The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Poe published this book a good decade or more before Melville published MD, the famous whale of a story (of a whale). This tale was an abbreviated version -snapshot- of life at sea on a whaling vessel from Nantucket, in the 19th century. I mention Melville only because in this Penguin version of the text, the (rather dull) appendices point out several persuasive arguments that Melville both read and borrowed from Poe’s Narrative. I wouldn’t be surprised (but I didn’t need an appendix to convince me).
Poe, like Melville, tackles the life on the sea with incredible precision and an less fanciful vocabulary. The story follows a young stowaway with his dog Tiger and several colorful characters, in a harrowing and jagged course toward the South Pole. Poe has a wonderful way of describing the intense and frightful place on the edge of sanity, where Pym and the others frequently find themselves. Physical and mental breakdowns, which somehow the spirit survives (or not). Poe demonstrates his mastery of language, taking words back to their Latin roots like ‘condescension’ (coming down / with) and ‘inhume’ (the opposite of exhume: being buried alive). Writers can learn a lot by his writing style. I did.
Poe’s story drew me in — slowly. The setup was a recounting of Pym’s journal which had been mysteriously placed in the author’s hands. Pym was an endearing character, entrusted with many redeeming qualities. Friendship and loyalty. I liked him right away. He dreams of adventure, and his friend Augustus figures a way to stash him in the berth of his father’s ship — and away to sea we go!
The race to the South Pole was a magical and exciting time in the 19th century, what with Captain Cook and others journaling about their efforts and naming islands and sharing them with the world. Nobody knew what they might find! Ships would have to turn back when they reached latitudes full of ice and impassable, or ran out of time (seasons changing) or fuel. Worldwide folks began to realize that at certain latitudes closer to the pole, the ice actually let up and the weather placated. Ultimately pioneers would discover a continent full of burgeoning life.
This book is an adventure worth reading. I began to feel the adrenaline rush of the pioneers; Poe puts the pulse on discovery. The characters were likable, I wanted them to survive. I felt intimately involved in their circumstances, it was all very realistic. I also love how the story ends. There is a moodiness. An impression. The story made a remarkable impression on me.
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