Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “In the Wake of Pym’s Narrative,” Poe Studies, June 1979, Vol. XII, No. 1, 12:21-22


[page 21:]


In the Wake of Pym’s Narrative

Richard P. Benton, ed. Journey into the Center: Studies in Poe’s Pym.American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978). 115 pp.

Usually a collection like this is prefaced by a full editorial statement that defines the purpose of the enterprise and shows how the different contributors assist in realizing that purpose. In his laconic preface, hardly more than a page in length, Richard P. Benton adopts a more casual approach. He alludes to the ways in which Pym has been more often disparaged than praised; he praises it himself as “a great psychological novel,” its symbolism “overwhelming”; and he concludes with the hope that our understanding and appreciation of Poe’s novel will be improved by the eight studies that make up the collection. Its purpose is, we gather, to shed new light on Pym. Is the purpose realized? Not impressively.

Of course some interesting points — indeed a good many — are made. Of those relatively objective in character, it is certainly of interest that Pym (published 1838) has never been out of print, and that this book, in which Poe and his publishers had little faith, quickly achieved international popularity. Burton R. Pollin’s bibliography of the three hundred and twenty editions and translations of Pym is something to marvel over, on account both of Professor Pollin’s powers of exhaustive research and of the evidence that Pym, early and late, and from Chile to Estonia, has had a multitude of readers. (I count at least fifteen different German translations!) The Pollin bibliography is the end-piece of the collection. Similar to it in its generally factual emphasis is the lead-off study, by Alexander Hammond, on the genesis of the story. In brief his argument is that Harpers received from Poe a completed manuscript in 1837, but because they saw the story as a hoax on Antarctic exploration, they delayed printing it until the departure of the South Sea Exploring Expedition, in August 1838, made publication appropriate. If Hammond is right, the famous Ridgely/Haverstick thesis about the discontinuous and essentially improvisatory nature of Pym needs to be modified. This is the point Hammond is mainly interested in making. But in a peripheral remark he adroitly phrases a view of Pym that some serious students of the story, intent on probing for its “ultimate” meanings, might bear in mind. Paraphrasing John Barth, he calls it a story “that imitates a fraudulent travel-book written by an author who imitates a literary hack.” This is one dimension of Pym. no doubt. But it is also true or at least [column 2:] plausible that, as David Ketterer, another contributor observes, “Pym can be read consistently and convincingly in a number of different ways.”

Most of the studies, Ketterer’s included, either inquire into different ways of reading Pym or attempt to find in it different things to emphasize. One of the group, however, has only a very tenuous commitment to the common objective. Adeline R. Tintner’s essay is based on the allusion made to Pym in the first chapter of James’ The Golden Bowl. Her discussion of the passage sheds no light, new or old, on Poe’s story. James, not Poe, is the writer she is interested in.

Roger Forclaz, whose Le Monde d’Edgar Poe (1974) gave massive evidence of his interest in Poe, does not, however, come off much better than Ms. Tintner. At least I can point to no contribution of moment in his essay, “A Voyage to the Frontiers of the Unknown.” Published, obscurely, in 1964 in an issue of Atudes de Lettres, it appears here in a translation by Gerald Bello, who in a preliminary note makes this curious remark: “I have . . . followed Dr. Forclaz’s suggestions concerning changes that align the essay more neatly with critical views of Pym that have developed since his work first appeared.” Not acquainted with the original French text, I have no way of knowing what changes are meant. And so I wish that Forclaz and his translator had seen fit to specify the points at which the post-1964 alignments take place. One would then be able to differentiate them from the pre-1964 alignments, which are many.

One such alignment produced a strong feeling of deja vu. When I wrote about Pym as far back as 1954 I said, among other things, that the motifs of revolt and deception are basic in the book, that its psychological drama rests on a tacit equation between the names Arthur Gordon Pym and Edgar Allan Poe, and that Pym’s voyage begins in Nantucket and ends in nirvana. In his essay Forclaz identifies the fundamental themes as revolt and deception (p. 52), points out the rhythmic similitude of the names of protagonist and author (p. 54), and says of Pym’s voyage that, “begun in the actual, [it] terminates in nirvana” (p. 53). Ten years later in Le Monde d’Edgar Poe, Forclaz preferred this phrasing: “Commence a Nantucket, son voyage se termine dans le nirvana . . .” ( p. 297). The lack of direct or indirect documentation is evidently one of those unfortunate oversights that occasionally occur in a scholar’s work because Forclaz’ book shows that he is, if anything, overly meticulous about the minutiae of conventional scholarly apparatus: almost one third of Le Monde is given over to closely printed notes, citations, and cross-references. In the instance of the present essay, however, the notes that are offered refer only to primary sources. In general, the essay as translated strikes me as a round-up of various opinions some old and some new, but all of them more or less familiar and none of them distinctively original.

It may be that on the basis of the assumptions and norms of traditional literary analysis, original proposals about Pym are no longer possible, and that, if anything really new is to be said, a new framework must be set up first (as is done, for example, in the papers by Claude [page 22:] Richard, in Delta 1, and by John Carlos Rowe, in Glyph 2). I mention this hypothesis not just because of the evidently derivative character of the Forclaz essay. The other analytic-interpretative essays, while more interesting, also go over old ground rather than open up new. Thus David Ketterer makes some cogent suggestions about the structure of Pym; but his best one, he acknowledges, is based on a 1962 PMLA article by Charles O’Donnell. In Grace Farrell Lee’s discussion of the “essential connections” between Pym and Moby-Dick, there can be found a number of acute perceptions — especially on the parallels between Pym’s encounter with the “death ship” and the scenes in Moby-Dick where the Pequod meets the Albatross and the Jerohoam — but no claim is made that a new topic is being investigated. Similarly with Leonard W. Engel’s account of what he calls “the enclosure device” in the story. It is used often and ironically: “At every crisis in Pym’s life, he experiences some kind of confinement which horrifies him yet, ironically, guarantees his safety . . . .” I doubt that any commentator prior to Engel has made this particular point. However, the larger, subsuming point — that deception is a ruling motif — is now standard Pym doctrine. What Engel does is to show in detail how one important instance of that motif occurs.

I believe that the same generalization is also in order about what seems the most innovative of the eight studies, Barton Levi St. Armand’s examination of themes of metamorphosis in Pym. Making deft use of alchemical terms and of some esoteric considerations expounded by Erich Neumann in The Origins and History of Consciousness, St. Armand shows that Pym’s world is one of “continual change, replete with examples of arrested development, hermaphroditic monstrosities and hybrid grotesques.” Nothing seems to be quite right in it. It is, in short and in St. Armand’s word, a “duplicitous” world.

If one demonstrated upshot of these four central essays is that deception is Pym’s dominant theme, they also emphatically assert, if not demonstrate and clarify, the presence of another theme of at least equal importance — that of “rebirth.” That word or analogues of it are met with repeatedly, but never is its meaning seriously, rigorously, examined. Any instance of “going below,” of immersions either accidental or purposeful, and of emergence from same seems to count prima facie as a “rebirth” experience. It matters not whether the experience be Gordon Pym’s or Dirk Peters’; they both earn, in effect, the same name: rene. Surely some distinctions might be made? Surely the rebirth idea could be invoked less casually?

No comment on this issue of the American Transcendental Quarterly would be complete without admiring mention of its striking and altogether appropriate cover, a detail from a drawing entitled “View of Antarctica,” an illustration for Commander Wilkes’ Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition ( 1844). Whole pages of Poe’s story are condensed and graphically translated by this remarkable drawing.

Patrick F. Quinn, Wellesley College


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