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Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket -- Edgar Allan Poe

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe
172 p Harper and Brothers (Now Public Domain)

Edgar Allan Poe published one novel. I put off reading this for a very long time because, while Poe has been one of my favorite writers since childhood, a full-length sea adventure doesn't exactly seem his style. Actually, a full length anything doesn't exactly seem his style. Add to this the critical panning this book received upon its date of publication, and reading it doesn't exactly invite. Only recently has positive attention found itself directed at this work. I am going to point some more its way.
Pym starts in traditional Poe fashion. The reader is introduced to a character with certain weaknesses--in this case the title character, a frail young man with a weak constitution, who is put in a bit of a grotesque situation. Pym stows away in the hold of a boat in a box that serves as a figurative coffin, finds himself sleeping for days, losing track of time, and going a bit mad. Meanwhile, terrifying hints of mutiny, including a letter printed in blood, begin to reach him. This leads to a bloody revolt, a storm that turns the ship into one giant floating upturned barrel, and cannibalism. Then things start getting weird.
From this point onward, Poe reaches transformative and metaphysical heights I can only assume readers in the 1830s were not ready for. The Pym of the last several pages bears little resemblance to the one we are introduced to in the first, and the setting is something I can't describe. This book needs to be read. It is short, suprisingly funny, and (because this is Poe after all) unsurprisingly horrifying. I have never felt such a coupling of dread and wonder as I did in the final chapter of this book. It is a great shame Poe never attempted to do anything like this again, but an even greater one that the one time he did, accepting readers were hundreds of years away.

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