Monday, November 5, 2007

Edgar Allan Poe, not so bad after all

By 1838, Poe had been writing for 10 years without much success. He had developed a style that was convoluted, fussy, pedantic, and sometimes irritating. It turned out to work well in book reviews.

Not in the short stories he had been writing, though. Poe had tried all sorts of stories, including a surprising number of comic stories. Period pieces, almost all of them. The style Poe had developed was not suited to the material he was using. But with the story “MS Found in a Bottle”, and then The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe figured out or stumbled upon a type of story that suited his voice.

“MS Found in a Bottle” is the story of a shipwreck victim who finds himself on a ghost ship heading towards the Antarctic. Arthur Gordon Pym reworks the same material, with a mutiny, a plague ship, cannibalism, an undiscovered Antarctic island filled with savages and ancient secrets. Both are first person accounts, the narrator reporting on the strange things he encountered. Both break off at the same point, just as something really bizarre and mysterious happens.

In retrospect, this is the beginning of horror fiction. But Poe found his way into this sort of story by parodying another genre, the “true story” of survival and exploration. Pym owes a lot, for example, to the account of the 1,000 mile boat journey, with almost no food or water, of Captain Bligh and his crew after the Bounty mutiny, and to the similar boat trip of Owen Chase after an enraged whale sank his ship. Probably also to plenty of other accounts I don’t know. Add to this the accounts of exploration. Since Pym ends up in the Antarctic region, Captain Cook’s journey is specifically mentioned.

Poe borrows some subject matter and details from these books. But his real innovation was to borrow the voice. Horrible things happen to Chase and Bligh, but the accounts they wrote are very cool-headed. They can be emotional – sentimental or discouraged, for example - at certain points, but mostly they are professional. Captain Cook writes in the same way. So does Mungo Park, wandering around West Africa.

There are two things gong on here. First, the authors tell us so many things that are hard to believe that they have to adopt a tone that reinforces their trustworthiness. Second, these are the stories of the survivors. They made it home, so they can afford to just give us their version of the facts. If the people who did not make it home told us their story, they might not be so calm.

So Pym, who experiences all sorts of really horrible things, relates them to us in this detached, prolix manner - that’s how we get the scientific description of penguins nests, a chapter or two after he eats one of his fellow shipwreck survivors. But in this case, the events are so incredible that the cool manner of describing them actually increases the sense of horror. You wonder if the narrator is traumatized, or insane. How can he be so calm?

This destabilization is made worse by parts of the story that otherwise make no sense. Pym is hiding in the stowage of the ship, at risk of dying of thirst and the fumes, when he has a dream that he is in the Sahara, where he is attacked by a lion. He awakens to find his Newfoundland dog licking him. There is no reason his dog should be on the ship, and the explanation given later is preposterous. Read a certain way, this is incompetent storytelling. If we are allowed to doubt the narrator, it’s something else.

Poe had a bad ear for prose and a fussy voice that he did not know how to change. With Arthur Gordon Pym, he for the first time was able to adapt the material to the voice. It's his first great success, badly written in some ways, a strange triumph in others.

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