Text: Patrick F. Quinn, “The Poe Edition: Annotating Pym,” Poe Studies, June 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 16:14-16


[page 14, column 2:]


The Poe Edition: Annotating Pym

Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Volume I: The Imaginary Voyages. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, The Journal of Julius Rodman. Edited by Burton R. Pollin. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. xix + 667 pp. $50.00.

This is in every respect an extraordinary work. The investigative powers of Burton R. Pollin are probably unmatched by any other Poe scholar, and in this volume those powers are on full and awesome display. One cannot imagine that any text could be more thoroughly scrutinized than Poe’s three imaginary voyages have been here. Although in this review I shall attend only to the treatment given Pym, it should be said that the same massive scholarly engine that is brought to bear on that story functions also with undiminished efficiency on “Hans Pfaall” and “Julius to dman.” These stories too, as well as every consideration relevant to them, are examined and annotated with unflagging patience and rigor. The feat may seem impossible, but Pollin has, I would say, succeeded in checking out every detail, no matter how minor or of what kind, in all three texts.

A parallel comes to mind. In 1856-57, when Baudelaire was translating Pym and to some extent editing it, he kept maps and navigational instruments near at hand so that he might ascertain the accuracy of Poe’s nautical notations. With similar zeal, Pollin seems to have prepared for his task by becoming something of an expert not only on maritime matters but on all the data of a factual kind to which allusion is made in the story. The results of this preparation are everywhere evident in the 147 closely printed pages of Notes and Comments that constitute the most remarkable feature of this edition. The particularly remarkable thing about it is what appears to be its almost unrelievedly negative emphasis. When Baudelaire found Poe’s navigational indications faulty he quietly rectified them. Far from rectifying or even passing over in silence the many errors of fact, numbering at least 200, which he finds in the story, Pollin nails down each and every one, although he is content to mention merely, rather than itemize in full, the “errors and infelicities of grammar, syntax, and wording that are freely scattered through Pym . . . .

A sampling of the errors and oversights, the improbabilities and impossibilities that are brought to our attention — and, more important, the reason why this is done — are matters I will return to. But it should be said early on that not all of the commentary has what might be called an adversary stance. Poe sometimes did get his details right, and this too is pointed out. His technical lingo is correct, for example, in “spoke two small schooners,” and in the reference to five ships as “five sail”; so also his use of the phrase “gale of wind” to mean simply a strong wind, and not necessarily one of gale force. At one point Poe’s nautical know-how draws a divided verdict: “The creaking [page 15:] and working of the mainmast . . . gave indication that it was nearly sprung.” Pollin observes: “The word sprung is correct . . . but the adverb ‘nearly’ could not be added; it would be either ’sprung’ or not.” Poe is found fully reliable, however, on the subject of filberts, alluded to in chapter 23. Uncultivated, they do, as Poe mentions, grow on bushes rather than on tress. And these nuts are, Pollin informs us, “extremely nutritious and rich in oil,” and so they would, if over-indulged in, cause the digestive discomfort which Pym says he and Peters experienced.

And sometimes, too, when something other than factual accuracy is involved, Poe’s writing is found commendable. The death-ship episode in chapter 10 is called “one of the most justly celebrated sections of the novel.” The description of Pym’s vertigo and subsequent fall from a Tsalalian cliff-face is “one of the most deliberately and carefully wrought passages in the book.” Pollin notices approvingly not only the recurring burial motif (chapters 2 and 21), but also the specific ways in which the recurrence is parallel. He is acute also in his comment on what Pym calls the “host of delicacies, both in the eating and drinking department,” that Augustus provided as part of the stowaway plan. Pollin remarks on the irony of “this nice gustatory detail for the start of a trip ending in starvation and torment.”

But beginning with the initial note — on the lengthy, quasi-synoptic title of the book, which is found “somewhat misleading” in four ways — the glosses stress the story’s numerous flaws. Here are a few representative examples: in chapter 1 Pym mentions that the life-boat that rescued him was built “for the whaling service” and was fitted with air-boxes, “in the manner of some life-boats used on the coast of Wales.” Pollin’s note begins: “In reality, Poe had no reason to attribute such boats to the ‘whaling service,’ or ‘the coast of Wales,’ but it is true that from 1785 to Poe’s day the British coastal service was slowly developing life-boats with cork gunwales and air chambers through the invention of Lionel Lukin, in turn adapted by Henry Greathead and William Woodhave, and used and publicized by Sir William Hilary.” Citations follow of five books on life-boats. In chapter 7 the body of the dead mutineer to gers is said to have been sewn up “in its hammock” prior to sea-burial. But hammocks, we are informed, “were predominantly naval gear,” whereas “merchant and whaling ship crews slept in bunks.” In chapter 4 Augustus interprets Pym’s snoring as a sign of tranquil slumber. He erred in doing so, for “stertorous breathing in sleep is not now accepted as proof of ‘tranquil’ slumber, nor is Poe consistent,” for in a later episode snoring is associated with the sleeper’s having frightful dreams. In chapter 8, when the counterattack against the mutineers is under way, Pym’s dog, Tiger, goes for the throat of one of their number. The trouble here is that a Newfoundland dog would not be trained to do this. “In fact, only special dogs, such as the Doberman pinschers, will seek out the jugular vein, the rest, like their ancestors the wolves, biting the legs of their enemies.” And even if Tiger had gone for the jugular, Pollin continues, he would not have punctured the man’s throat, as Pym implies, but inflicted a tearing wound “that could be fairly close to the surface of the neck.” In chapter 13, the main event, the capsizing of the Grampul, is ruled a nautical impossibility. And as for the thick cover of barnacles found [column 2:] on its upturned hull, that too is impossible: for how could this ship, “out only a month and a half,” have acquired so many barnacles, unless inedibly small ones? Furthermore, how without tools could Pym and Peters have detached and opened them? In chapter 17 the crew of the Jane Guy take soundings with “a line of two hundred fathoms.” By extrapolation Pollin computes the length of this line as twelve hundred feet, “to which another hundred feet would be added for the assumed angle of drift.” A line that long would weigh over two hundred pounds. So: “how, without special equipment provided in advance,” is it likely that the Jane Guy “would have thirteen hundred feet of to pe of a handy size available, aside from unreeving much of her lighter running rigging and tying the ends together?” In chapter 17 the outbreak of scurvy symptoms in the Jane Guy’s crew is also found unlikely, for the ship took on refreshments at the island of Tristan de Cunha only two months before; and if scurvy symptoms are to appear, “four to seven months of deprivation of vitamin C foods are needed.” In chapter 19 occurs another reference to food: sixteen kinds of fish are listed, and it is implied that they are all edible. But then the parrotfish should not be on the list, nor, probably, the barracuda, which, Pollin remarks, is “occasionally poisonous.” In chapter 24, Pym and Peters, in flight from Tsalal, patch the rents in their damaged canoe “with pieces of woolen jacker.” Pollin does not call this detail incredible, but he is obviously unconvinced by it: “It is difficult to see how the bark could be repaired without hot pitch or how to account for a ‘woolen jacket’ (Pym’s or Peters‘?) which . . . ”

That Poe overlooked the need for hot pitch and failed to specify whose jacket it was, that he neglected to take into account how heavy a lengthy sounding-line would be, that he assumed sailors on a whaling-ship would sleep in hammocks — these and the many similar slips that Pollin picks up would seem to be prima facie evidence of defective workmanship and hence, retroactively, ample justification of the annoyed reviewer who in 1838 dismissed Pym as “a mass of ignorance and effrontery.” It is Pollin’s paradoxical contention, however, that if Pym is read properly the apparently defective workmanship in it can be seen in a quite different light, as purposive on Poe’s part, the result of the “whimsical method” of his narration.

I believe there may be a problem here. The survey of “errors” presented earlier includes only items which, in the absence of alternative explanation provided by the editor, seem owing to Poe’s ignorance, or to his carelessness, haste, forgetfulness, or whatever. But there are other incredibilities, also noted by Pollin, and for these selectively a kind of rationale is offered.

For example, it seems absurd on the face of it that Dirk Peters (height 4‘8”) could have planned to take on the mutineer Allen (height 6‘6”) and throw him overboard. This is explained as “humorous fancy” on Poe’s part. Similarly, Augustus’ feat in capturing a tortoise around the neck with a makeshift lasso is to be seen as “pure fantasy or humor,” for Poe must have known how particularly retractable the heads of tortoises are. In chapter 20, Pym’s ignorance of the Tsalalian language does not disable him from understanding it; but no matter, since Poe’s purpose here “is probably sheer fun and mystification,” just as some of the utterly wrong doctrines about stowage propounded [page 16:] in chapter 6 “must be humorously offered by Poe.” The contradictory characterizations of Pym and Peters noticed in chapter 11 are not scored as a careless error but accepted as “seemingly deliberate.”

The problem, in short, is why the incredibilities found in one episode are simply branded as such, while those in another are justified as “planned absurdity” and evidence of a “whimsical method” at work. In my reading of the Notes and Comments, I could not find the principle by which a “deliberate” error is distinguishable from one not made deliberately. The methodology of the alleged method is not explained. There is no way of knowing, to cite one last example, whether or not Poe was having his little joke when he referred to Captain Barnard’s watch as a “chronometer.”

That more often than not in the writing of Pym Poe was having his little joke is for Pollin a matter of certainty. In his introduction he emphasizes the fact that Poe’s career as a writer of fiction began in a satirical-parodistic vein, and so when he ventured on a story of novel-length he perforce continued in that vein. Thus: “Is it likely that Poe could easily and promptly have given up the habit of satire, parody, and burlesque practiced so vigorously for seven years?” Pollin thinks it much more likely that the habit did continue and that in the instance of Pym it was exercised in making fun of the popular travel memoir, the sea narrative, and “mariners’ chronicles.” But part of the fun consists in pretending that no fun is being made. If this is done successfully, the work will attract a “double audience,” one consisting, in Pollin’s words, of “youthful or naive adult readers,” and another consisting of “more mature, scientifically-minded” readers. The first, or “juvenile,” group would be “gulfed” into taking an absurd story seriously; the second, elitist, group would be “bantered,” that is, teased, chaffed, tested, by the author’s “whimsical erudition,” that is, the assorted incredibilities that are planted on almost every page. Pollin grants that only a few contemporary readers were even dimly aware of Poe’s parodistic intention. But he remarks with approval the fact that no contemporary reader felt called on to subject the story to a “depth” reading, in pursuit of “those ‘undertones’ of meaning which later commentators infuse into the work.” In Pollin’s opinion, such pursuit is inappropriate to a “purposefully simple and exciting narrative.”

There may be another problem here. Pym is, no doubt, sometimes exciting; but if seen in the way Pollin recommends how can it be called purposefully simple? Satire, since it involves indirection and the primacy of an implied meaning, is not simple; nor is irony nor parody, for the same reason. If they were, contemporary reviewers of the book would have discerned what is satirical, ironical, and parodic in it. None did. And if Poe’s purpose was, as Pollin believes, to write a story that would be of simultaneous interest to two quite different audiences, his purpose was not simple, nor, presumably, could it have been realized in a simple way.

In fact, what kinds of audience has the book appealed to? Certainly one audience, a huge one — to judge from Pollin’s comprehensive bibliography of Pym editions published in the Winter 1978 American Trancendental Quarterly — has been made up of juvenile readers for whom it [column 2:] is the exciting story only that matters. But the frequent passages of exposition into which Poe crammed much misleading and erroneous information would hardly “gull” those readers, for they would be disinclined even to read them. There is another, very much smaller, audience, made up notably of those nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists and poets who are mentioned at the end of Pollin’s introduction: Verne, Cendrars, Rimbaud, Wells, Lovecraft, and, I would add, Auden, Nabokov, Wilbur. For these writers, as Pollin nicely puts it, what counts is the “residual effect” of the story, evoking in them a “creative response.” But as for that other, second, audience which Pollin believes Poe had in mind as the object of his “banter,” the one made up of more mature and scientifically-minded readers, has indeed such an audience existed? I am inclined to doubt it. And I doubt too that Poe could have hoped to find readers so encyclopedically well-informed that they would enjoy reading the story mainly to savor knowingly all the “planned absurdities” in it. But if that was his hope it has at long last been realized, although the audience consists of probably no more than one reader of Pym, that reader who is also — and no one better qualified — the book’s magistral editor.

Patrick F. Quinn, Wellesley College


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]