found its most dramatic expression in the development of American civilization. It begins with a sense of wonder at the infinite possibilities in the expanding world of the Renaissance explorers, for the frontier as the margin of the known opened the possibility of wonders in the unknown. The frontier as the limit of the settled and developed offered the possibility of new land, new resources, seemingly inexhaustible, yet to be gained. The frontier as the limit of existing society demarcated the line beyond which beckoned freedom from existing social and political restraints. In effect, the frontier was the gateway through which one might escape from time into space, from bounds to boundlessness, and from the works of corrupt and corrupting humanity to the works of God in uncorrupted nature. (Busby, 5-6)

Inherently an optimistic venture, American settlement was driven by the belief that there were tangible benefits to be gained by moving beyond the realm of civilization, as defined in European terms, and overcoming these American savageries. [page 5:]

As optimistic as the impulse driving settlement was, the frontier’s proximity to the unknown engendered a conflicting hesitation, a fear that while civilizing the wilderness would lead to the cultivation of new land and resources, there was no guarantee of success. The wilderness beyond the frontier was simultaneously teeming with possibility and lurking with danger. This contradiction led to the development, according to the thesis linking the essays collected in Frontier Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature (1993), of the American Gothic, a genre made paradoxical due to the fountain of optimism from which poured forth the American experience. The editors argue that the Gothic gained footing in America thanks to westward expansion’s inability to completely eradicate the wilderness into which it ventured. Beyond the reach of civilization, reason and optimism met the unknowable, creating a stalemate in which uncertainty and fear prospered: “faith in rationality and the axe only intensified curiosity about the shadows surrounding civilized clearings, which [. . .] became ‘psychic frontiers on the edge of territories both enticing and terrifying’ ” (Mogen, 14). As more of the western frontier was cleared and more of the unknown physical world became known, the remaining pockets of wilderness were often internalized, creating an internal frontier in which the unknown thrived, becoming simultaneously attractive and repulsive. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, these internal frontiers between rational knowledge and superstitious uncertainty often found expression in the growing library of Gothic literature. Be they external locations or interior struggles, the editors assert, “Gothicism must abide on a frontier” (Mogen, 17).

In Gothic Perspective on the American Experience (1993), Gregory Pepetone elegantly encapsulates the idea behind Frontier Gothic by describing the function of Gothic literature as “an attempt to expose and confront our own repressed contradictions” (Pepetone, 20). It is upon this contradiction, physical or psychic, that the Gothic fundamentally depends. In other words, while the western frontier has received most of the critical attention as the force behind the Gothic story’s popularity in America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it is not necessarily the only contradictory space open to a Gothic sensibility. If we turn the western gaze back towards the east, we find the Atlantic, or coastal, frontier an equally fertile space for the Gothic imagination. The [page 6:] Atlantic American coastline, the liminal border between the known and unknown worlds embodied by land and sea, provides an ideal physical setting for the Gothic frontier. In Pepetone’s terms, the coastal frontier exists as a physical representation of the contradictions necessary for the Gothic.

I have argued previously (in “Ships and Crypts: The Coastal World of Poe’s ‘King Pest,’ ‘The Premature Burial,’ and ‘The Oblong Box’ “) that Poe recognized and utilized the Gothic potential of the coastal frontier. By its very nature the coast is a contradictory space, and in many ways is more physically paradoxical than the American West. As one moved out along the Western frontier American civilization gradually dissolved into wilderness, often leaving no obvious border between the two. Along the coast, however, the distinction between civilization and wilderness was clear and absolute. Cities along the Atlantic coastline faced a howling sea, a wilderness that offered no prospect of civilization; unlike the West, the sea could never be “won.” By their very nature maritime frontier towns — port cities — presented opportunities for both creation and destruction. Just as ports served as the entry-point for goods from all over the world, representing the accumulation of American wealth, the major port cities (New York, Boston, and Philadelphia) were centers of American culture. But the port city was also a place of abject poverty, a place that saw men with no option but the sea abandon their families for weeks, months, or years at a time — if, indeed, they ever returned. Port cities faced the open expanse of the ocean, but the wharf districts, or sailor-towns, that formed the gateway to that expanse were cramped, filthy, and stifling; and it was there that most of the poor sailors and maritime support workers were forced to live. These waterfront districts, sandwiched between the exclusive prosperity of the adjacent cities and the unyielding limit of the sea, were cauldrons of sickness and poverty.(3) As I have previously argued, it is precisely “the cultural and spatial claustrophobia created by the juxtaposition of freedom and confinement on the coastline” that Gothicizes the coastline (Walden, 106).

Poe’s decision to begin Pym in Nantucket was grounded in his awareness of the physical and psychological disconnectedness inherent to the island’s coastal sensibility. In addition to Nantucket’s distinct cultural identity — the force of which played a major role in [page 7:] Pym’s struggle between family and place and eventually drove him to sea — the island’s geographical realities engendered the contradictions that Pepetone and the editors of Frontier Gothic emphasized.

Family vs. Culture on Nantucket Island

On its most basic level, the design of a Gothic plot deals with “issues of identity and power, often relating to family situations of lineage” (Fisher, 74). Clearly, the opening of Pym follows this paradigm, introducing as it does in the Preface the uncertainty surrounding who is telling the story and when. The question of family lineage is even more complicated, relying on the fact that Pym is from Nantucket. The island itself had a complex relationship to identity and lineage, an issue that Poe draws upon and links to Pym’s own issues of familial identity.

Nantucket, located some thirty miles off of the Massachusetts coast, cultivated a uniquely isolated identity that maintained an uneasy connection to the American mainland. Just over fifty-five years before the publication of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketers were held up by Hector St. John de Crevecoeur as an ideal answer to his famous question: “What, then, is the American, this new man?” (Crevecoeur, 69). Specifically, Crevecoeur claimed that Nantucket “seems to have been inhabited merely to prove what mankind can do when happily governed” (Crevecoeur, 107). Though Nantucketers in 1782, the year Letters from an American Farmer emerged, were held up as the ideal product of proper American governance, that image is in conflict with the fact that most Nantucketers wanted nothing to do with the American Revolution (Beyers, 201). Nantucket, depending as it did on British demand for whale products, was more economically tied to England than to America, and attempted to stay neutral during the conflict. But if pressed many among the island’s prominent citizens maintained strong Tory sympathies. Upon receiving a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the daughter of John Coffin, one of Nantucket’s most influential merchants, vented to her diary,

Horrible! I wish they and all their well-wishers had been strung 50 feet in their air before they had been suffered so [page 8:] far to bring about their wicked and ruinous plan. I believe the only motive they have in view is to aggrandize themselves, they care not for their bleeding country . . . (Byers, 213)

After the disruption caused by the war, Nantucket rematerialized as the center of the American whaling industry, and helped drive the emergence of America as a world force in the early nineteenth century. Despite the island’s significant contributions to the emerging American maritime economy, Nantucket cultural identity remained obstinately insular. Though it played a significant enough role in protecting the viability of the young American republic, Nantucketers remained seemingly unconcerned or unimpressed with the representation of them as the poster-children for the fulfillment of American aspirations. So intense was this ambivalence that even Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great advocate for independent American identity, called it “the Nation of Nantucket.“(4)

Surrounded by the sea, the island of Nantucket depended heavily, indeed almost exclusively, upon the bounty of the world’s oceans for its survival. Nantucketers utilized the Atlantic sooner and more successfully than most places in early America, supplementing their oceanic livelihoods with meager crops of hard-won foods cultivated from inhospitably sparse and rocky soil. In a time when whale products played a major factor in the growing American economy Nantucket dominated the maritime trade, creating an economic boom on the island that encouraged Crevecoeur’s glowing description of Nantucket. But as Poe began writing The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucket was in the midst of a slow socio-economic decline. In the 1830s the whaling industry that sustained Nantucket was beginning to shift to New Bedford and other mainland ports, a shift caused in many ways by the very isolation that defined the distinct Nantucket identity. In response to this downshift, explains Nathaniel Philbrick, “instead of heroically reaching out, Nantucketers increasingly looked inward, functioning as a clan that jealously, and often brutally, guarded its own interests against off-islanders” (Philbrick, 441). By the time Pym was published in 1838, Nantucket was a faded star, growing ever dimmer until it was all but wiped out by the Great Fire of 1846. While Nantucket may have lost its tangible significance in the American economy and rejected mainstream American republican [page 9:] culture, it retained a spiritual significance for those Americans connected to the sea. As Ishmael, the narrator of Moby-Dick, said just over ten years after Pym,

[M]y mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me. Besides though New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and though in this matter poor old Nantucket is now much behind her, yet Nantucket was her great original . . . (Melville, 9)

As one would expect from a Gothic locale, Nantucket’s significance lies more with emotional than practical considerations.

Being as he is of Nantucket, Pym is both a product of and parallel to his home island. Pym and Nantucket are both interlopers, simultaneously part of and separate from the larger institutions around them. As argued above, such is Nantucket’s relationship to America. Even Nantucket’s name indicates its separation from America: it is derived from the Wampanoag word Natockete, which translates as “faraway land” or “the far off place.” Despite this denotation, Nantucket was integral to the creation of America. Similarly, Pym is and is not part of the larger Nantucket community.

Though Pym was born in Nantucket, and his father (“a respectable trader in sea-stores“) was connected to the maritime industry that drove Nantucket’s unique cultural identity, his family seemingly wished to prevent Pym from fully integrating into that community. Pym’s parents, particularly his maternal grandfather, appeared intent on raising Pym outside the traditions of Nantucket. The standard upbringing for Nantucket boys in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries included “private education in the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic [. . .] followed by a two-year apprenticeship as an artisan at the age of twelve, after which the youth was send to sea. Such an education was ‘almost universal practice with the rising class of [the] island’ ” (Byers, 305). Pym’s education was nothing like the typical Nantucketer’s — at age six Pym was sent to New Bedford to a school run by Mr. Rickets, where he remained for ten years. At sixteen Pym returned [page 10:] to Nantucket to “Mr. E. Ronald’s academy on the hill,” where he met Augustus Barnard. The son of a sea ship captain, Augustus’ education more closely followed the Nantucket model. Though Pym’s roommate at the academy, Augustus was two years Pym’s senior, having already sailed on a whaling voyage with his father.

Despite his parents’ efforts, Pym longs to be acculturated into Nantucket’s maritime heritage. As David Faflik has noted, “comparing Pym to his friend Augustus Barnard makes clear the life he envisions. The Barnards are seafarers, and Pym, a land-locked Yankee, listens transfixed as Augustus speaks of roaming the oceans with his father” (Faflik, 272). Pym eagerly consumes Augustus’ tales of travel and adventure, fueling his desire to go to sea. So desirous was Pym to embrace his Nantucket birthright that he owned the Ariel, a sailboat large enough to “hold ten persons without crowding,” decrepit though she was (Poe, 4). Though Pym owned this vessel, he had no idea how to sail it. On the eve of Pym and Augustus’s ill-fated midnight cruise, Pym admits that despite owning the Ariel, he “knew little about the management of a boat, and was now depending entirely upon the nautical skill of my friend” (Poe, 6). Pym’s boat ownership indicates his desire to portray himself as a stout Nantucketer, proud of his maritime heritage, but his lack of the practical knowledge of sailing belies his separation from the reality of what it largely meant to be of Nantucket. The result of this gulf between appearance and reality, itself a conceptual underpinning of much Gothic work, is the Ariel’s wreck and Pym’s first near-death experience.

The grievous injury due to his lack of maritime knowledge and ability notwithstanding, Pym’s brush with death serves to heighten his desire to go to sea. This tidal pull, as it were, could easily be attributed to Pym’s overwhelming desire to establish a real connection to Nantucket. But Pym’s maritime aspirations run counter to the traditional Nantucket assumptions about life at sea. While most Nantucketers well into the nineteenth century went to sea because they saw “the path from the forecastle to the cabin as the surest road to success,” Pym’s visions were quite different (Byers, 305). Rather than fame, fortune, or even merely “success,” Pym’s desire to go to sea was rooted in visions 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, [page 11:] in an ocean unapproachable and unknown” (Poe, 13). Pym’s desires are anti-desires, the very things Nantucketers, or any prospective sailor for that matter, most wishes to avoid. What Pym fantasizes about is the Gothic inverse of the traditional romantic notion Nantucketers had of the sea as a place of freedom and upward mobility. But his morbid fantasies were, in every respect, quite possible. In many ways, the mindset that Poe gives to Pym echoes a more realistic, if pessimistic, vision of the maritime world: sailors in early nineteenth-century New England had a 30 percent chance of dying within a decade of shipping out, but only about a 25 percent chance of moving from common sailor to chief mate, and only about a 10 percent chance of moving into the cabin itself (Vickers, 189-199). Pym’s self-annihilating desires were a common trope in the 1830s, a decade that saw widespread concern about the effects social and technological transformations might have on the nation’s white youth — boys in particular. There was a flood of cautionary literature in the years between 1820 and 1840 about boys like Pym who wished to cast off familial responsibilities to follow their own paths. These paths often led the lads to the “urban underworld of confidence men, prostitutes, drunkards, and gamblers,” a place that was also the purview of sailors (Sanborn, 165). It was an easy step from the taverns and brothels of major American port cities to the ships docked alongside them.

The embodiment of Pym’s identity conflict culminates in the way in which he finally ships out. In fulfilling his desire to go to sea, Pym simultaneously betrays and becomes the spirit of Nantucket. Pulled by the competing forces of Nantucket’s maritime heritage and familial fidelity, Pym is forced to make a choice. In order to live out his “Nantucket birthright” of going to sea, Pym has to sever his bonds with his family, another hallowed Nantucket institution. An insular place, Nantucket historically placed a premium on family ties, ensuring that ships owned by Nantucketers remained connected to the island.(5) Pym, in embracing one aspect of Nantucket culture, must rebuke the other. In what can be understood as the narrative’s most pivotal moment, in that it is the crisis on which the rest of the novel’s actions depend, Pym is confronted by his grandfather at the wharf, who sees through his disguise and asks him what he is doing. At this moment Pym is confronted with a choice: family or sea. He remains in disguise as a sailor, insulting his grandfather and choosing the sea over his family. In doing so, [page 12:] Pym essentially doubles himself, becoming his own Gothic twin — although he looks exactly like the “Gordon” that his grandfather knows, his actions definitively prove that he is not that person any longer. The grandfather’s comment as he shuffles off highlights this new reality — he says, “thought it was Gordon — damned good-for-nothing saltwater Long Tom” (Poe, 16).(6) Thus Pym’s final action on Nantucket emphasizes this choice; discarding his familial identity for a cultural one, he does decide to become fully of Nantucket.

The Inner Frontier and Wilderness at Sea

As Pym moves away from Nantucket, hidden among the piles of cargo in the hold of the whaleship Grampus, he moves from the coastal frontier into the midst of the oceanic wilderness. It is at this point in the narrative that most critics begin to focus on Pym’s allegorical connections to the American West, and in many ways the text encourages that reading. When Pym is isolated below deck he reads. From among the books that were packed away with him to help pass the hours, he chooses a history of “the expedition of Lewis and Clarke to the mouth of the Columbia” (Poe, 19). There is clearly a connection between the first major attempt to categorize and chronicle the western wilderness and Pym’s movement into the eastern wilderness. But unlike the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pym has no ability to scientifically register, and thereby make known or civilize, the wilderness he penetrates. It is partly for this reason that Stephen Mainville insists that it is “misleading to suggest that Poe uses the sea or the island of Tsalal as a disguised version of the American frontier” (Mainville, 187). Rather than using the sea and the Antarctic region that Pym eventually infiltrates as allegories “of the last true terra incognita, which had previously been associated with American West,” as William Lenz argues, Poe uses Pym’s experiences at sea and on Tsalal to engage an inner wilderness, an unquantifiable region that finds a much more sympathetic mirror in the maritime world (Lenz, 33).

Like the terrestrial frontier, the sea lends itself to a Gothic sensibility. Herman Melville, perhaps the best known “sea-author” of the nineteenth-century if not of all American literature, “took Gothicism onto the seas in many of his books, and Moby-Dick (1851) owed much to Gothic tradition in matters of characterization [page 13:] of Ahab, Ishmael, and Moby-Dick himself, as well as in its handling of superstitions and of settings like the Pequod, an aqua-Gothic haunted castle, if ever there was one, or the mysterious oceans, whose depths hinted of mystery and the unknown” (Fisher, 75). Poe’s Grampus, though not as intricately detailed or developed as Melville’s Pequod, functions in a similar manner. In fact, many of the details of Pym’s early voyage contain links to the terrestrial Gothic: Pym’s hiding place in the Grampus, “an ironbound box” that was “nearly four feet high, and full six long, but very narrow” is easily re-imagined as a coffin (Poe, 17), and the labyrinthine passage that leads from Pym’s hiding place to the hidden access door echoes both the cryptic hidden passages of European Gothic castles and the natural subterranean caverns of Charles Brockden Brown’s early American Gothic novel Edgar Huntly (1799).

Large sailing ships have themselves recently been the focus of detailed cultural and anthropological study, and are portrayed in many ways as microcosms of terrestrial society.(7) Heavily ordered and regimented, alone on the vast uncontrollable ocean, the sailing ship can represent the struggle between order and chaos, particularly if we think of sailing in historical terms. Ships only survive the fury and unpredictability of the sea by maintaining counterbalancing qualities of structure and precision. In many ways, then, these ships present links to the terrestrial frontier towns, existing as outposts of civilization and order facing the unpredictable wilderness before it. If Melville’s Pequod can be an “aqua-Gothic castle,” it can also be an aqua-frontier town; Wayne Ude argues that Melville’s ships are, “like those early New England towns, little individual civilizations surrounded by wilderness” (Ude, 55). The ships and the order that controls them give sailors some manner of protection from the howling wilderness that is everywhere around them.

In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the Grampus does convey Pym across the unknown and unknowable waters, but Poe destabilizes the solidity of that ship as a place of refuge by destroying the order and structure on which the ship-as-sanctuary depends. Like the terrifying subterranean crypts of earlier Gothic tales, Pym’s below-deck labyrinth transforms from a place of refuge to a place of psychological turmoil. After falling asleep reading from Lewis and Clarke’s expedition to quantify the physical wilderness, Pym awakens into a mental wilderness of unexpected [page 14:] horror. Alone in his hold, Pym enters into a “disorder of mind” that throws everything he knew into a state of confusion. Even his food, perfectly edible when he dozed off, was now unexpectedly “in a state of absolute putrefaction” (Poe, 19). He spends the rest of his time there in and out of a stupefying sleep, desperately trying to make sense of the fantastic happenings around him. Stuck in the dark, Pym enters a mental wilderness that mirrors the physical wilderness in which his ship was immersed. Filled with starvation, monsters (that turn out to be his faithful dog), and cryptic messages written in blood (which the darkness prevents him from fully reading and so understanding), this inner wilderness pushes Pym perilously close to insanity. The only thing that keeps him on the mental frontier-line between sanity and madness is his willingness to explore and try to understand the world in which he finds himself. Excursions into the mental void are a hallmark of Poe’s fiction, and Poe “took the exploration of inner wilderness further than did any other nineteenth-century American prose writer; his characters exist as isolated individuals, with only their own inner resources to protect them from their own inner wildernesses” (Ude, 55). Pym is absolutely isolated, relying only on his own fleeting mental acuity and the thin whipcord tied between his packing crate and the hatch to keep him from being fully engulfed by his surroundings. This cord is a literal lifeline between Pym’s dark interior and the external world. Unfortunately for Pym, when he follows this line, he finds the hatch blocked, locking him in the confined space.

Eventually Pym is rescued by Augustus and brought out of the disorienting realm of the ship’s hold. But the exterior world of the ship into which Pym emerges is equally disheveled. The rigid social structure that allows the ship to function well enough to survive the maritime wilderness has broken down, descending into mutinous anarchy. Later, and somewhat unbelievably, Pym and Augustus are able, with the help of mutineer-turned-savior Dirk Peters, to overcome and eliminate the murderous mutineers, leaving them alone on the ship with the redeemed Richard Parker. But the damage to the ship’s ability to protect the men from the wilderness of the sea has been done and nearly every vestige of “shipness,” traits that link the ship to the civilized culture from which it originated, are destroyed. With too few men to control the ship’s sails, the masts are cut away and the heaving sea rips off the rudder, leaving them a floating hulk. And having filled with water from rough seas, the ship [page 15:] sinks just enough that the “deck lay level with the sea” (Poe, 72). A ship now barely even in name, the survivors are essentially floating not on a ship but on the ocean itself, adrift and awash in the watery landscape. Later in the narrative, after the men on board have been floating in the wilderness for weeks, their world turns literally upside down again. As Pym explains much earlier in the novel, ships depend on a meticulously organized stowage of cargo and ballast below decks to keep the ship balanced in the uncertain seas. Pym spends the better part of chapter six explaining precisely how ships should be organized and why. All this explanation serves to put in contrast that the Grampus was never properly balanced, physically or psychologically. In no way could the Grampus ever truly serve as a protection against the wilderness of the sea — it was ineffectual from the moment it was laded. Like the craft in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” it was a doomed ship.

The Grampus is not the only ship that Poe destabilizes in his maritime misadventures. Not long after Peters cuts away the masts and leaves the men to the mercy of the sea, Pym spots an approaching ship. Pym emphasizes that this ship “appeared” to be the bearer of their salvation. It sailed before the wind, though awkwardly, and was crewed by what appeared to be Hollanders. At the moment of salvation, however, Pym and crew realize that this vessel was not, in fact, what it appeared. The entire population of this ship was dead, having most likely succumbed to an onboard outbreak of yellow fever. In this event, Poe again expresses the Gothic conflict between appearance and reality: while this death-ship brought the appearance of salvation, in actuality it brought “horror and despair,” making Pym and company “thoroughly mad through the anguish of our grievous disappointment” (Poe, 81). More significantly, this ship pushed the survivors further into their own inner wilderness, forcing them to confront the latent savagery of starvation by introducing the awful spectre of cannibalism.

Commonly considered on land to be the final dividing line, or frontier, between civilization and savagery, maritime culture has historically had a much more pragmatic understanding of cannibalism. In times of shipwreck or other unforeseen devastation, cannibalism was actually an accepted means of survival — so common was it, in fact, that it was unofficially called the “custom of the sea.“(8) However, in order to differentiate it from the savagery of [page 16:] cannibalism ashore, there were strict rules that must be followed in order to make it legally acceptable. Most importantly, if one person must be killed for the others to consume, the unlucky soul must be determined by the drawing of lots. This requirement eliminated personal motive or culpability from the act, essentially preserving the beneficiaries’ ability to claim unwillingness to do the deed. Such precautions were observed on the barely-floating hulk that was the Grampus, and the short straw fell to Parker, ironically the person who originally voiced the suggestion of cannibalism.

Significantly, precisely because the men draw lots, their descent into savagery is somewhat mitigated by accepted convention, and therefore incomplete. Like everything in the Gothic, the tension between extremity and normalcy drives the sense of dread that stems from the possibility of redemption. If anyone on the Grampus had made the unilateral decision to murder one of their fellows and the others participated in his consumption, they would all likely be shunned by society as vicious and immoral cannibals. With the drawing of lots, the men remain within the boundary area between civilization and savagery. Although they are outside of the standard civilizing structures of the ship, there are still ways for them to maintain their connection to acceptable society. The ships themselves function as symbolic towns protecting the inhabitants from the uncontrollable wilderness, but as this symbolic role breaks down the men enact the structure of civilization for themselves. Clearly, if ships are to be understood as analogues to frontier towns, the annihilation of everything that makes a ship a ship serves to highlight Wayne Ude’s assertion that “civilization is no help to Poe’s characters” (Ude, 55).

An honest consideration of the previous statement must take into account the Jane Guy, the ship that does ultimately save Pym and Peters from the overturned Grampus. Unlike the Grampus, the Jane Guy was enjoying a successful voyage from Liverpool, and was heading to the “South Seas for any cargo which might come most readily to hand” (Poe, 108). When Pym and Peters were brought aboard the Jane Guy they were given everything they lacked on the Grampus: food, community, and security. In the relative safety of the Guy, Pym joins the ship’s crew in exploring the unknown. It is at this point that Pym’s narrative most closely mirrors the Lewis and Clarke expedition that he reads while locked away in [page 17:] the Grampus’s hold. Pym seems to serve as an unofficial chronicler for his new ship, and keeps a meticulous record of their encounter with Prince Edward’s Island. But this island, as Pym points out, has already been discovered and recorded, and as such it is a part of the civilized world, even if it is not settled. The captain of this ship, coincidentally named Captain Guy, is more interested in true exploration, penetrating the parts of the southern hemisphere that have remained unknown. Here again critics like William Lenz tend to make connections between Pym and expeditions into the Western frontier. But rather than ascribing this exploration to thinly veiled allegory for the American west, we can consider this oceanic wilderness to be representative of an unquantifiable unknown. Indeed, Captain Guy is most interested in finding the Auroras, a group of mythical islands whose existence was debated well into the nineteenth century. Not finding them, Guy determines, with Pym’s encouragement, to push “boldly to the southward” (Poe, 125). Eventually the Jane Guy stumbles upon the unrecorded island of Tsalal, located further south than any civilized person had ever been before. Tsalal is the true discovery of the Jane Guy, but it is a discovery that Captain Guy will never live to claim. Not long after arriving, the ship is destroyed and all members of the crew are murdered. Only Pym and Peters — the two men that the Jane Guy rescued from the midst of the oceanic wilderness — survive the carefully contrived ambush. Thus the Guy, and almost everyone associated with it is erased from the story, either sunk below the eternal waves or buried beneath tons of earth. It is effectively (literally and figuratively) wiped from existence; no trace of it survives. In doing this, Poe further emphasizes the destabilization caused by the maritime wilderness. While on the Jane Guy Pym mimics Lewis and Clarke’s quantifiable record of discoveries by keeping a semi-detailed account of his location and observations, but this ship and all its inhabitants are destroyed. Here again, the civilization represented by the ship is overcome by the wilderness encountered in the maritime world.

Tsalal: The Final Frontier

Because of the annihilation of the Jane Guy and all of her crew, the doomed ship seems to serve as little more than a literary deus ex machina, a device to move Pym and Peters off their floating wreck [page 18:] and onto Tsalal. Indeed, Poe’s fantastical island has been the focus of most of the analytical work done on the novel. Many scholars cite the Jane Guy’s Antarctic exploration and discovery of Tsalal as indicative of the link between oceanic exploration and the expeditions into of the American West, while others read Poe’s depiction of the Tsalalians as commenting on the bitter struggles between race and slavery engulfing America in the first half of the nineteenth century.(9) These attempts to historicize meaning in Pym are a reaction against the older tradition of reading the novel through a purely aesthetic lens, which accepts Tsalal as an entirely conceptual place with no legitimate connection to the ‘real’ world (Whalen, 150). But why, in a novel that resists categorization on nearly every level, must we confine an understanding to Tsalal as being either historical or aesthetic? In fact, we could even question why so much emphasis is placed on Tsalal at all. Contrary to most critical interpretations, I contend that we need not see Tsalal as a wilderness at all, but rather as the final frontier between the known and the unknown.

While it may be easy for a reader to understand how Tsalal can be seen as a metaphor, as an embodiment of the physical and conceptual contrasts plaguing the deeply entrenched American North / South divide, Tsalal need not be understood only or even chiefly as a land of contrasting extremes. Granted, the obvious and strict division between black and white on the island, most clearly exemplified in the exaggerated physical and cultural “blackness” of the Tsalalians — a connection to slavery strengthened by the first image of the island being compared to “corded bales of cotton” (Poe, 128) — lends credence to the racially-based reading favored by a number of contemporary critics. In addition, the extraordinary nature of the Tsalalian flora and fauna has led others to proclaim Tsalal a representation of the extremity of wilderness, a hyper-wild version of the American West. But the extraordinary landscape of Tsalal is neither as far off nor as wild as it appears. The island and its inhabitants are, after all, knowable. While Tsalal is, from an American viewpoint, wild and unknown, it is quantifiable. Though the flora and fauna are strange, once they are recorded in Pym’s log, they are no longer unknown. As Pym and Peters trek across Tsalal, Pym records what he finds, acting out the same exploratory impulse that he encountered reading the Lewis and Clark narrative while stowed away in the ship. [page 19:]

As unusual as Tsalal is, it is not unknowable; its peculiarities are not so great that it is outside the realm of Pym’s understanding, nor of our own — though it does push that understanding to the limit. The differences that Pym encounters on Tsalal are not differences in kind but in degree. What makes Tsalal unnerving for Pym and for us is that the variations are almost, but not quite, elemental. Pym describes the land itself as unique: “The very rocks were novel in their mass, their color, and their stratification.” Even the water, perhaps the most elemental thing available, was unusual: “Although [the water] flowed with rapidity in all declivities where common water would do so, yet never, except when falling in a cascade, had it the customary appearance of limpidity” (Poe, 135, emphasis in original). In fact, nearly everything that Pym encounters on Tsalal he understands in terms of its formal rather than its functional quality. “The natural objects on and beyond Tsalal,” contends Sanborn, “are even more obviously without identities or functions: Pym’s descriptions of these objects are not more than accounts of their color, shape, volume, heat, viscosity, and luminousness” (Sanborn, 173). I disagree with Sanborn’s argument that Pym’s formal description is indicative of a lack of functional identity; rather, it indicates Pym’s recognition that he does not need to explain the function or identity of commonplace objects. His role, as the quantifying force on the island, is to record the formal qualities of what he encounters. Because there is little that lies completely outside Pym’s realm of understanding, he does not need to explain these functional identities. But Sanborn’s argument points to an important fact about Tsalal: its status as a functionally identifiable locale is tenuous. Tsalal teeters on the edge of knowable reality. As Poe creates it, Tsalal could feasibly exist. Located in a distant portion of the world, but one that was rapidly being explored and documented, nothing on Tsalal was an absolute impossibility. The fabulous nature and rate of discovery in the early to mid nineteenth century made possible an island like Tsalal. It and its inhabitants were just on the edge of believability.

As such, perhaps the best method for understanding Tsalal — the island near the end of the novel — relies on conceiving it as a frontier that parallels Nantucket — the island at the beginning of the novel. Like Nantucket, Tsalal is in every respect a “faraway land” or “the far-off place.” And if we understand Nantucket as a coastal frontier representing the border between the recognizable [page 20:] civilization of land and the unknown wilderness of the sea, we can understand Tsalal in similar terms. Although Tsalal is strange, while Pym remains there he is surrounded by recognizable features of land and of civilization, albeit “primitive” by Western standards. And thanks to Pym’s account, it is now no longer unknown at all. Tsalal, in Poe’s fictional world, was discovered, recorded, and described, and so is now within the realm of “civilizing” knowledge. One would assume that as a result of this discovery, white explorers would return to overcome the Tsalalians and supplant their “primitive” civilization with the precepts of Christianity and western civilization. Though white explorers from the Jane Guy were defeated on Tsalal, these setbacks rarely stand in the way of ultimate Anglo-American expansion. (It should perhaps also be noted that Captain Guy was lulled into a false sense of security and defeated only by trickery, of a kind that certainly would not work on any readers of Pym’s story.)

Not so, however, the sea. Once Pym and Peters escape the island with Nu-Nu, they embark into a wilderness more extreme than anything imaginable. While the wilderness of the American West and the wilderness of Tsalal offered recognizable differences from the known, the sea beyond Tsalal was the wilderness of the absolute unknown. The space into which their voyage takes them is a one beyond all expectation and imagination: Pym states that they encountered “[m]any unusual phenomena” that indicated that they “were entering into a region of novelty and wonder” (Poe, 172). Nothing is as it seems and there is nothing that can be understood in terms usable in America (or on Tsalal for that matter). Surrounded alternately by a “light gray vapor” and “a fine white powder, resembling ash — but certainly not such,” Pym struggles to adequately understand, much less explain, what he is seeing (Poe, 173). As Pym rushes headlong into the void of the unknown — aptly described by Pym as the space “beyond the veil“ — he leaves all vestiges of civilization of any type behind (Poe, 174). Thus Tsalal was the true final outpost of the frontier. If there would be a way for a coastal frontier to progress, it would be this. While Tsalal was not “civilized” in the way that Pym would have recognized or appreciated, it did hold within its shores a structured and established society. Beyond those shores, however, was the absolute unknown, and thanks to the abrupt end of Pym’s narrative, it would always remain unknown. [page 21:]

However feeble it may be, Pym’s impulse to “know” drives his relationship to the world around him up to the moment that he and Peters approach the “veil.” Scrupulously attempting to catalogue what he encounters, Pym’s final words are an effort to describe the figure he sees in the veil. This vaguely suggestive figure, which was “very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men” and had skin “the perfect whiteness of the snow,” has attracted perhaps more interpretive attention than any other image in the novel.(10) Significantly, Pym’s record ends here, giving readers no indication of who or what this figure is, what it does, or what happens to Pym and Peters after the encounter. Textually, what this figure represents, then, is the end of relatable knowledge. If a quantifiable record of exploration is necessary, as Lewis and Clark’s narrative suggests, for transforming the wilderness from an unknown to a known quantity available for Western civilization, the lack of information about the space beyond the veil remains forever wild. The human figure blocking passage to this space, then, represents the limit of human knowledge.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is not an isolated example among Poe’s works that deal with this same unknowable wilderness. The 1833 short story “MS. Found in a Bottle,” even more explicitly than Pym, uses the South Pole as a physical representation of untamable wilderness. This story, with similarities to Pym that have been well recorded, finds the overly rational narrator stranded on what appears to be a ghost ship rushing headlong to the South Pole.(11) The unnamed narrator boasts that he embodies a “common error of [his] age” — that “no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of superstition” (Poe, 179). This man represents the impulse of American society in the early nineteenth century to quantify, document, and make known. Like Pym, the narrator scrupulously records the curious ship on which he finds himself, attempting to “discover” exactly on what it is that he is sailing. So explicit does Poe want to make this point that the narrator mindlessly dabs a tar-brush on a folded sail, only to find, when the sail is unfurled, that the random markings transform into the word “DISCOVERY.” As this ship pushes even further southward into the unknown regions of the Antarctic, the narrator realizes that they are “hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge — some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction” (Poe, 188). But realizing this does [page 22:] not deter the rational mind from its pursuit of this knowledge; in other words, his curiosity dominates his fear. But at the moment of discovery, the narrator’s quantifiable record ends without divulging any unknown knowledge. He faithfully records the ship’s revolutions within the whirlpool, writing that they grow smaller and smaller until, “amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering ocean and tempest” the ship begins to quiver and, so the narrator assumes, sinks. At this point, since this is after all a “MS. found in a bottle,” the narrator stops recording, seals the paper in a bottle, and casts it overboard. Thus at the moment of true discovery, of passing into the unknown and scientifically recording it, the narrator’s ability to quantify and report his findings fails him. The unknown remains unknowable. As readers we have no idea of what happens to the narrator next; whether he lives, knowing the secret for himself, or dies without discovering anything at all. Whatever the outcome, the knowledge that lies beyond the cataract remains unknown to the world at large.

Poe follows this same oceanic path five years later in Pym, with the major difference that Pym lives to write the tale. Pym tells us in the “Preface,” dated July 1838, that he had returned to America a few months earlier. Unlike the narrator from “MS. Found in a Bottle,” Pym did learn something of the world beyond the veil and survive, though his discovery was “so positively marvelous” that the public would likely disbelieve his account as nothing more than “an impudent and ingenious fiction” (Poe, 3). In fact, Pym is not the only person who survives his tale. Peters, like Pym, also survives the journey to the edge of the unknown, as we know from Pym’s suggestion that he is the only person who can corroborate his fantastic story (Poe, 2). Thus, unlike Moby-Dick’s Ishmael or the Biblical Job, Pym cannot say “I only am escaped to tell thee.”

If Pym did learn the never-to-be-imparted secret, we would be remiss not to ask why he was allowed to survive and return home with this forbidden knowledge. An approach to answering this question can be found in the conceptual underpinnings of the frontier as a liminal space between the worlds of the known and the unknown. If we consider the only two men who survive their perilous encounter with the unknown, we realize that they embody themselves the liminality of the frontier. Both Pym and Peters are interlopers — people who do not belong in either of two worlds. [page 23:] Peters’ status as interloper is easily understood — as the son of an Indian woman and a white man, Peters is the bastard son of America itself. Neither fully white nor fully Indian, his identity shifts between the two. Pym describes him alternatively as a “half-breed Indian” and one of the “most ferocious looking men [he] had ever met,” but also, after the Tsalalians destroy the Jane Guy’s crew, one of the only two “living white men on the island” (Poe, 38, 151). Peters and Pym, as interstitial characters caught somewhere in the cloudy mists between two clearly-defined worlds, are more equipped to deal with the uncertainty of the frontier and its attendant wilderness. Indeed, when these two men return to the United States, their assimilation back into civilization remains incomplete. Peters retires to the western edge of Illinois, which in the 1830s was still very much a frontier state; and, as the concluding “Note” of the novel testifies, his precise fate is uncertain. He has disappeared into the vast Illinois wilderness and there is no hope of finding him, assuming that he was still alive at all. Thus his knowledge of the voyage is effectively inaccessible. Pym is likewise prevented from passing on the information he gained in the unknown regions of the maritime wilderness, as he dies in (most likely) a fire that also consumed the final chapters of his narrative, including those which presumably described his encounter with the white figure at the ‘veil’ and detailed as his means of deliverance and return to America. Thus, the only chance of opening the final frontier beyond Tsalal is lost, to remain unknown forever.

Poe, then, recognizes the peculiar quality of the maritime wilderness as a space incapable of being fully known. In Pym Poe seems, after all, to be almost entirely unconcerned with the terrestrial frontier. The “true” frontier of this novel, argues Stephen Mainville, is the frontier of creation, the space between mental/spiritual/conceptual and physical space. The use of the maritime world points, however, to a frontier not of creation but of knowledge — Pym’s frontier is ultimately the division between the known, the unknown, and the unknowable. This tripartite frontier is most effectively expressed in oceanic terms because the coastal frontier allows for all three realities. The land stretching out before the coast is known, and unknown lands beyond the coast can be found and explored. But the sea itself, unlike those terrestrial spaces that can be explored, documented, and settled, shall never give up all of her secrets. [page 24:]

The only people capable of learning these secrets at all, Pym and Peters, are granted their forbidden knowledge by virtue of their liminality. But even these characters, products of and emblematic of the frontiers from which they come, cannot pass on the knowledge to a wider audience. Peters returns to the wilderness just beyond the western frontier, never to be heard from again. Pym’s attempt to integrate into the terrestrial American civilization he ran away from early in his narrative ends in his death. Thus Pym fulfills Michael Hollister’s qualification that “Gothicism denies any real salvation at the end” (Hollister, 286). Pym and Peters survive to return, but for what benefit? Their experience remains mysterious, and the knowledge they gain at sea remains inaccessible. What the ending of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket ultimately affirms is that despite our desire to explore and discover, some of the world’s secrets are destined to remain a secret. Poe’s maritime wilderness keeps her hidden knowledge hidden, and the coastal frontier remains firmly located, physically and conceptually, as a place on the edge of the unknown — and for the Gothic, that is how it should be.

*   *   *   *   *


[page 26, unnumbered:]


1.  Recent versions of Pym that have included “of Nantucket” on the cover include the Modern Library Classics, Penguin Classics, and Dover Thrift editions.

2.  Edwin Fussell, Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1965).

3.  See Paul Gilje’s Liberty on the Waterfront (2004), especially pp. 3-24 and 196.

4.  Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913, vol. 7, p. 271.

5.  Melville utilizes this aspect of Nantucket communality in Moby-Dick: though the Pequod is primarily owned by Bildad and Peleg, nearly everyone on Nantucket is invested in the ship in some form.

6.  The grandfather’s “Long Tom” epithet carries likely literary significance; it probably refers to “Long Tom Coffin” from James Fennimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pilot, a Nantucket sailor who is the only main American character in the novel to die. It is worth noting that “Coffin” is the surname of one of the most prominent founding families of Nantucket.

7.  See, for example, the work of Marcus Rediker, especially Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and The Many-Headed Hydra, which he co-authored with Peter Linebaugh.

8.  The horrible necessity of survival at sea by cannibalism was well known in America, and especially Nantucket, in the early nineteenth century. Perhaps the most infamous maritime account of survival cannibalism in America is that of the Nantucket-based whaleship Essex, which was sunk by a whale in the South Pacific in 1820. The crew abandoned ship in three small whaleboats, two of which were discovered after 90 and 95 days at sea, respectively — the third boat was never found. The surviving men on both boats had resorted to cannibalism. In a story similar to Pym’s the men in one boat drew lots to determine who should be killed so that the others might live. [page 27, unnumbered:] The lot fell to Owen Coffin, the seventeen year-old nephew of the captain of the whaleship, George Pollard, who was one of the men adrift in the boat with Owen. Though Pollard had sworn to protect his nephew, the young man accepted his fate and was shot by another man on the boat. When they were rescued, Pollard and one other survivor were found gnawing on the bones of Coffin and the bones of another man. The survivors returned to Nantucket where they were accepted by the community. There were two accounts written by survivors: one by first-mate Owen Chase published in 1821 (famously used by Herman Melville as inspiration for Moby-Dick) and one by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson that was lost until 1960 and not published until 1984. For more information, see Thomas Philbrick’s excellent In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2001).

9.  For more on Pym’s Antarctic-Western connection, see William Lenz and Terrence Whalen. For more on Pym and the racial conflict, see Justin Edwards, David Faflik, and Shaindy Rudoff.

10.  See, for example, Douglas Robinson’s review of Pym scholarship, “Reading Poe’s Novel: A Speculative Review of Pym Criticism, 1950-1980” and Richard Kopley’s Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations.

11.  See, for example, Frank and Hoeveler’s “Introduction” (especially pp. 19-21) to the Broadview Edition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.


[page 28, unnumbered:]

Works Cited

Brown, Charles Brockden. Edgar Huntly. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988.

Busby, Mark, David Mogen, and Paul Bryant. “Introduction: Frontier Writings as a ‘Great Tradition’ of American Literature.” In The Frontier Experience and the American Dream, pp. 3-12.

——. The Frontier Experience and the American Dream. College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP, 1989.

Byers, Edward. The “Nation of Nantucket“: Society and Politics in an Early American Commercial Center, 1660-1820. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1987.

Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John de. Letters from an American Farmer. Ed. Albert E. Stone. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Edwards, Justin D. Gothic Passages: Racial Ambiguity and the American Gothic. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2003.

Faflik, David. “South of the ‘Border,’ or Poe’s Pym: A case Study in Region, Race, and American Literary History.” Mississippi Quarterly 57 (2004): 265-88.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.

Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. “Poe and the Gothic Tradition.” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002, pp. 72-91.

Frank, Frederick S. and Diane Long Hoeveler. “Introduction.” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Ed. Frank and Hoeveler. Buffalo, NY: Broadview, 2010. [page 29:]

Fussell, Edwin. Frontier: American Literature and the American West. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1965.

Hollister, Michael. “Melville’s Gam with Poe in Moby-Dick: Bulkington and Pym.” Studies in the Novel 21.3 (1989): 279-91.

Kopley, Richard, ed. Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1992.

Lenz, William E. “Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym and the Narrative Techniques of Antarctic Gothic.” CEA Critic: An Official Journal of the College English Association 53.3 (1991): 30-8.

Lewis, Charles Less. “Edgar Allan Poe and the Sea.” Southern Literary Messenger 3 (Jan 1941): 5-10.

Mainville, Stephen, ed. “Language and the Void: Gothic Landscapes in the Frontiers of Edgar Allan Poe.” Frontier Gothic: Terror and Wonder at the Frontier in American Literature.

David Mogen, et. al. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1993, pp. 187-202.

Pepetone, Gregory. Gothic Perspectives on the American Experience. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. “‘Every Wave is a Fortune‘: Nantucket Island and the Making of an American Icon.” New England Quarterly 66 (1993): 434-447.

——. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “MS. Found in a Bottle.” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and Related Tales. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 179-189.

——. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Ed. J Gerald Kennedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Robinson, Douglas. “Reading Poe’s Novel: A Speculative Review of Pym Criticism, 1950-1980.” Poe Studies 15 (1982): 47-52. [page 30:]

Rudoff, Shaindy. “Written in Stone: Slavery and Authority in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” ATQ 14 (2000): 61-82.

Sanborn, Geoffery. “A confused beginning: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket.” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge, ENG: Cambridge UP, 2002, pp. 163-177.

Thompson, G.R. “The Arabesque Design of Arthur Gordon Pym.” Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations. Ed. Richard Kopley. Durham: Duke UP, 1992, pp. 188-213.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier.” The Frontier in American Literature. Ed. Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones. Indianapolis: Odyssey P, 1969, pp. 9-19.

Ude, Wayne. “Forging an American Style: The Roman-Novel and Magical Realism as Response to the Frontier and Wilderness Experiences.” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream. Ed. Mark Busby, et al. College Station, TX: Texas & M UP, 1989, pp. 50-64.

Vickers, Daniel. Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005.

Walden, Dan. “Ships and Crypts: The Coastal World of Poe’s ‘King Pest,’ ‘The Premature Burial,’ and ‘The Oblong Box.‘” The Edgar Allan Poe Review 10.2 (2009): 104-121.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.




This lecture was delivered at the Eighty-eighth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 3, 2010. The lecture was presented in the Edgar Allan Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It was revised in 2011.

© 2011, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:0 - TCFOWNAGP, 2011] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Coastal Frontier and the Oceanic Wilderness in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (D. Walden, 2010)