Sunday, January 09, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe and the Great White Whale*

I’ve never read Melville's Moby Dick, but in high school, I wrote an essay on it and made an “A”. The same is true of Sense and Sensibility and half the books I was supposed to read. If they looked interesting, I read them, but if they seemed plodding, I moved on. Regardless, I could write about them and discuss them in class, whether I'd read them or not.

It was easy. Most of the plots of these books had been "borrowed" by TV shows I'd seen, and a scan of the book jackets filled in anything else I needed to know. There were always movie adaptations, but that could take upwards of an hour and a half. Who has that kind of time?

This was in the 80s, back when students had to physically go to the library to plagiarize a paper. Still, I spent most weekends there anyway, reading Clive Barker's new one, or discovering Tolkien. Why bother reading Melville? It’s a guy chasing a whale. Just like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard wants revenge on the Borg, except they’re cyborgs and Picard isn’t missing a leg, though his bald head is very white. Still, close enough.

Don’t get me wrong; I am, and have always been, a reader. It’s something I got from my father; my whole family are readers, rarely to be seen without book in hand, and even taking into account the odd book I skipped over, I was still a widely read teen. Many of the books we studied, I'd read independently, often years before. Sometimes, our class discussions became so interesting that I'd actually read the books I'd just been arguing about. Mostly, though, I was content to bluff through classes. A “B” is a respectable grade, better than I deserved, and if it meant I could stick to reading Bradbury, Asimov, and King, so be it. Did I sleep nights? You bet.

About halfway through my junior year, Mrs. B. gave us a list of books to choose from to write papers on for extra credit. I scanned the list, but nothing struck me.
“How about Edgar Allen Poe?” I asked. We’d read “The Cask of Amontillado,” in class. I could stand a novel-length spate of bricking people up in walls.
“I don’t believe he wrote any novels,” Mrs. B. said.

But he had written one. It was called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I had to order a copy from Jonesboro, the nearest town with a non-Christian bookstore. I took it to her, and with a shrug, I was allowed to follow my bliss.

According to the back cover, the book is a sea narrative following the stowaway Pym in two very similar, and yet increasingly disturbing storylines which eventually lead him to a more and more unfamiliar world as he tries to find Antarctica. It is something like the Ancient Mariner's story in novel form, a haunted, dreamlike world full of savagery. It looked interesting, so I started reading it.

As described by the introduction, at the center of the book is the "hollow Earth" idea, based on the then hotly debated theories of John Cleves Symmes' who believed that the Earth was not only hollow, but that the center could be entered at the poles and inhabited. It made me think of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, a book I'd devoured, along with everything I could find by Jules Verne, and I discovered that Verne had actually written a sequel to Poe's book, entitled Le Sphinx des Glaces and was inspired by Pym to write Journey.

Even more interesting, an expedition was led by one Jeremiah N. Reynolds to the South pole in the 1830s, ostensibly to map the continent, but with the ulterior motive of finding an opening to this hollow land. Poe was so struck by the idea, that six years later, as he lay dying in Baltimore's Washington College Hospital, some of his last words were reportedly, "Reynolds! Reynolds! Oh, Reynolds!"

The grotesque portrait of Poe I kept encountering as the stumbling addict who drank himself to death also appealed to my morbid teenage psyche. It was with some disappointment that I learned that it was mostly caused by posthumous character assassination, and not genuine debauchery. The real Poe was a tragic and clearly tormented figure, orphaned at the age of two, raised by an overbearing merchant who refused to pay Poe's way through college. He married a young cousin who died of tuberculosis, echoing his mother's early passing; death stuck to Poe's clothes like pollen, going with him everywhere. He became famous for poems like "The Raven" and yet lived in poverty because poetry and short stories, much like today, simply didn't sell. Still, the man could write.

Parts of the first section of Pym were published in the Southern Literary Messenger as fiction credited to Poe, himself, and were later collected in the novel purporting to be a nonfiction account, credited to the fictitious "author" Arthur Gordon Pym. This was a common conceit of the time, and though Poe included many true incidents, basing much of the early sections on his own experiences, it was a thin ruse, and when exposed, damaged the reception of the book (calling to mind Swift, who was met with scorn by reviewers who claimed that "not more than half" of Gulliver's Travels was as true as he claimed it to be).

But though it comes off as a marketing ploy, this hoax is just the beginning of Poe's game-playing. The book is, itself, a kind of cipher, one part adventure story, one part psychological journey, Pym is an exploration of the duality of human existence—the "falling angel meeting the rising ape", and only when Pym has faced the horrors of living (disaster, cannibalism, murder) can he begin to approach his white Utopia, which is also his death.

At the time it was published, Pym was considered a failure, and Poe himself later described it as "a silly book.". Perhaps this is why he never wrote another novel. Readers weren't quite sure how to take the book. Though it is obviously intricately structured, critics called it sloppy and loose. The images in the book become increasingly unearthly, which make its "true story" premise hard to swallow. Unless you reconsider the idea of "true story" to mean the description of a psychological journey, which is what it seems to be.

It has long been recognized that Poe invented the detective genre. Likewise, though published in 1837, before the modernists, even, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket .might be the first American postmodern novel. But it took over a century for anyone to notice, except the French (which is just like them). The novel inspired not only Jules Verne, and other French writers, but the strong undercurrent of psychological horror would eventually inspire HP Lovecraft in stories like "At the Mountains of Madness".

Of course, I didn't understand all of this at the time. Describing the book as "difficult" for a high-schooler would be an understatement. Pym got me thinking in ways only a handful of authors ever had before. And when it came time to write about it, I was still struggling with the ramifications of what I'd read. My essay was a mess of tangential ramblings, much like reviewers accused Poe's novel of being. I made a lower-than-I'd-hoped-for grade. Maybe I was so used to stealing words that I couldn't write my own. But I enjoyed the book too much to care.

Poe's novel was important for me not only because I enjoyed it, but because it led me to consider the larger themes of destruction and rebirth. It made me consider my own life. The closest thing to spiritual literature I'd read in a class was Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown", which, though accomplished, seemed to be mostly obsessed with the repression and fear of ramifications for spiritual questions. Poe's character spent nine months on a voyage, witnessing terrible things, and emerged only to die and yet, the implication of the "missing final chapters" seemed to spell out that the story wasn't entirely finished. There was life after rebirth.

Poe led me to writers like Lovecraft and D.H. Lawrence, another early defender, and these authors, in turn, led me to still others. Poe was my first true entrée into the Great Conversation of Literature. He taught me that great literature can be just as entertaining as trash, more so, even. From there, I went back and discovered that I'd missed a lot of great reading.

I never did get to Moby Dick**. I still have it. I found it when I was looking for that old copy of Pym. One of these days, I'll read it, but first, there's a new Terry Pratchett book out. Maybe I'll get to it after that.

1. Beaver, Harold, Introduction: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. New York: Penguin, 1975

*Originally published in Schuylkill Valley Journal's special issue on Poe.
**Shortly after writing this, I did read Moby Dick. I stick to my original conclusion: it is just like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Picard's head is very white.


Glenn Buttkus said...

Christ, the things one learns
while trying to keep up with
the humorous meanderings
of your mind and spirit; makes
me want to read more--but then
hell, then there would be less
time for trash TV, and old

CLBledsoe said...

I've been hankering for a Hitchcock marathon, myself.