Text: Douglas Robinson, “Reading Poe's Novel: A Speculative Review of Pym Criticism, 1950-1980 ,” Poe Studies, December 1982, Vol. XV, No. 2, 15:47-54


[page 47:]

Reading Poe’s Novel:
A Speculative Review of Pym Criticism,

University of Washington

If any novel ever was, Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is the interpreter’s dream-text. It is not simply that the novel is remarkably eclectic, a book with something for every critical taste: knotty textual problems for the text critic, rich parental and sexual imagery for the Freudian, bold archetypal patterns for the myth critic, the terror of encroaching disorder for the existentialist, microsocieties in violent upheaval for the Marxist, convoluted metafictional ironies for the deconstructionist, and a powerful thrust toward transcendence for the visionary critic. Nor yet is it the mere fact that Pym is still relatively untilled soil, having lain fallow for over a century and, excepting a handful of isolated source studies and a single psychoanalytic reading, not receiving close critical attention until the early 1950’s. No, the novel is these, but it is more: it is, most importantly for interpretive purposes, a text “solidly” grounded in an ambiguity of the most radical and self-consuming kind, rendering it, in the wakeful eyes of critics hungry to interpret, a textual vacuum begging to be filled with a reading.

Nor has it gone unfilled. In addition to three noninterpretive approaches, some ten radically distinct readings have been projected onto the novel in the past three decades, in something over ninety studies of the book. And because, as I say, Pym’s multiple internal contradictions lead critics to view it as a blank text, “project” is precisely the right term. With a significant majority of literary texts, a consensus on the relevant textual facts acts as a builtin control on extremist readings; Pym, on the other hand, has no such control, and Pym criticism no such consensus. While certain textual features have in fact been established (the color symbolism and descent motifs, for example), those most central aspects of the text on which all interpretations directly depend are still — and may always be — open questions: possible structural coherence between the Grampus and Jane Guy voyages, the role of the narrator in the story, and the meaning of the mysteriously implausible ending. With all this unresolved, and possibly unresolvable, criticism on the novel seems to be largely a matter not of textual necessity, but of interpretive will.

But it is precisely this aspect of Poe’s novel that makes it a useful focus for the sort of speculative review of criticism that I propose. For criticism is always a willed activity, all readings being to some extent projections; and if critical decorum requires that Will be concealed under an illusion of textual necessity, it is all the more interesting to peel away the social niceties that make readings seem inevitable and discover their origins in choice. Where criticism of a text is, due to the nature of the text, viewed [column 2:] as a collective endeavor in which each adds his mote to an already sizable mountain of established opinion, this sort of motivational unmasking may be hindered by the power of collective and accretive illusion. But Pym criticism is not like this. The novel’s advantage for my purposes is that the illusion of interpretive validity is in almost no case either accretive or collective, almost invariably it is erected and sustained by a brand of combative individual assertion that is highly resistant to consensual build-up. If Pym is the interpreter’s dream-text, it is for that reason also the ideal test-case for theoretical speculation about the nature of reading.


A syncretic look at Pym criticism reveals six major foci six key issues around which commentators have oriented themselves. Arranged roughly in chronological order — the order, that is, in which each successively became the primary focus of criticism — they can be listed as follows:

1. The text’s relation to its author

2. The text’s relation to its author’s world

3. The symbolic status of the narrative

4. Narrative unity

5. The narrator’s relation to the author

6. The meaning of the problematic frame

Interestingly, however, this chronological development reveals other ordering principles as well, notably logical (from general to specific) and methodological (from extratextual perspectives on the novel as Poe’s artifact to intratextual perspectives on the novel as a self-contained order of words). If Pym were a world instead of a novel, we might say that the issues moved from supernaturalistic to naturalistic concerns: from a cosmological perspective (the world as God’s creation), through deontological considerations of God’s handwriting in the world, to primarily ontological concerns. If the first level deals with the madeness of the text, the second, in similar extratextual fashion, considers referentiality — the text’s relation to the author’s experiential universe. On the third level we then move into the text itself, considering its status as signification or figuration, here “world” is seen less as extratextual reference than as signified or metaphorical tenor. If this is essentially a rhetorical (linguistic or tropological) perspective on the novel, the last three levels become increasingly rhetorical in focus, treating the coherence (4), credibility (5), and plausibility (6) of the narrative. But as rhetorical analysis becomes interested in the novel’s success as persuasion, it necessarily begins to point back up to the top of the hierarchy, to questions of self-projection (the author-text relation) and external reference (the textworld relation). And, as we shall see, recent Pym criticism has taken precisely this turn: combining close textual analysis with extratextual attention to problems of Poe’s intention and his beliefs about the world, critics have essentially curved the hierarchy around into a circle.

The question that seems to me the most interesting to ask of this material, however, is what motivates a shift in interpretive focus. Why should the chronology of Pym criticism follow neat logical or methodological patterns? [page 48:] One whole range of answers might be obtained by tying Pym criticism over the thirty-year period to concurrent intellectual history: existentialist readings of the novel, one might say, peaked during a brief period in the fifties because that was the heyday of existentialism in the critical community at large. And there is a good deal to this. On the other hand, all such an approach really does is to pass the interesting question on to intellectual history, where one is forced to generalize from far more disparate information. Why did existentialism come and go as it did?

Rather than passing the question on, therefore, I intend to work with a model of internal exhaustion and replenishment — assuming, that is, that critics have tended to mine a certain hierarchical level until it is exhausted (until, in other words, it ceases to generate new and interesting interpretive approaches to the novel), and then have moved to the next level.(1) Because the imperative to “make it new” applies in our critical age as strongly to criticism as to literature itself, criticism might fruitfully be submitted to the same sort of evolutionary analysis that the Russian Formalists propose for fiction.(2) For that matter, something of the same process probably governs intellectual history as well; and certainly the two here go hand in hand, new developments in the history of ideas helping to direct critics’ explorations on any given hierarchical level. Though I have neither the space nor the competence to make a convincing case for the applicability of my conclusions to the history of ideas at large, I do want to suggest, at least, that the “evolution” or historical narrative I draw up in Pym criticism may also have an application to the broader history of thought.


Critics were long baffled by Poe’s novel; probably most still are today, though we have recently begun to discover ways of talking about our bafflement. Certainly one of the earliest problems critics faced was an apparent indeterminacy of genre. That Pym is not domestic realism is immediately obvious; agreeing on what it is not, however, is little help in determining whar it is, especially if one is constrained by the notion that novels are by definition realistic. If Pym is not realistic, it is not a novel; and if it is not a novel, perhaps all we can say about it is that it belongs on the shelf of “miscellaneous” works along with that other sea-travelogue that it so significantly resembles, Gulliver’s Travels. Northrop Frye’s remarks on the generic problems surrounding Menippean satire, and the critical neglect those problems have meant through literary history, are germane here;(3) and though the one critical attempt to link Pym to this genre, Evelyn’s Hinz’s 1970 study, is overstated and overingenious, certainly the generic arena she identifies is an appropriate one.(4)

That the question of genre should not yer be conclusively settled gives some indication of the enigma the novel has presented to critics. The earliest reactions to the novel, as Burton R. Pollin demonstrates in his 1974 reception study, tended to dismiss it either as a hoax unbecoming of its author (a first-level concern with author and [column 2:] text) or as a pack of lies (a second-level concern with reference). After the need to review the novel passed, however, decades elapsed with little more being published than casual biographical remarks. A step beyond this was taken in the first years of this century, when a few hardy critics decided to approach Poe’s novel not as a literary text so much as a historical event, written by a historical figure who drew on certain sources, and received by the public in a historically documentable way. Studies of Poe’s sources for Pym and of his contemporaneous reputation comprise the majority of Pym criticism prior to the thirty-year period I am examining;5 and some of it still appears after 1950 as well, with the very recent addition of influence studies. The dominant figure in this area between 1950 and 1980 is Burton R. Pollin, with four source studies (1976a, 1976b, 1976c, and with David K. Jackson in 1979) and three reception studies (1974, 1975, and 1978). Other source studies have been published by Randel Helms (1970), Daniel Tynan (1971), Hinz (1972), George H. Soule (1975), and Richard Kopley (1980); other reception studies by Patrick Quinn (1952 and 1968), Anderson (1973), Don J. Vann (1976), and — the predecessor to my present investigation — J. V. Ridgely (1974). Pym’s influence on later writers has been discussed by Quinn (1952, Mol[7y-Dick), LeClair (1973, Pale Fire), Watson (1976, Israel Potter), Lee (1978, Moby-Dick), Tintner (1978, The Golden Bowl), and Brodhead, (1978, Mardi) .

There was one pre-fifties study of Pym, however, which moved beyond historical context, and did so in a brilliant and highly influential fashion: Marie Bonaparte’s extensive psychoanalytical study Edgar Poe, published in 1933 and translated into English in 1949 6 It would hardly be unfair to say that whatever was said about Pym before 1950 was said by Marie Bonaparte; and her contribution to later criticism is central, as virtually the entire first decade of serious Pym criticism was conceived as various forms of reaction to or expansion of her reading. Her approach to the novel, as her psychoanalytical credentials would lead one to expect (she was a student of Freud’s), is in the classical Freudian tradition: one takes the literary work as a kind of secondhand case-history document, lamenting only that one does not have direct couch-contact with the patient, isolates sexual and parental imagery, and through the identification of fictional and authorial psyche (first-level focus) seeks to psychoanalyze the writer.


Pym criticism in the 1950’s, then, begins with a variety of critical reactions to a monumental work. The initial response, growing directly out of Bonaparte’s conclusions, was offered by myth critics, the first of whom in Pym criticism wrote just before 1950: Gaston Bachelard, in his 1944 introduction to the latest French edition of Pym.(7) The best-known piece of Pym myth criticism, however, is Leslie Fiedler’s discussion of the novel in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960); here we find many of Bonaparte’s assumptions adopted unchanged, particularly the unconscious nature of Poe’s composition and the emphasis on reading not the novel, but Poe through the [page 49:] novel. Unlike the psychoanalytical approach, however, the myth-critical reading of Pym treats Poe as an unconscious repository of cultural myth and gives the characters in the novel (including the narrator, Pym himself) the status of mythic actors who, like the author, are wholly unconscious of the true meaning of their actions. While this approach to the novel has not proved particularly influential, a few myth-critical studies have continued to appear, such as the articles of Peter J. Sheehan in 1969 and Barton Levi St. Armand in 1978.

Perhaps the clearest link between the psychoanalytical and myth-critical approaches to Pym is the identity of their positions on the first-level issue in the hierarchy outlined above: both give the text the status of unconscious document, reflecting aspects of the author’s mind. In the fifties and early sixties, the textual-status question became the fulcrum for a radical shift in critical emphasis, as critics began to apply leverage to the documentary reading and, in so doing, effectively launched the post-war heyday of Pym criticism. Educated by the New Critics to consider Poe an unimportant, and finally irrelevant, consideration for Pym criticism, commentators decided that the textauthor relation had exhausted its usefulness and must be superseded by closer attention to the text. What followed was a series of readings that were primarily concerned to define the novel’s world-view, conceived initially in terms of reference (level two) and increasingly in terms of signified (level three). What was the novel about? these critics asked — how can it help us understand our world better?

The most influential of these approaches is no doubt what one might call the “psychological” interpretation, in which the psychoanalytical patient becomes not Poe but Pym, whose psyche (and the psychic type it is taken to represent) thus becomes the novel’s world-term, its object of imitation. Edward H. Davidson (1957) was perhaps the first proponent of this reading, although it appears fleetingly in Quinn’s 1952 study as well; Walter E. Bezanson (1960) wrote the truly seminal study, and was followed by Raymond Tarbox (1967), Daniel Hoffman (1972), Grace Farrell Lee (1972 and 1978), Richard Wilbur (1973), Todd M. Lieber (1973), Cordelia Candelaria (1973), Joseph M. DeFalco (1976), Leonard W. Engel (1978), and Paul Rosenzweig (1980). These critics read Pym’s journey as inward, through mffntal landscapes to the heart of psychic darkness; it is “oneiric,” “hypuagogic,” a dream-allegory in which all external events are metaphors for internal growth or dissolution. This reading of Pym ultimately seems to derive from a perception of, embarrassment with, and desire to account for Poe’s mad metaphysics, which for the self-respecting materialist is evidence of a puerile, escapist mind — precisely the popular opinion of Poe before the psychological reading. To psychologize Poe, of course, is to naturalize him, to deactivate his divine machinery in order to read him as “serious” in a safely (if symbolically) realistic context.

A very similar modification of the psychoanalytical approach to Pym is the existential reading, which occasionally goes hand in hand with the psychological interpretation [column 2:] (Davidson, for example, does both), and in fact shares with it many key features: the notion that Poe is writing about Pym’s attempts to deal with his world, the differentiation of author and narrator, and so on. Here, however, Pym is less psyche than mind; less inward traveler than intellect seeking to impose artificial order on existential chaos. The novel’s apparent inconclusiveness or incompletion is taken, in this reading, as internal evidence of Poe’s absurd world-view; there is no meaning outside the fraudulent order of human creation. “Poe moves Arthur along a chaotic journey,” Helen Lee writes, “through a succession of catastrophes, mitigated only by temporary and coincidental meliorative events and truncated by enigmatic circumstances. Poe’s man prolongs the struggle by his resistance, mental and physical — in fact it is his nature to do so — but he must eventually be engulfed by disastet” (1966, p. 1153). Like the psychological reading, this approach manifestly feels some discomfort with Poe’s hints of the Beyond, and so seeks to reduce any possibility of transcendence at the end of the novel to unconditional “disaster,” a catastrophic end that illustrates the inevitable failure of human meaning-making. Poe does not sit well with the confirmed materialist; to be rendered ideologically acceptable, he must be shorn of whatever visionary status he might claim. The existential reading of Pym appears in Harry Levin’s book The Power of Blackness (1958), Davidson’s study, Joel Porte (1969), Josie P. Campbell (1970), Sidney P. Moss (1972), William Peden (1972), and Richard L. Harp (1974).

From the existentialist reading it is, then, but a short step to the claim that Pym is really about no vague, intangible existentialist ontology, but more realistic things still: regardless of the symbolic mode of its presentation, it is ultimately about society. As symbolistic readings are progressively exhausted during this period of critical discourse on the novel, Pym is seen as increasingly materialistic. Significantly, however, the social-commentary reading of the novel is first advanced by Leslie Fiedler, as one aspect of his discussion of cultural myths; Fiedler’s persuasive juxtaposition of social and mythic concerns in the novel provides an interesting sidelight on the close relation of “society” as a world-term to “society” as a mind-term. Society, rather than being the “reality” social realists would make it, may be simply our conception of it — which, as Fiedler perceptively demonstrates, shifts social commentary into the realm of mythography. Critics have developed a number of methods of getting from Pym’s unrealistic narrative to social commentary: allegory in Sidney Kaplan (1960), the Western novel in Fiedler (1960) and Fussell (1965), Marxist analysis in Mottram (1975), and satire in Hinz and Teunissen (1977). These readings all tend to focus on Poe’s treatment of the black Tsalalians — usually exaggerating Poe’s racism in order to deplore it — and to discover in the novel themes of societal disorder and slavery.


At this point, my historical narrative must break off, recap, and assume a new direction, as the plot I have been constructing begins to reach its point of exhaustion and certain key assumptions about the text begin to be questioned. [page 50:] As we have seen, the psychoanalytical reading was based on a specific assumption about the novel’s textual status in relation to Poe; myth critics essentially accepted that assumption while broadening their thematic scope; and psychological, existential, and social critics made the obvious leap suggested by this thematic expansion, conceiving the text not as unconscious evidence of authorial or cultural themes but as itself consciously thematic — as about something. As criticism thus began to narrow its focus to third-level investigations into the status of symbol, it also progressively shifted symbolic reference closer to phenomenal reality, from psyche to a general ontology to social history. Here the general drift toward understanding the novel as behavioral mimesis reached its inevitable terminus: given these thematic assumptions about the text, where does one go beyond social realism?

In order to continue to grow (and to produce new interpretations — the organic and the academic motivations for critical progress), therefore, criticism now had to shift ground. It did so through an examination of its own assumptions. In the mid-sixties, Pym criticism became self-conscious, considering for the first time the validity of its own critical categories (as the title of Sidney Moss’ 1967 article suggests: “Arthur Gordon Pym, or the Fallacy of Thematic Interpretation”). What happened specifically is that critics became aware of the unquestioned, possibly unfounded basis for thematic readings: the assumption of a purposive narrative unity. No sensitive reader could help but intuit some degree of narrative disunity in Poe’s text; but in thematic readings to date, critics concerned to offer some sort of interpretation had studiously submerged such intuitions. And so a group of critics now began to direct their attention to this, the fourth level of my hierarchy, producing a rash of formal and compositional studies that began to establish a sense of the novel’s narrative movement — its continuities and discontinuities, consistencies and inconsistencies. Formal studies, bracketing all other considerations to look closely at the text, tended to direct attention to imagery (particularly the color imagery of white, black, and red) and structure, with special emphasis on the exact number of distinct narratives or structural patterns in the novel; the former would include Pascal Covici, Jr. (196S) and David Halliburton (1973), the latter L. Moffitt Cecil (1963), Sidney P. Moss (1967), and Robert Carringer (1974). Where the earliest studies emphasized the novel’s lack of narrative unity, later form studies began to contest the charge of disunity through a close examination of the novel’s mythological patterns of descent and return, death and rebirth; see for example Richard A. Levine (1969), Kathleen Sands (1974), Kent Ljungquist (1978), Grace Farrell Lee (1978), and Barton Levi St. Armand (1978.)

Composition critics, like the formal readers, were motivated by a desire to discover precisely what the text was; unlike those readers, however, they borrowed their methodology from the study of history. Through a careful perusal of letters and other historical documents, these critics attempted to reconstruct the process by which Poe wrote the novel; see Moss (1966), J. V. Ridgely and Iola S. Haverstick (1966), Ridgely (1972), and Alexander [column 2:] Hammond (1978). The Ridgely-Haverstick piece has become a standard source for unity discussions; but Hammond uses the same sources to support a persuasive counter-argument, which discovers more unity than the earlier team had.(8)

What is perhaps most interesting from my present perspective is that both of these painstakingly rigorous analyses of Poe’s composition process — Ridgely-Haverstick and Hammond — conclude their historical discussions with a brief and entirely unmotivated hoax reading of Pym. Neither essay makes any connection between its compositional conclusion and this interpretation; the hoax idea seems tacked onto the end almost in apology, as if to say that since the only real kind of criticism is interpretation, their historical studies can only be justified by interpretive application. But in so doing, in gratuitously tying in to an old interpretive standby, the two essays significantly frame some of the most important Pym criticism of the seventies. If the textual studies of the sixties mark the major turning point in recent Pym studies, the casual invocation of hoax in Ridgely and Haverstick foreshadows the interpretive thrust of the third post-fifties critical phase: the move toward irony.

The hoax reading itself was taken up by J. Gerald Kennedy, in two articles of 1973 and 1976. Unlike earlier hoax interpretations of the novel, this one casts Poe’s hoax in a positive light; hoaxing is seen as an ironic, often self-referential and self-parodying activity which demonstrates Poe’s absolute control over his material, thus incorporating and reversing the disunity claims and strongly linking Poe with metafictional writers of our own time. Emphasis in this reading is placed on Poe’s problematic relations with his reading public; Kennedy persuasively argues for a double audience of the sort posited by many theories of irony: one in the know, the other duped. With this approach to the novel, we also begin moving into the last two issues in my hierarchy, the author-narrator relationship and the meaning of the narrative frame. (Note here that earlier discussion of Poe and Pym tended to treat the latter not as narrative voice but as the central character who happens to tell his own tale.) Kennedy works closely with Pym’s Preface, with its convoluted play on fiction and truth, as well as with the concluding Note by an anonymous editor, as fundamental textual evidence for his reading.

Closely related to the hoax reading of Pym is the satirical approach, primarily advanced by Evelyn Hinz (1970, and with John J. Teunissen in 1977). Here, compositional inconsistencies are seen as typical of Menippean satire, and thus (as in Kennedy’s reading) deliberate. Pym is differentiated from Poe as the object of sarire, with a neat reversal of the psychological premise that the novel is about growth — here, Pym is no satiric moral norm, but the object of Poe’s attack, and does not mature (a reading that becomes incorporated into later psychological interpretations, such as Rosenzweig’s in 1980). Hinz’s case, based as it is on rather dubious diction analysis, is embarrassingly overstated, and, in good New-Critical fashion, she seems blithely unconcerned to explain why Poe should want to satirize a seeker after transcendence. Sophisticated as this argument is, it seems motivated by the same belief structure that [page 51:] underlies earlier materialistic readings: an ideological unwillingness to allow Poe the possibility of some modicum of visionary metaphysics.

A rather more convincing ironic reading of Pym is G. R. Thompson’s attempt in Poe’s Fiction (1973) to place the novel in the context of the romantic irony of Poe’s own time — certainly a salutary critical strategy among readings determined to make Poe our contemporary. Like most of his predecessors, however, Thompson evinces a strong resistance to the hints of transcendence in the novel, and is at some pains to reduce them to ironic proofs against transcendence.

Less faithful to Poe’s historical context than Thompson, but equally resistant to Poe’s mad metaphysics, is the most influential ironic reading of the novel, a reading that seems to be current still: deconstruction. First advanced by a French critic, Jean Ricardou, as early as 1967 (with an English translation in 1976), this reading for several years remained the exclusive property of Frenchmen — Maurice Mourier (1974), Maurice Levy (1974), and Claude Richard (1975) — but American disciples have appeared as well: William Spengemann (1977), John Carlos Rowe (1977), Daniel A. Wells (1977), Kenneth Dauber (1978), and John Irwin’s spectacular 200-page reading of the novel in American Hieroglyphics (1980). Here close readings of imagery, narrative viewpoint and frame, and problems of structure lead to the attractive claim that what Pym is “about” (to the extent that novels are ever about anything, in this view) is its own fictional processes. The hieroglyphics in the Tsalalian chasms thus become the end of language, and — more ingeniously — the all-pervading whiteness of the mysterious ending becomes the whiteness of the page, beyond which there is nothing. Significantly, however, if what we find most attractive about this reading is that it does make Poe our contemporary, its weakness is that it generates a Poe who must change whenever our preoccupations change. If the ultimate cause for our discomfort with the existentialist reading of Pym is that we now find existentialism passe, it is likely that the present topical appeal of the deconstructive reading of Pym will serve equally to date it in a decade or so. Even so, there is a good deal to be said for the flamboyance of these readings; one reads them like a Dupin story, in constant anticipation of extravagant support for unexpected conclusions.


You will have noticed by now that, despite some superficial similarities with semiotic investigations into the nature of criticism, my speculative review of Pym criticism is by no means the detached and dispassionate “scientific” analysis that one has come to associate with semiotics. I have a personal favorite among Pym readings, an interpretive approach that seems to me methodologically the most fruitful and descriptively the most accurate of readings offered to date: the visionary reading, which my criticisms of materialistic distortions of the novel have obviously been leading up to. Defense of this preference follows; for now, let me simply motivate this rather indecent self-exposure by pointing again to the ineluctability of interpretive [column 2:] will. It really can not be eliminated, positivistic idealism to the contrary, and I prefer therefore not to pretend to a cybernetic objectivity. My speculative review of Pym criticism is at least in part a concealed polemic — concealed behind what I still firmly believe is descriptive accuracy. You are welcome to discount that polemic as you like — but then, you would anyway, and I am assuming that this overt statement of my position will make it easier to place these speculations in context.

The visionary reading was anticipated in negative form by Allen Tate (1953), Patrick Quinn (1952), Edward Davidson (1957), and Charles O‘Donnell (1962), but was first (and, I believe, most persuasively) articulated by John Lynen in his 1969 book, The Design of the Present. His lead has been followed by Joseph J. Moldenhauer (1971), who seeks to incorporate the psychological reading into the visionary by making Pym’s imagination parallel and linked to the divine mind that controls the universe; by Eric W. Carlson (1972), who, citing Poe’s letter to Dr. Chivers defending the vision of “Mesmeric Revelation” as a statement of his “faith,” briefly mentions Pym (p. 10) as a shadowy version of the visionary tendencies more clearly evident in Poe’s other works; by Paul John Eakin (1973), who traces the narrative strategies with which Poe experiments in order to convey his visionary cosmology in fictional form; and by a number of critics who modulate these positions, such as Victor J. Vitanza (1974 and 1978), David Ketterer (1974, 1978, and 1979), and Richard D. Finholt (1978).

What I find most convincing in this approach to the novel is its synthetic thrust — its attempt to syncretize all previous readings of the novel by subordinating them to a single all-encompassing perspective. The conceptual shift that makes this synthesis possible, I suggest, is a return from fifth- and sixth-level interpretation to the first level, bringing all the accumulated interpretive detail from three decades of close reading to a new perspective on the text-author relation. Psychoanalytical and myth-critical readers had neglected the text by subordinating it to author; readers from the psychological to the deconstructionist had neglected Poe by subordinating him to the text. By seeking to understand Poe as the author of Pym and his entire oeuvre, and Pym as the intentioned creation of Poe, the visionary critics aspire to a higher level of understanding at which synthesis becomes possible. Granting that all of the various Pym readings are in at least some sense persuasive, these critics seek to create, on the basis of detailed knowledge of Poe’s work as a whole, an image of Poe the artist complex enough to account for all of the conflicting readings.

Unfortunately, important and necessary as this task obviously is, there is perhaps no ultimately convincing way of demonstrating that this holistic reading of Poe is less a product of the critic’s will and desire than all the preceding ones. Eureka, the key to the visionary reading, has been persuasively read as self-parody, and it is not particularly difficult to invert the visionary reading by understanding every metaphysical statement Poe made (in fiction, criticism, or letters) ironically. What does this do to the visionary critics’ claim to interpretive validity? [page 52:]

It does not preclude it, of course; but it does present serious obstacles to our accepting it unreservedly as correct.

Persuasive as I find the visionary reading, therefore, let me not be taken to see in it the telos of Pym criticism. Instead, what my discussion has perhaps suggested is that the hierarchy of issues I offer, curved around by the visionary readers into a circle, is the path Pym criticism will continue to travel. What might we say of the novel’s symbolic status, for example, with both deconstruction and the visionary reading under our belt? To what extent does Poe’s daring attempt to fuse metaphor (his mediatory vision of transcendence) and irony (his simultaneous awareness of the problems surrounding mediation) condition his imagery and style? My own reading of Poe’s novel, which must wait for fuller treatment in another study, places it in the context of what Harold Bloom calls the “American Negative”:9 a negation of transcendence that yet preserves the possibility of transcendence imagistically, in Pym’s case through the image of the white figure above the misty polar veil. Poe can neither transcend nor figure transcendence adequately, and he knows it; what he can do, however, is to record his failure, as an imagistic path toward the desired goal. Such a reading would be an attempt to fuse transcendental vision and romantic irony in a far more thoroughgoing fashion than the visionary critics offer, and so seems to me a fruitful step toward the establishment of a critical consensus on Pym. And this is the direction I suggest Pym criticism needs to go. One certainly does not want uniformity; but a thrust toward uniformity, with no confidence of reaching it, strikes me as being finally more productive than the kind of maverick combativeness that has characterized Pym criticism to date. One’s predecessors cannot all be wrong.


1 - I take the terms “exhaustion” and “replenishment” from John Barth’s influential Atlantic essays, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion” (August 1967), pp. 29-34, and “The Literature of Replenish. meet” (January 1980), pp. 65-71.

2 - Compare Boris Eichenbaum’s description of the process: “In the evolution of each genre, there are times when its use for entirely serious or elevated objectives degenerates and produces a comic or parodied form. The same phenomenon has happened to the epic poem, the adventure novel, the biographical novel, etc. Naturally, local and historical conditions create different variations, bur the process itself exhibits this same pattern as an evolutionary law: the serious interpretation of a construction motivated with care and in detail gives way to irony, pleasantry, pastiche; the connections which serve to motivate a scene become weaker and more obvious; the author himself comes on stage and often destroys the illusion of authenticity and seriousness, the construction of a plot becomes a playing with the story which transforms itself into a puzzle or an anecdote. And thus is produced the regeneration of the genre: it finds new possibilities and new forms.‘’ In Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, eds., Readings in Rv.ssian Poetics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), p. 236.

3 - Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 312.

4 - I employ a dual reference system in this essay. All references to Pym criticism from 1950 to 1980 will be made in the text, using the critic’s name and the year of publication to refer to the bibliography that follows. In this way I can provide a coherent (and, within the limits of available resources, I hope comprehensive) [column 2:] check list of Pym criticism for the period, while at the same time keeping bibliographical citations to a minimum. Footnotes are used to refer only to sources not found in the check list.

5 - For early source criticism, see Robert Lee Rhea, “Some Observations on Poe’s Origins,” University of Texas Studies in English, 10 (1930), 135-145; J. O. Bailey, “Sources for Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, ‘Hans Pfaal,’ and Other Pieces,” PMLA, 57 (1942), 513-535; and Keith Huntress, “Another Source for Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Literature, 16 (1944), 19-25. For early reception criticism see Killis Campbell, “Contemporary Opinion of Poe,‘’ PMLA, 36 (1921), 1-13, compare also Esther F. Hynemann’s unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “The Contemporaneous Reputation of Edgar Allan Poe” (Columbia 1968).

6 - Edgar Poe. sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1933), pp. 357-459; tr. John Rodker as The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation (London: Imago, 1949), pp. 303-350.

7 - “Introduction” to Les Aventures d‘Arthur Gordon Pym, tr. Charles Baudelaire (Paris, 1944).

8 - For Ridgely’s latest position on the composition history of the novel, see “The Growth of the Text” in Writings, 1, 29-36. Like Ridgely’s contribution, Pollin’s discussion of the sources of and critical commentary on Pym in this extensively annotated edition lies beyond the date limits of this review essay bur should, of course, be consulted in reference to it.

9 - See the concluding essay in Bloom’s Agon: Toward a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), “The American Difference in Poetry and Criticism,” p. 335.

Bibliography: A Check List of Pym Criticism 1950-1980

Anderson, Carl L. Poe in Northlight: The Scandinavian Response to His Life and Work (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 32-37, 139, 195.

Bezanson, Walrer E. “The Troubled Sleep of Arthur Gordon Pym, in Rudolf Kirk and C. F. Main, eds., Essays in Literary History Presented to J. Milton French (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 149-175.

Brodhead, Richard H. “Mardi: Creating the Creative,” in Faith Pullen, ed., New Perspectives on Melville (Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 29-53, esp. 34-37.

Campbell, Josie P. “Deceit and Violence: Motifs in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” English Journal, 59 (1970), 206213

Candelaria, Cordelia. “On the Whiteness at Tsalal: A Note on Arthur Gordon Pym,” Poe Studies, 6 (1973), 26.

Carlson, Eric W., ea., The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism Since 1829 (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966) .

————————. “Poe’s Vision of Man,” in Veler, pp. 7-20.

Carringer, Robert L. “Circumscription of Space and the Form of Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym,” PMLA, 89 (1974), 506-516.

Cecil, L. Moffitt, “The Two Narratives of Arthur Gordon Pym” Texas Studies in Langsuage and Literature, 5 (1963), 232 24i.

Covici, Pascal, Jr. “Toward a Reading of Poe’s Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,” Mississippi Quarterly, 21 (1968), 111-118.

Dauber, Kenneth. “The Problem of Poe,” Georgia Review, 32 (1978), 645-657, esp. 654-655.

Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Stsudy (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 156-181.

DeFalco, Joseph M. “Metaphor and Narrative in Poe’s Narrative of Arthsur Gordon Pym,” Topic, 30 (1975), 54-67. [page 53:]

Eakin, Paul John. “Poe’s Sense of an Ending,‘’ American Literature, 45 (1973), 1-22.

Elkins, William R. The Dream World and the Dream Vision: Meaning and Structure in Poe’s Art (Emporia: Graduate Division of Kansas State Teachers College, 1968).

Engel, Leonard W. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Use of the Enclosure Device in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978), pp. 35-44.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel (1960; rpt. New York: Dell, 19G6)’ pp. 391-400.

Finholt, Richard D. American Visionary Fiction: Mad Metaphysics as Salruation Psychology (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1978), pp. 83-97.

Forclaz, Roger. “A Voyage to the Frontiers of the Unknown: Edgar Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978), tr. of French article published 19G4, pp. 45-55.

Fussell, Edwin. Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 149-155.

Halliburton, David. Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 257-278.

Hammond, Alexander. “The Composition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: Notes toward a Re-Examination,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978), pp. 9-20.

Harp, Richard L. “A Note on the H.armony of Style and Theme in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” CEA Critic, 3G, No. 3 (1974), 8-11.

Helms, Randel. “Another Source for Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Literature, 41 (1970), 572-575.

Hinz, Evelyn J. ” ‘Tekeli-li’: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as Satire,” Genre, 3 (1970), 379-399.

————————. “The Source of the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket of Edgar Allan Poe,” Satire Newsletter, 9 (1972), 138-143.

———————— and John J. Teunissen. “Poe, Pym, and Primitivism,” Studies in Short Fiction, 14 (1977), 13-20.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1972; rpt. New York: Avon, 1978), pp. 259-272.

Hussey, John P. “‘Mr. Pym’ and ‘Mr. Poe!: The Two Narrators of ‘Arthur Gordon Pym,’ ” South Atlantic Bulletin, 39 (1974), 22-32.

Irwin, John T. American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 64-235.

Jackson, David K., and Burton R. Pollin. “Poe’s ‘Tekeli-li,‘” Poe Studies, 12 (1979), 19.

Kaplan, Sidney. “Introduction” to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), pp. vii-xxv.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “The Preface as a Key to the Satire in Pym,” Studies in the Novel, 5 (1973), 191-196.

————————. “‘The Infernal Twoness’ in Arthur Gordon Pym,” Topic, 30 (1976), 41-53.

Ketterer, David. New Worlds for old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 50-75.

————————. “Devious Voyage: The Singular Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978), pp. 21-34.

————————. The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 125-141.

Kopley, Richard. “The Secret of Arthur Gordon Pym: The Text and the Source,” Studies in American Fiction, 8 (1980), 203218.

LaGuardia, David M. “Poe, Pym, and Initiation,” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 60 Supplement (Fall 1970), pp. 82-84.

LeClair, Thomas. “Poe’s Pym and Nabokov’s Pale Fire,” Notes um Contemporary Literature, 3 (1974), 2-3.

Lee, Helen. “Possibilities of Pym,” English lournal, 55 (1966), 1149-1154.

Lee, Grace Farrell. “The Quest of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Southern Literary Journal, 4, (1972) 22-33.

————————. “Pym and Moby-Dick: Essential Connections,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978), pp. 73-86.

Levin, Harry. The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Melville, Poe (New York: Knopf, 1958; rpt. 1964), pp. 109-124.

Levine, Richard A. “The Downward Journey of Purgation: Notes on an Imagistic Leitmotif in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Poe Newsletter, 2 (1969), 29-31.

Levy, Maurice. “Pym, Conte Fantastique?” Eutudes Anglaises, 27 (1974), 38-44.

Lieber, Todd M. Endless Experiments (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 165-189.

Ljungquist, Kent. “Descent of the Titans: The Sublime Riddle of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Southern Literary Journal, 10 (1978), 75-92.

Lynen, John. The Design of the Present: Essays on Time and Form in American Literature (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 1969), pp. 205-271, esp. 222, 227, 266-267.

Moldenhauer, Joseph J. “Imagination and Perversity in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” Texas Studies in Langscage and Literature, 13 (1971), 26;-286.

Moss, Sidney P. “A Conjeaure Concerning the Writing of Arthur Gordon Pym,‘’ Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1966), 84-92.

————————. “Arthur Gordon Pym, or the Fallacy of Thematic Interpretation,” University Review, 33 (1967), 299306.

————————. “Poe’s Apocalyptic Vision,” in Veler, pp. 42-53.

Mottram, Eric. “Poe’s Pym, and the American Social Imagination,” in Robert J. DeMott and Sanford E. Marovitz, eds., Artful Thunder: Versions of the Romantic Tradition in American Literature; in Honor of Howard P. Vincent (Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 25-33.

Mourier, Maurice. “Le Tombeau d‘Edgar Poe,” fusprit, 42 (1974), 902-926.

O‘Donnell, Charles. “From Earth to Ether: Poe’s Flight into Space,” PMLA, 77 (1962), 85-91.

Peden, William. “Prologue to a Dark Journey: The ‘Opening’ to Poe’s Pym,” in Veler, pp. 84-91.

Pollin, Burton R. “Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and the Contemporary Reviewers,” Studies in American Fiction 2 (1974), 37-56. ’

————————. “Three More Early Notices of Pym and the Snowden Connection,” Poe Studies 8 (1975), 32-35.

————————. “The Narrative of Benjamin Morrell: Out of the Bucket and into Poe’s Pym,” Studies in American Fiction, 4 (1976), 157-172 (cited as Pollin 1976a).

————————. “Poe and Daniel Defoe: A Significant Relationship,” Topic, 16 (1976), 3-23 (cited as Pollin 1976b).

————————. “The Self-Destructive Fall: A Theme from Shakespeare Used in Pym and ‘The Imp of the Perverse,‘” Eutudes Anglaises, 29 (1976), 199-202 (cited as Pollin 1976c).

————————. “Poe’s Narrative in the American Newspapers: More Uncollected Notices,” Poe Studies, 11 (1978), 8-10.

Porte, Joel. The Romance in America (Middleton: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 84-94.

Quinn, Patrick F. “Poe’s Imaginary Voyage,” Hudson Review, 4 (1952), 562-585; rpt. in Quinn’s The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 169-216. [page 54:]

————————. “Arthur Gordon Pym: ‘A Journey to the End of the Page‘?” Poe Newsletter, 1 (1968), 13-14.

Ricardou, Jean. “Le Caractere singulier de cette eau,” Critique (1967), 718u733; tr. Frank Towne as “The Singular Character of the Water,” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 1-6.

Richard, Claude. ‘L Ecriture d‘Arthur Gordon Pym,‘’ Delta, 1 (1975), 95-124.

Ridgely, J. V. “The Continuing Puzzle of Arthur Gordon Pym: Some Notes and Queries,” Poe Newsletter, 3 (1970), 5-6.

————————. “The End of Pym and the Ending of Pym,” in Veler, pp. 104-112.

————————. “Tragical-Mythical-Satirical-Hoaxical: Problems of Genre in Pym,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 24 (Fall 1974), pp. 4-9.

———————— , and Iola S. Haverstick. “Chartless Voyage: The Many Narratives of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 7 (1966), 63-80.

Rosenzweig, Paul. “The Search for Identity: The Enclosure Motif in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” ESQ, 26 (1980), 111-126.

Rowe, John Carlos. “Writing and Truth in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Glyph, 2 (1977), 102-121.

Saliba, David R. A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe (Lanham: Univ. Press of America, 1980).

Sands, Kathleen. “The Mythic Initiation of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Poe Studies, 7 (1974), 14-16.

Sheehan, Peter J. “Dirk Peters: A New Look at Poe’s Pym,” Laurel Review, 9 (1969), 60-67.

Soule, George H. “Another Source for Poe: Trelawney’s The Adventures of a Younger Son,” Poe Studies, 8 (1975), 35-37.

Spengemann, William C. The Adventurous Muse (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 138-150.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. “The Dragon and the Uroboros: Themes of Metamorphosis in Arthur Gordon Pym,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978), pp. 57-71.

Stroupe, John H. “Poe’s Imaginary Voyage: Pym as Hero,” Studies tn Short Fiction, 4 (1967), 315-321.

Tarbox, Raymond. “Blank Hallucinations in the Fiaion of Poe and Hemingway,” American Imago, 24 (1967), 312-343, esp. 323-335.

Tate, Allen. “The Angelic Imagination,” in The Forlorn Demon (Chicago: Regnery, 1953), rpt. in Carlson 1966, pp. 236254.

Thompson, G. R. Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 176183.

Tintner, Adelaide R. “James Corrects Poe: The Appropriation of Pym in The Golden Bowl” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 37 (Winter 1978;, pp. 87-91.

Tynan, Daniel J. “J. N. Reynolds’ Voyage of the Potomac: Another Source for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Poe Studies, 4 (1971), 35-37.

Vann, Don J. “Three More Contemporary Reviews of Pym,” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 43-44.

Veler, Richard P., ed. Papers on Poe (Springfield: Chantry Music Press, 1972) .

Vitanza, Victor J.“Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym: An Anatomy of Perverseness,” Ltudes Anglaises 27 (1974), 26-37.

———————— . “The Question of Poe’s Narrators’: Perverseness Considered Once Again,” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 38 (1978), pp. 137-149.

Watson, Charles N. “Premature Burials in Arthur Gordon Pym and Israel Potter,” American Literature, 47 (1976), 105-107.

Wells, Daniel A. “Engraved Within the Hills: Further Perspectives on the Ending of Pym,” Poe Studies, 10 (1977), 13-15.

Wilbur, Richard. “Introduction” to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Boston: Godine, 1973); rpt. in Wilbur’s Responses, Prose Pieces 1953-1976 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 190-214.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]