Text: Anonymous, “[Review of The Narrative of A. G. Pym],” Monthly Review (London, UK), Vol. III, no. 4, December 1838, pp. 566-569


[page 560:]


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5. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, North America.

WE night swell our list to a much greater size than that of a quintett form and variety, not only by means of the recent births in the family of romance, which have occurred in Old England, but with several besides the Narrative of Mr. Pym, which are of Transatlantic parentage. The present, however, are sufficient to afford an index of the manner in which the season has set in as regards this department of imaginative literature, — a few words about each, and a specimen from two or three of them, being all that is necessary, or can be desired at our hands. Perhaps, indeed, some of our readers may be of opinion that we allow too much space and consideration to such fanciful and ephemeral productions. But not to dwell upon the obvious fact, that it is our duty to cater for more appetites than one or two, we cannot be faithful mirrors or chronicles of the progress and fashion of literature without regularly noticing every considerable mass of books of any class that may appear; neither otherwise can we possibly present that variety of entertainment and instruction which every reader expects to find in a periodical like the monthly Review.

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[page 566:]

[[. . .]] [[after a quotation from Crotchetts in the Air, by John Poole]]

“What!” exclaim our readers — ” do you call all this a fiction? do you place the ‘Crotchets’ in the family of romances?” We believe we misjudge not when we do so, although the verisimilitude of the narrative entitles the performance to much higher praise than most imaginary voyages and travels have a right to. At any rate Mr. Poole, as heretofore, has drawn largely upon his peculiar and quaint inventive powers, and produced a work so good humoured, so pungent, and so effective in its pictures and reflections, that we were desirous to have an excuse for calling attention to it. If however our readers will have an out and out romance, and the marvels of an unprecedented voyager, we are prepared to satisfy them; for here is one by a Yankee — the species being the most unscrupulous of any in the matter of marvellous stories. Before, however, saying anything of the nautical adventures of Mr. Pym, comprising as they do the “Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, during a [page 567:] Voyage to the South Seas, resulting in extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth parallel of Southern Latitude,” — (eighty-fourth! mark that,) we have to state that other recent Transatlantic works of an imaginary character and of the novel class might have been selected by us — such as Cromwell, by the author of The Brothers, Burton, &c., each of them, though falling far short of the objects and the portraitures aimed at, having a specific character which takes them out of any particular school formed in this country. We choose the adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, however, because the work appears to us to be characterized by a greater degree of originality, boldness, and skill, than either of the former; while its extravagances, and mere attempt, as it would seem, at fancying next to miraculous things, rather than the inculcation of any valuable principles or refinement, put it out of the list of those fictions which are to be recommended as models or for general perusal. The simple fact that some of the most elaborate scenes, and where no mean power is exhibited, are disgustingly horrible, would of itself be a sufficient warning against imitation.

Pym like many other boys had a passion, so long as it was untried, for a seafaring life; and takes to it against the wishes of his family. He soon encounters more than a sufficiency of hardships and dangers to open his eyes to his rashness. But these and their various results we shall not recount. Take the following example of the sort of effort to which he puts his invention: —

“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 colour, 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 [page 568:] least remarkable of its extraordinary qualities. It was not colourless, nor was it of any one uniform colour — 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 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.”

Except as a trial of strength and skill in the art of painting by means of words and analogies, we do not see any good in such descriptions. It must be confessed, however, that the use, at the author's command, that the tone of sincerity, the minuteness of detail, and the natural manner here so manifest, relieve the fancies strung together of much of that marvellousness that would otherwise be felt to be repulsively absurd.

Our last extract evinces no common power, while, without appearing to imitate, the fiction has a Robinson Crusoe reality about it: —

“The only method we could devise for the terrific lottery, in which we were to take each a chance, was that of drawing straws. Small splinters of wood were made to answer our purpose, and it was agreed that I should be the holder. I retired to one end of the hulk, while my poor companions silently took up their station in the other with their backs turned towards me. The bitterest anxiety which I endured at any period of this fearful drama was while I occupied myself in the arrangement of the lots. There are few conditions into which man can possibly fall where he will not feel a deep interest in the preservation of his existence; an interest momentarily increasing with the frailness of the tenure by which that existence may be held. But now that the silent, definite, and stern nature of the business in which I was engaged (so different from the tumultuous dangers of the storm or the gradually approaching horrors of famine) allowed me to reflect on the few chances I had of escaping the most appalling of deaths — a death for the most appalling of purposes — every particle of that energy which had so long buoyed me up departed like feathers before the wind, leaving me a helpless prey to the most abject and pitiable terror. I could not, at first, even summon up sufficient strength to tear and fit together the small splinters of wood, my fingers absolutely refusing their office, and my [page 569:] knees knocking violently against each other. My mind ran over rapidly a thousand absurd projects by which to avoid becoming a partner in the awful speculation. I thought of falling on my knees to my companions, and entreating them to let me escape this necessity; of suddenly rushing upon them, and, by putting one of them to death, of rendering the decision by lot useless — in short, of everything but of going through with the matter I had in hand. At last, after wasting a long time in this imbecile conduct, I was recalled to my senses by the voice of Parker, who urged me to relieve them at once from the terrible anxiety they were enduring. Even then I could not bring myself to arrange the splinters upon the spot, but thought over every species of finesse by which I could trick some one of my fellow-sufferers to draw the short straw, as it had been agreed that whoever drew the shortest of four splinters from my hand was to die for the preservation of the rest. Before any one condemn me for this apparent heartlessness, let him be placed in a situation precisely similar to my own.

“At length delay was no longer possible, and, with a heart almost bursting from my bosom, I advanced to the region of the forecastle, where my companions were awaiting me. I held out my hand with the splinters, and Peters immediately drew. He was free — his, at least, was not the shortest; and there was now another chance against my escape. I summoned up all my strength, and passed the lots to Augustus. He also drew immediately, and he also was free; and now, whether I should live or die, the chances were no more than precisely even. At this moment all the fierceness of the tiger possessed my bosom, and I felt towards my poor fellow-creature, Parker, the most intense, the most diabolical hatred. But the feeling did not last; and, at length, with a convulsive shudder and closed eyes, I held out the two remaining splinters towards him. It was full five minutes before he could summon resolution to draw, during which period of heartrending suspense I never once opened my eyes. Presently one of the two lots was quickly drawn from my hand. The decision was then over, yet I knew not whether it was for me or against me. No one spoke, and still I dared not satisfy myself by looking at the splinter I held. Peters at length took me by the hand, and I forced myself to look up, when I immediately saw by the countenance of Parker that I was safe, and that he it was who had been doomed to suffer.”







[S:0 - MR, 1838] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Review of Narrative of A. G. Pym (Anonymous, 1838)