Text: J. V. Ridgely, “The Continuing Puzzle of Arthur Gordon Pym, ” from Poe Newsletter­, June 1970, vol. III, no. 1, 3:5-6


[page 5, column 2:]

The Continuing Puzzle of Arthur Gordon Pym
Some Notes and Queries

Columbia University

While preparing an annotated edition of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, I have turned up some new information which I would like to pass on to readers of the Poe Newsletter. I also solicit their comments on some fresh puzzles for which I have found no satisfactory solutions. For the sake of conciseness I will list three main points.

1. TEXTS: There are three basic American texts: (A) those portions published in the Southern Literary Messenger, III (January-February, 1837); (B) the first book edition of the full text, published by Harper & Bros. (New York, 1838); (C) the version printed in Volume IV of the Works, edited by Rufus W. Griswold and others, issued by Redfield (New York, 1856). Variant readings between (A) and (B) have long been known and commented upon. But no one, so far as I can discover, has previously collated (B) and (C), perhaps because of mistrust of the editorial hand of Griswold or because the Harrison Complete Works actually prints (C) instead of the claimed (B). Yet such a collation reveals a surprisingly large number of minor verbal alterations in (C), [column 2:] the bulk of them in Chapters I through V. Since the copy text for (C) must have been a marked copy of (B), the question arises as to who made those changes. A logical explanation would be that Griswold passed on to the printer a copy in which Poe himself had begun to make a revision, perhaps for the projected edition of his Prose Romances. The late Professor Thomas O. Mabbott, with whom I discussed these findings, was also of the opinion that small stylistic changes would be more characteristic of the practice of Poe than of Griswold. If they are indeed Poe’s, then (C) is a true second edition and not a careless attempt merely to reprint (B).

2.  SOURCES: Poe made even more detailed use of Irving’s Astoria and Benjamin Morrell’s A Narrative of Four Voyages than previous source studies have indicated. To cite just two examples, the character of Dirk Peters is almost certainly suggested by the description of Pierre Dorion in Astoria (Chapter XV, with the addition of details from Chapters XXII, XXIV, XXVI, and XL); a phrase in Poe’s footnote to Chapter XVIII of Pym is drawn from Morrell’s prefatory “Advertisement.” One definite new source is J. N. Reynolds ’ Voyage of the United States Frigate Potomac (New York, 1835); the description of the white squall in Chapter XIV of Pym is taken directly from page 61. This quotation, incidentally, makes virtually certain Poe’s authorship of the review of Reynolds ’ Voyage in the Southern Literary Messenger, I (June, 1835), 594-95.

Some other potential sources which I am still investigating are: (a) Irving’s Bracebridge Hall (for the discussion of Dutch ghost ships in the “Storm-Ship” chapter); (b) Michael Scott’s Tom Cringle’s Log (for the Ariel cruise and the death ship); (c) M. Malte Brun, A System of Universal Geography (Boston, 1834), 3 vols. (for the milky, luminous sea). I have been unable to locate the source(s) of the passages on stowage in Chapter VI and on lying-to in Chapter VII, though George E. Woodberry long ago reported (guessed?) that they came from a manual of “Seamanship.” Has any reader seen this work?

3.  THE LANGUAGE OF TSALAL: It is likely that most readers consider the words spoken by the black natives as mere nonsense syllables. Sidney Kaplan, however, in his preface to a paperback edition (New York, 1960), asserts that the natives ’ names are Hebrew and that they “speak a kind of Hebrew too.” Two Hebraists whom I consulted cast such doubt on this theory, though, that I sought an alternative explanation. It is here offered for commentary with a high degree of tentativeness, since I have no expertise in the languages involved.

The sequence from Morrell’s Narrative which Poe was minutely following in the Tsalal episode is concerned with a South Seas island, and it occurred to me that nearly all the words which Poe puts into his own natives ’ mouths exemplify the vowel sounds and the process of reduplication characteristic of Malayo-Polynesian languages. Acting on this hunch, I combed the only nineteenth-century dictionary of Pacific tongues which I could locate, Edward Tregear’s The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary (Christchurch, etc., New Zealand, n.d. [c. 1890?]). With [page 6:] full awareness of the confusing variety of ways in which Pacific languages may be transcribed in European orthographies, I offer my conjectural “translations” of Poe’s words according to Tregear’s spellings and definitions.

Anamoo-moo: from hana (to shine, to glow) plus mumu (to collect together, a swarm); hence, a collection of shining objects.

Lama-Lama: from lamalama (many lights, much light).

Too-wit: possibly tui, which Tregear gives as “a king, a governor.”

Klock-Klock: no word for “village” located which resembles Poe’s spelling; possibly an imitation of “click” sounds.

Wampoos/Yampoos: Tregear translates pu as “tribe”; the prefix somewhat resembles hau, meaning “illustrious, royal, commanding.”

Mattee non we pa pa si: mate is a common word meaning “to kill, to die”; papa can mean “race, family.” The other words are probably not Polynesian. Poe renders the sentence as “there was no need for arms where all were brothers.”

Tekeli-li: under ririri Tregear gives tekelili (to shiver, to shake). But splitting Poe’s word into tiki (god) and lili (angry) would also fit the context.

Nu-Nu: Tregear gives several translations under nunu, none of which is particularly relevant as the name of this native.

Tsalal and Tsalemon/Psalemoun: not Polynesian, but drawn from a transliteration of the “Ethiopian [Geëz] verbal root” discussed in Poe’s concluding “Note.” The source here was Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Boston, 1836).

If there is any validity at all to my theory, more puzzles are raised than are solved. First, what could have been Poe’s source? Some travel book which contained (as many did) a glossary from which he drew? Consultation with some learned acquaintance like Professor Charles Anthon or J. N. Reynolds? Second, why Polynesian? My only guess here is that Poe originally had planned to take Pym on a Pacific cruise and shifted him to the Antarctic at a late stage of composition. Finally, why bury relevant meanings in a language which almost no reader of Pym could fathom? I can suggest only that Poe did plan some elucidation which was forestalled by a change in narrative line — or that he was here displaying an increasing interest in secret writing. (”Von Jung,” published late in 1837, is the only other early example of what would become a near-obsession with cryptography.)

Though several of the points which I have raised are puzzling questions, perhaps — like what song the Syrens sang — they are not beyond all conjecture.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:1 - PSDR, 1970]