The 100 best novels
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe's only novel – a classic adventure story with supernatural elements – has fascinated and influenced generations of writers
Sunday 24 November 2013
he Yanks are coming. Thus far, as many readers have noticed, ours has been an English list, with just one or two Irish diversions. All this, however, is about to change. Within a generation of the 1776 revolution, American writers were beginning to explore an identifiable American sensibility. Especially after the US victory over England in the war of 1812, there was a new literary self-confidence and a new sense of national identity that some have described as "literary nationalism". Writers such as Washington Irving (in his short stories Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) and James Fenimore Cooper (in The Last of the Mohicans) had begun to pioneer American subjects in a distinctive American voice. Just as important, their work was beginning to find an audience in London and across the British Isles. Between 1830 and the end of the civil war (1865) there would be an American renaissance, mature and influential works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and (as we shall see) Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, among many others.
But it was Edgar Allan Poe, born 1809, who signals the beginning of what would become a great Anglo-American literary dialogue. Poe was original in ways that Irving and Fenimore Cooper never were. As well as being the first American writer to attempt living exclusively by his pen, he is also the archetype of the romantic literary artist. Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, and even Hunter S Thompson all owe something to Edgar Allan Poe. His nomadic, boho style and tortured, exigent career continue to exercise a powerful allure on any young American writers who see themselves as outsiders. In Britain, among later Victorian writers, Wilde, Stevenson, Swinburne and Yeats all responded to his unique imagination.
First and foremost, Poe was a fearless critic of the fledgling American literary scene, so fierce in his assaults on what he considered to be inferior writing that one fellow critic complained he used prussic acid not ink. Poe was a man of extremes, who knew the highs and lows of success and failure. His poem, The Raven, was a popular sensation. Much of his other work was ignored or derided. Elsewhere, he was dismissed as a drunk, a drug addict and a derelict. When he died, in 1849, aged just 40, and unknown, on the streets of Baltimore, his fate was seen as all of a piece with his writing. Gradually, however, his genius came to be recognised. Today, his influence is crucial to the evolution of detective fiction, science fiction and almost any tale of the macabre. Poe's imagination has also become integral to the American literary aesthetic. Both he and Melville arrived late to their posterity.
Although Poe is most celebrated for stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, stands as a classic adventure story with disturbing supernatural elements that has fascinated and influenced many subsequent writers. For example, the chapter entitled The Whiteness of the Whale in Moby-Dick would have been impossible without Poe; and Henry James's The Golden Bowl owes a clear debt to Poe.
The inspiration for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was both modern and American. Poe got the idea from a newspaper. In February 1836, the Norfolk Beacon published a vivid account of the sinking in a storm at sea of a ship named Ariel. Here was the perfect sea story for which Poe had been on the lookout. Like many ambitious young writers, he sought both popular success and literary acclaim. After he had written a number of successful short tales, his publisher, Wesley Harper, had advised him that "readers in this country have a decided and strong preference for works (especially fiction) in which a single and connected story occupies the whole volume." Plus ça change.
Seafaring adventure was hardly new for Poe. He had already won a prize for his tale of the Flying Dutchman, MS Found in a Bottle. In the novel he began to plan, he despatched his protagonist (the rhythm of whose name suggests Edgar Allan Poe), in a whaler, the Grampus, on an extraordinary voyage to the southern seas, following (as it were) Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. But then he contrived a sequence of ever more dreadful jeopardy: mutiny, storm, shipwreck, sharks, the "exquisite horror" of cannibalism, a ghost ship, and frozen regions inhabited by savage natives. Poe had read and admired Robinson Crusoe (no 2 in this series), and had learned from Defoe's example. Indeed, the opening of Arthur Gordon Pym mirrors exactly the beginning of Crusoe, and borrows a similar authorial device. Like Defoe, Poe also ramped up "the potent magic of verisimilitude" (his own phrase) by borrowing freely from contemporary accounts of South Sea adventure.
But, because it's a novel by Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is much more than just a yarn, and is replete with existential and psychoanalytical fascination. Freud, for one, made much of its darker side. Moreover, the later part of the "narrative" explores one of Poe's recurring themes, man's unconscious desire for annihilation. Pym is not only on the brink of death, but in one chapter he actually appears as a dead man. This quasi-supernatural element infuriated many of Poe's readers on first publication, and will no doubt continue to trouble readers today.
And yet, despite or perhaps because of its strangeness, Pym's magic endures. In more popular writing, Arthur Conan Doyle, B Traven, and David Morrell all found a touchstone in Poe's only novel. Baudelaire translated it. Jules Vernewrote a sequel. When Paul Theroux, who reports the story in The Old Patagonian Express (1979), read aloud from it to Jorge Luis Borges, the older writer said: "It is Poe's greatest book."
A note on the text
The beginning of Arthur Gordon Pym first appeared in serial form in some 1837 issues of the Southern Literary Messenger. For reasons that are unclear, but possibly to do with his drinking, Poe withdrew from this collaboration and continued to work on the manuscript while living in New York City. The novel was eventually published by Harper & Brothers on 30 July 1838. A British edition, from Wiley & Putnam, was published in October, the same year.
Other Poe titles:
Stories: The Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Tell-Tale Heart; The Purloined Letter; The Masque of the Red Death; The Imp of the Perverse; The Pit and the Pendulum.
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), containing The Fall of the House of Usher.