Text: William Evans Burton, [Review of Poe’s Narrative of A. G. Pym], Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, Sept. 1838, 3:210-211


­ [page 210, continued:]

NARRATIVE OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM, OF NANTUCKET. Comprising the Details of a Mutiny and atrocious butchery on board the American Brig Grampus, on her way to the South seas, in the month of June, 1827. With an Account of the recapture of the vessel by the survivers; their shipwreck and subsequent horrible Sufferings from Famine; their Deliverance by means of the British schooner Jane Guy; the brief Cruise of this latter vessel in the Antarctic Ocean; her Capture, and the Massacre of her Crew among a group of islands in the eighty-fourth parallel of southern latitude; together with the incredible Adventures and Discoveries, still farther South, to which that distressing calamity gave rise. New York. Harper and Brothers.

An Indian warrior pursing a flying tory, seized his foe by the tail of his peruke, and drew his scalping knife for the purpose of consummating his victory, but the artificial head-covering of the British solider came off in the struggle, and the bald-headed owner ran away unhurt, leaving the surprised Indian in possession of the easily acquired trophy. After gazing at the singular and apparently unnatural formation, he dashed it to the ground in disdain, and quietly exclaimed “A d—d lie!” We find ourselves in the same predicament with the volume before us; we imagined, from various discrepancies and other errors discovered in a casual glance, sufficient also to convince us of the faulty construction and poorness of style, that we had met ­[page 211:] with a proper subject for our critical scalping knife — but a steady perusal of the whole book compelled us to throw it away in contempt, with an exclamation very similar to the natural phrase of the Indian. A more impudent attempt at humbugging the public has never been exercised; the voyages of Gulliver were politically satirical, and the adventures of Munchausen, the acknowledged caricature of a celebrated traveller. Sindbad the sailor, Peter Wilkins, and Moore’s Utopia, are confessedly works of imagination; but Arthur Gordon Pym puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, and coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his ipse dixit, although he confesses that the early portions of his precious effusion were published in the Southern Literary Messenger as a story written by the editor, Mr. Poe, because he believed that the public at large would pronounce his adventures to be “an impudent fiction.” Mr. Poe, if not the author of Pym’s book, is at least responsible for its publication, for it is stated in the preface that Mr. Poe assured the author that the shrewdness and common sense of the public would give it a chance of being received as truth. We regret to find Mr. Poe’s name in connexion with such a mass of ignorance and effrontery.

The title of the work serves as a full index of the contents. The “incredible adventures and discoveries” in the Antarctic ocean conclude somewhat abruptly; the surviving voyageurs, Pym and a half-breed Indian, are left, madly careering, in a frail bark canoe, in a strong current, running due south, in the immediate vicinity of the Pole — volcanoes bursting from the “milky depths of the ocean,” showers of white ashes covering the boat and its inmates, and a limitless cataract “rolling silently into the sea from some immense rampart in the heavens, whose summit was utterly lost in the dimness and the distance.” Two or three of the final chapters are supposed to be mislaid; therefore, we have no account of the escape of Arthur Gordon Pym from the irresistible embraces of the cataract to his snuggery at New York.

There is nothing original in the description of the newly discovered islands in the Antarctic sea, unless we except the scene wherein a few ambushed savages precipitate more than a million tons of soft rock from the hill side, by merely pulling at a few strong cords of grape vine attached to some stakes driven in the ground. The shipwreck is unnecessarily horrible — a rapid succession of improbabilities destroys the interest of the reader, and the writer’s evident ignorance in all nautical matters forbids the possibility of belief. We are told that when his boat, sloop-rigged, carrying a mainsail and jib, lost her mast close off by the board, he boomed along before the wind, under the jib, and shipping seas over the counter! A cabin boy of a month’s standing would have been ashamed of such a phrase! Then, we hear of a ship sailing over a boat in a gale of wind, and hooking one of the boatmen by a copper bold in her bottom — the said bolt having gone through the back part of the neck, between two sinews, and out just below the right ear! The body was discovered by the mate of the ship, when the vessel gave an immense lurch to windward! and was eventually obtained after several ineffectual efforts, during the lurches of the ship — and, notwithstanding its long immersion and peculiar transfixion, was restored to life, and proved to be the hero of the tale, Arthur Gordon Pym.

The mutiny is rather a common place mutiny; but Pym’s secretion in the hold is a matter of positive improbability. No Yankee captain of a whaler ever packed his oil casks in such a careless manner as described by the veracious A. G. P., who, by the way, sleeps a nap of three days and three nights duration, “at the very least.”

The annexed description of the river waters of the Antarctic isles is a fair specimen of the outrageous statements which “the shrewdness and good sense of the public” are required to believe.

At every step we took inland the conviction forced itself upon us that we were in a country differing essentially from any hitherto visited by civilized men. We saw nothing with which we had been formerly conversant. The trees resembled no growth of either the torrid, the temperate, or the northern frigid zones, and were altogether unlike those of the lower southern latitudes we had already traversed. The very rocks were novel in their mass, their color, and their stratification; and the streams themselves, utterly incredible as it may appear, had so little in common with those of other climates, that we were scrupulous of tasting them, and, indeed, had difficulty in bringing ourselves to believe that their qualities were purely those of nature. At a small brook which crossed our path (the first we had reached) Too-wit and his attendants halted to drink. On account of the singular character of the water, we refused to taste it, supposing it to be polluted; and it was not until some time afterward we came to understand that such was the appearance of the streams throughout the whole group. I am at a loss to give a distinct idea of the nature of this liquid, and cannot do so without many words. Although it 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. It was, nevertheless, in point of fact, as perfectly limpid as any limestone water in existence, the difference being only in appearance. At first sight, and especially in cases where little declivity was found, it bore resemblance, as regards consistency, to a thick infusion of gum Arabic in common water. But this was only the least remarkable of its extraordinary qualities. It was not colourless, nor was it of any one uniform color — presenting to the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple, like the hues of a changeable silk. This variation in shade was produced in a manner which excited as profound astonishment in the minds of our party as the mirror had done in the case of Too-wit. Upon collecting a basinful, and allowing it to settle thoroughly, we perceived that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; and that their cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighbouring veins. Upon passing the blade of a knife athwart the veins, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of the passage of the knife were instantly obliterated. If, however, the blade was passed down accurately between the two veins, a perfect separation was effected, which the power of cohesion did not immediately rectify. The phenomena of this water formed the first definite link in that vast chain of apparent miracles with which I was destined to be at length encircled.



The text from Pym is quoted from the end of chapter XVIII, pp. 154-155. Poe refers to this review in his letter to William E. Burton of June 1, 1840.


[S:0 - BGM, 1838] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Review of A. G. Pym (W. E. Burton, 1838)