Monday, May 28, 2012


Edgar AllanPoe and the Road to Pulp Fiction

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Certainly by no means is Edgar Poe considered a pulp writer, but his work influenced many who toiled in the weird tale and detective genres, and his name is frequently linked with that of H.P. Lovecraft as a writer with a similar focus. And Poe’s stories contain elements that would later be picked up by writers for the weird menace pulps. It had been many years since last I read anything by Poe.

To be honest, his protagonists usually don’t suit me — they are typically neurotic, obsessed, overly sensitive to possible (but not necessarily potential) calamities (okay, let’s just call’em nervous ninnies), and unheroic — if not downright cowardly. They are usually at the opposite end of the heroic spectrum from most pulp adventurers.

But Pym fits our bill for winter reading for more than one reason. First, I was led to read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) because Jules Verne was very influenced by Poe — particularly by this story, which is Poe’s only novel-length work, and it was a particular influence on The Adventures of Captain Hatteras. As Arthur Evans notes in his “Literary Intertexts” essay, “From his article written on Poe early in his career for the Muséedes Familles (“Edgard Poë et ses oeuvres” [“Edgard Poë and his Works”] in the issue for April 1864) to his masterful Le Sphinx des glaces (The Ice Sphinx) where he completes Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Verne was a life-long admirer (and imitator) of this particular American author.”

 The Adventures of Captain Hatteras shows evidence in several places of Pym’s influence. For example, like Verne’s Hatteras, Poe’s Pym concerns a polar expedition. But while Hatteras journey’s north, Pym sails south. Second, like Hatteras, Pym evokes the hollow-earth theories of John Cleves Symmes, “who speculated in Symzonia (1820) on the existence of powerful currents produced by gigantic vortices. He also predicted an unexpectedly mild climate in the polar regions.” (Pym, editorial note by J. Gerald Kennedy, p. 289) While Captain Hatteras finds an erupting volcano at the North Pole, Pym finds a whirling vortex in the sea at the South Pole. This warmer climate near the pole is one that various pulp stories would pick up many years later. And it leads to . . .

Three, Pym features a lost race — for me, a favorite element in pulp adventure tales. (I might go out on a limb and add Four, the inclusion of adventurous character Dirk Peters, Pym’s companion during much of his adventure, and perhaps the partial namesake of that contemporary nautical pulp hero Dirk Pitt, created by Clive Cussler. Surely Peters also is a partial template for the Canadian harpoonist Ned Land in 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.)

Pym is a typically American novel in presenting a young, essentially innocent hero moving through a series of experiences that make him a man. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn ends with Huck lighting out for the territories. Pym opens in similar fashion, but Pym wants to go to sea rather than romp over the frontier lands to the west.

After Pym gets aboard the whaler Grampus as a stowaway, a number of calamities occur, all of which would befit elements in a gothic novel: a particularly bloody mutiny; a terrible sea storm; an episode of cannibalism. Eventually Pym and Peters are rescued by another ship, which — on a voyage of discovery to the South Pole — encounters troubles of its own on an uncharted island with a mysterious tribe.

More adventures follow, with the result that Pym and Peters are the only surviving members of the crew. In making their escape from the island, they are trapped in a boat by a giant sea vortex. The novel then ends rather ambiguously, as if Poe had tired of his efforts in the novel-length form and just threw in the towel.

Pym is ultimately unsatisfying as an adventure story — the ending is left up in the air (although the editor of the Oxford University Press edition, Gerald Kennedy, suggests that Poe may have provided an escape from Pym’s vortex in a later story, “A Descent into the Maelstrom” [1841]; however, mysteries remain unresolved from the end of the novel). However, as a piece of American fiction that influenced many other writers — outside of the United States and in the later U.S. pulp magazine industry — it does offer some interesting points.

The Oxford University Press edition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is available from Amazon. Just click here.

Information on the actual events behind Poe's story and related matters is available at Wikipedia. Click here.

A web site by Claudia Kay Silverman devoted to a study of the story, including the early chapters that appeared serialized before Poe completed the novel, is worth a look. Click here.

The site offers some critical insights into the novel. To learn more, click here.

You may find yourself drawn to visit The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore web site. If so, you'll find it here.

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