Text: Daniel J. Tynan, “J. N. Reynold’s Voyage of the Potomac: Another Source for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:35-37


[page 35, column 1:]

J. N. Reynolds’ Voyage of the Potomac: Another Source for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

The Colorado College

In the January 1837 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Poe reviewed an Address, on the Subject of a Surveying and Exploring Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas (New York, 1836) first given to the House of Representatives on April 2, 1836. In his review, Poe praised the work and particularly its author, Jeremiah Reynolds:

To the prime mover in this important undertaking—to the active, the intelligent, the indomitable advocate of the enterprise —to him who gave it birth, and who brought it through maturity, to its triumphant result, this result can afford nothing but unmitigated pleasure. He has seen his measures adopted in the teeth of opposition, and his comprehensive views thoroughly confirmed in spite of cant, prejudice, ignorance and unbelief. . . . . With mental powers of the highest order, his indomitable energy is precisely of that character which will not admit of defeat. (SLM, p. 65)

Perhaps as a further tribute to Reynolds (or perhaps as a desperate effort to provide copy to the publisher), Poe used some seven hundred words of Reynolds’ Address in the fifteen hundred words of Chapter XVI of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1).

In addition to this Address, however, Reynolds had published in New York in 1835 a book entitled Voyage of the Potomac, an account of an American frigate’s commercial voyage around the world; it now appears that Poe also relied heavily on this work for several hundred words of pym (2). In the June 1835 issue of the Messenger, there is a brief but complimentary review of Voyage in which the reviewer calls the work “a valuable addition to our geographical libraries” (p. 595) . Since Poe did not assume the editorship of the Messenger until July 1835, it is unlikely that he wrote this review, even though he had contributed reviews to the Messenger in the past (3). Yet, even if Poe did not read Voyage immediately after its publication in the early summer of 1835, it is likely that he did read it soon after since the book went through four editions in its first four months of publication (4). Based on evidence provided by J. V. Ridgely and Iola S. Haverstick (5), it is also probable that if Poe knew Reynolds’ Voyage at all, he would have drawn on it for material found in Chapters X through XV of Pym. Ridgely and Haverstick show that Poe put together these chapters probably in “late 1837 and early 1838” (p. 72) by “copying from the real travels of others” (p. 75), since he had not been providing Harper’s with sufficient material. Although very little is actually known of Poe’s activities during these months from June 1837, through the opening days of 1838, Arthur Hobson Quinn reprints in his biography of Poe portions of an article by William Gowans—who had lived with the Poe family for eight months—in which Gowans recalls that during these months [column 2:] Poe was writing his Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (6). As Ridgely and Haverstick observe (p. 73), in Chapters X through XIV, which Poe was presumably writing at this time, the story line turns “in a direction which clearly reflected Reynolds’ concern with the commercial potential of southern waters.”

The following parallel passages are sections from Chapter IV of Reynolds’ Voyage and Chapter XIV of Pym (7), indicating to what extent Poe borrowed from Reynolds’ book for his own purposes:


A passage from Rio Janeiro to the Cape of Good Hope, however, over a track of ocean which has for centuries been the common highway of nations, cannot be expected to abound with novelty or interest. The logbook tells of continued head winds —irregular head and cross seas—and, south of latitude 29°, of falling in with whaleships, and every day encountering the right, or black whale, so called in contradistinction to the sperm-aceti whale, which is so much more highly prized, on account of its yielding the valuable article from which its name is derived. (p. 60)


We continued our voyage for some weeks without any incidents of greater moment than the occasional meeting with whaling-ships, and more frequently with the black or right whale, so called in contradistinction to the spermaceti. These, however, were chiefly found south of the twenty-fifth parallel. . . . (p. 150)

In approaching the Cape of Good Hope, but more frequently to the south and east of that promontory, navigators have often to encounter storms from the northward which rage with great violence. With these winds, the sea always runs high, and one of the most dangerous features in the character of such gales, is the sudden, and often instantaneous, change which occurs from the wind breaking out, with equal or even augmented fury, from another and nearly opposite quarter. The experienced navigator of these seas, therefore, always keeps a bright lookout during the prevalence of such gales to the south west. However strong the squall may be raging, however rough the sea may be rolling, or copiously the rain may be falling, yet, a bright spot in the west, or south-west, is a sure indication of a sudden change of wind. . . . . 

The morning opened with strong gales from the northwest, which increased in violence until the afternoon.

On the sixteenth of September, being in the vicinity of the Cape of Good Hope, the schooner encountered her first gale of any violence since leaving Liverpool. . . . . In this neighborhood, but more frequency to the south and east of the promontory (we were to the westward), navigators have often to contend with storms from the northward, which rage with great fury. They always bring a heavy sea, and one of their most dangerous features is the instantaneous chopping round of the wind, an occurrence almost certain to take place during the greatest force of the gale. A perfect hurricane will be blowing at one moment from the northward or northeast, and in the next not a breath of wind will be felt in that direction, while from the southwest it will come out all at once with a violence almost inconceivable. A bright spot to the southward is the sure forerunner of the change, and vessels are thus enabled to take the proper precautions. (pp. 150-151)

Sail after sail was taken in, or reefed, until the Potomac wore little else than a storm dress. The sea was exceedingly high, rough, and unpleasant; [page 36:] and the ship rolled and laboured heavily. The white spot was seen in the south, but experience alone could tell the power it contained. In an instant the gale from the north ‘let go its hold;’ the little canvass that remained spread flapped loosely on the yards; and, ere there was time for thought or action, a gale from the southwest struck the vessel with such power, and with a change so sudden, that it required the utmost exertion of professional skill to prepare her to meet the fierce encounter. . . . . 

The high and combing waves, running quick from the northeast, thus met and arrested in their course by violent gusts from the southwest, created upon the whole extent of the ocean’s surface, at least as far as the eye could reach, sheets of flying foam, as the water was carried from the cap of each rolling billow in masses to leeward. This sudden encounter of the winds and the waves caused the latter to mount up into vast and moving pyramids of angry foam. (pp. 61-62) 

It was about six in the morning when the blow came on with a white squall, and, as usual, from the northward. By eight it had increased very [page 36:] much, and brought down upon us one of the most tremendous seas I had then ever beheld. Everything had been made as snug as possible, but the schooner labored excessively, and gave evidence of her bad qualities as a seaboat, pitching her forecastle under at every plunge, and with the greatest difficulty struggling up from one wave before she was buried in another. Just before sunset the bright spot for which we had been on the look-out made its appearance in the southwest, and in an hour afterward we perceived the little head-sail we carried flapping listlessly against the mast. In two minutes more, in spite of every preparation, we were hurled on our beamends, as if by magic, and a perfect wilderness of foam made a clear breach over us as we lay. The blow from the southwest, however, luckily proved to be nothing more than a squall, and we had the good fortune to right the vessel without the loss of a spar. A heavy cross sea gave us great trouble for a few hours after this, but toward morning we found ourselves in nearly as good condition as before the gale. . . . . (p. 151)

In addition to these direct borrowings from the Voyage, there are other parallels between Pym and Voyage which indicate that Poe probably had Reynolds’ first book at hand while composing the later stages of his narrative. One link between the two works appears at the opening of Chapter IX of Voyage, which consists mainly of a description of the island of Sumatra. In discussing the origins of the island, Reynolds considers the relevance of Biblical references to an island named Ophir: “The idea of Sumatra being the land of Ophir, whither Solomon sent his fleets for the precious metals, is too vague even for conjecture, and the mountain bearing the name of the island was doubtless given to it by modern writers. In the original Hebrew, the word signifies ashes “ (8).

In Poe’s work, after Pym and Peters have escaped from their island captors, they learn from the hostage native, Nu-Nu, details about the people and rulers of the island they have just left: “We learned there were eight islands in the group—that they were governed by a common king, named Tsale?non or Psalemon, who resided in one of the smallest islands . . . . and that the appellation of the island we left was Tsalal” (III, 239). When Pym and Peters had wandered the chasms on Tsalal, they had discovered that “the bottom of the gulf was covered to the depth of three or four inches with a powder almost impalpable” (III, 223), a description strongly suggestive of the ashes which Reynolds implies are the substance of the land of Ophir. Ashes play a further and more mysterious role at the end of the tale: as Peters and Pym drift farther and farther South, Pym mentions [column 2:] a series of strange events, including a numbness of mind and body, a dreamy sensation, gray vapours rising from the horizon, and violent agitation of the water around the canoe. In addition, “a fine white powder, resembling ashes—but certainly not such—fell over the canoe and over a large surface of the water . . . .” (III, 240), increasing in density as the boat drifts southward until finally the “whole ashy material fell now continually around us, and in vast quantities” (III, 241). The origin of these floating ashes might very well have been Reynolds’ island of Ophir.

It is interesting to speculate why Poe might have wanted to mention the presence of King Solomon on these eight islands. In Reynolds’ account, Solomon’s incursions into the South Seas had netted him “‘gold and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks’” (Voyage, p. 133), but Poe sees the king as governing a treacherous band of natives from the smallest of the islands. But why? Professors Ridgely and Haverstick have already noted that Poe planned in Pym to write a hoax, but that “the purpose of his deception shifted” (p. 79). Perhaps Poe hoped to rework his narrative into a kind of religious or transcendental satire in which King Solomon (the great searcher) has deteriorated into the nasty, fierce ruler in a kingdom of savages. In view of Poe’s expressed opinion of Emerson (Graham’s Magazine, January 1842), he might well have taken the opportunity to attack an inflated, egotistical religious leader.



(1) For a detailed account of Poe’s relationship to Reynolds, see Robert Almy’s short biography of Reynolds, “J. N. Reynolds: A Brief Biography with Particular Reference to Poe and Symmes,” Colophon, n.s. 2 (1937), 227-245, and Aubrey Starke’s “Poe’s Friend Reynolds,” American Literature, 11 (1939), 152159. For those passages which Poe borrowed from Reynolds’ address to the House, see Robert L. Rhea, “Some Observations on Poe’s Origins,” Texas St~dies in English, 10 (1930), 14. Reynolds’ speech was certainly not the only source for the second half of the Pym story; indeed, the section from Chapters XIV through XX is like a jig-saw puzzle of other writers’ words which Poe pieced together for his own purposes. Poe drew heavily from Benjamin Morrell’s A Narrative of Four Voyages... (New York, 1832), The Mariner’s Chronicle, and R. Thomas’ Remarkable Events and Remarkable Shipwrecks ( New York, 1836). See D. M. McKeithan, “Two Sources of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” University of Texas Bulletin, 13 (1933), 127-137, and Keith Huntress, “Another Source for Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Literature, 16 (1944), 19-25, and Randel Helms, “Another Source for Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Literature, 41 (1970), 572-575.

(2) In his brief biography of Reynolds, Professor Almy notes the importance of the publication of Voyage: “The publication of The Voyage of the Potomac, Reynolds’ first substantial volume, gave him some literary reputation . . . .” (pp. 241-242). I am indebted to the editor of Poe Studies for pointing out to me that J. V. Ridgely has recently attributed one scene in Pym, the white squall, to Poe’s reading of Reynolds’ Voyage: see “The Continuing Puzzle of Arthur Gordon Pym: Some Notes and Queries,’ PN, 3 (1970), 5-6. I take this as further corroboration of my own independent discovery.

(3) Starke, p. 153; but see Ridgely, p. 5.

(4) As Aubrey Starke has noted (p. 153n) “in his chapters on autography, published in February, 1836, Poe speaks, but perhaps facetiously, of a fifth edition,” indicating that he did know the book well enough to describe accurately the history of its printings. [page 37:]

(5) “Chartless Voyage: The Many Narratives of Arthur Gordon Pym,” TSLL, 8 (1966), 63-80.

(6) Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1941), p. 267. It was during this same period that Reynolds’ name once ag~un came under public scrutiny as he battled with the Secretary of the Navy, Mahlon Dickerson, for the right to participate in the American expedition to the South Pole, a battle which he ultimately lost. See Ridgely and Haverstick, p. 73, and Almy, pp. 242-244.

(7) Quotations from Pym are from The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: AMS Press Inc., 1965), Vol. III.

(8) Voyage, pp. 132-133.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]