Saturday, May 19, 2012
Edgar Allan Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967), edited by Robert Regan, is a title in Prentice-Hall's "Twentieth Century Views." It brings together in one slim book the major literary-critical articles on Edgar Allan Poe which appeared from 1926 to 1960. Most of these articles are worth reading again and some are worth some commentary.
The excerpt from Joseph Wood Krutch belongs to the psychoanalytic school of literary criticism, as does Jean-Paul Weber's "Edgar Poe or the Theme of the Clock." The Freudianism of Krutch is amusing in this day and age, but Weber's offering seems to be a monument to the misguided ingenuity that pervaded literary Freudianism. Weber convinces one that the theme of the clock is pervasive in Poe, but he really runs off the rails when he suggests that this was somehow inspired by an infant Poe's confrontation with what the Freudians called "the primal scene."
Aldous Huxley in his "Vulgarity in Literature" seems to agree with Emerson's dismissal of Poe the poet as "the jingle man." Nowhere does he consider the fact that Poe, writing before radio and motion pictures, wrote poetry at a time when people anticipated that a good poem should be read aloud, that it should approach the musical in its delightful sounds.
Allen Tate's "Our Cousin, Mr. Poe" and Richard Wilbur's "The House of Poe" impress one with the perfect structure of their offerings, their evidence that a good work of literary criticism can itself be a worthy work of literature.
Sidney Kaplan's "An Introduction to Pym " first appeared as an introduction to a republication of Poe's one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. While Kaplan is well aware of the influence on Poe of John Cleves Symmes's hollow earth theory as well as of the probable influence of Adam Seaborn's Symzonia, he insists that the enigmatic ending of Pym is only an allegorical defense of slavery!
Poe did denounce the Abolitionist movement and did support white supremacy, but reading the ending of Pym as Kaplan reads it leads one to conclude that it is a defense of white separatism, not white slavery. Indeed, there is a great separation of black and white at the end of Pym , but it is the Symmes theory which can explain this, not the contemporary rancor over slavery. The blacks encountered at the end of the novel, who live on islands totally separated from whites, not enslaved by them, all speak a pidgin of Hebrew. Moreover, the vast passageways encountered along the way have carvings of Hebrew inscriptions. Following the Symmes theory, it is evident that the great white statue encountered at the end, which warns the blacks away from any further advance, represents the denizens of the Symmesian inner earth. If these whites are seen to be descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, then all is explained, the inscriptions as well as the blacks' Hebrew pidgin. That was the meagre language which they learned from those who were their former masters before these whites migrated over the verge into the paradisal inner earth itself. In this reading, the monitory great white statue functions much like the angel with the flaming sword who bars Adam and Eve from ever returning to Eden.
A little-known Pentecostal evangelist, Theodore Fitch, who became an exponent of British Israel (later known as Christian Identity), expounded such a theory in his little book Our Paradise Inside the Earth , a work of which I have seen only excerpts. I do not know whether or not Fitch had read Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but he probably was influenced, either directly or indirectly, by William F. Warren's Paradise Found (1885).