Text: J. Don Vann, “Three More Contemporary Reviews of Pym,” Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol. IX, No. 2, 9:43-44


[page 43:]

Three More Contemporary Reviews of Pym

North Texas State University

In a 1974 article Burton R. Pollin published three known and thirteen previously unrecorded reviews to document the contemporary critical reception of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1), thereby refuting the long-held ideas that the book was ignored by critics when it was first published, that those who did notice it condemned it soundly, and that the British accepted it as an authentic account. A year later Mr. Pollin added three other notices to the list (2). Of these nineteen known reviews, six are British. But additional reviews, heretofore uncollected, also appeared in London newspapers and are presented below (3).

The earliest of these reviews appeared on October 13, 1838, in the Court Gazette (p. 445), a weekly newspaper founded six months previously by J. B. Torr. The notice, headed with a short version of the British title, begins,

This is a book which, as the title setteth forth, comprises “the details of a mutiny, famine, and shipwreck, which occurred to the author during a voyage to the South Seas, resulting in various extraordinary adventures and discoveries in the eighty-fourth parallel of southern latitude.” We apprehend it has been produced as a sort of practical exposition and proof of Byron’s assertion, that “‘truth is stranger than fiction.” It is, in fact, a book of wonders, originally published in an American periodical, without any warranty of truth. It now appears that the exciting interest of the story which is told, and the intrinsic evidence of its veracity and general accuracy, have induced the London publishers to present it to the public in an entire form. The style of the narrative is not an indifferent imitation of that adopted by De Foe, in his best novel, “Robinson Crusoe.” In matters of surprise, if not in those which appertain to philosophy and morals, the volume will remind the reader of that popular work. We present the opening page: — [The first paragraph of the story is quoted.]

The reviewer, in speaking of “the intrinsic evidence” of Pym’s “veracity and general accuracy,” seems to accept the narrative as authentic, although in this statement he is simply paraphrasing a note added to the novel’s preface by the British publishers. A casual reading of this review may be one of the sources behind the myth that Pym hoaxed the English “country public,” for the Court Gazette was widely read in the provinces by an audience interested in court developments (see Pollin, “Pym and the Contemporary Reviewers,” pp. 46-47, for a text of the added note and an account of this myth).

The second literary notice was published on October 20, 1838, in the Naval and Military Gazette (p. 677), a weekly newspaper founded in 1833 which continued until 1886 when it was incorporated in Broad Arrow. Although the reviewer expresses admiration for the descriptive power of the work, he is clearly among those who see it as a misconceived hoax:

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, North America: comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, during a Voyage to the South Seas; resulting in various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude. Wiley and Putnam. [column 2:]

For those who possess a genuine love of the horrible, here is a rich and luxurious banquet, but let not the fastidious, the squeamish, the hypercritical, presume even to glance at such viands as brother Jonathan has in this instance spread forth; for they are to be digested only by the strongest of stomachs.

In this “Narrative” of Mr. Pym’s are many “hair-breath’scapes;” the incidents — some of them — are of a most appalling character; in parts, we find our feelings excited by powerful painting; but, as a whole, the story is very clumsily put tm “ether, and the discrepancies are so numerous, and so palpable, that, in its perusal, not even the merest child could be cheated into a belief of the page of truth being before him. For instance what are we to think of a country (near the South Pole) where everything is white [sic], and where the inhabitants (jet black) have a horror of everything that is white; — where the water is not water, and yet it is water! [There follows a quotation from the paragraph about the gum-arable water at the end of Chapter XVIII.]

Here, and in hundreds of other places, we have not only the improbable but the impossible. It was not thus that De Foe wrote his Robinson Crusoe; it was not in such a spirit that Miss Porter conceived and executed her equally sweet and exquisite fiction of Sir Edward Seaward.

As we have intimated, however, this book will not be without its admirers.

The final review appeared on October 21, 1838, in the Era (p. 44), a newly-established organ of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association edited by William Carpenter. While the critic objects to the novel’s extravagances, he does grant that the story is a gripping one:

This, we presume, belongs to the species of romance, which not satisfied with relating probabilities, assumes the outward guise of authentic narrative. Its fault is, that it is too uniformly extravagant; bur, notwithstanding, this [sic] the story is highly exciting, and leads one to regret that an author who has so evident a penchant for fiction should not lie boldly. We quote an adventure of the supposed autobiographer in a ship which has been piratically seized by the crew. He is to personate one of the men who were murdered by the insurgents, with the view of assisting, by means of superstitious terror, an attempt which is to be made to reconquer the command of the vessel. [The review concludes by quoting the last paragraph of Chapter VII and, from Chapter VIII, the whole of paragraphs six and seven and the first half of eight.]

These literary notices reinforce Pollin’s conclusion that Pym did indeed receive considerable attention in Britain, where reviews often included notes of praise, however qualified, for the book’s power and artistry. The comparisons of Poe’s technique to that of Defoe echo opinions of critics in previously collected reviews, such as those in the New Monthly Magazine, Monthly Review, and Atlas. And the positions taken by reviewers in the Naval and Military Gazette and the Era provide additional support for Pollin’s rejection of the myth that the British were hoaxed by the book. Although the notice in the Court Gazette can be interpreted as offering evidence to the contrary, even its author finds that the novel “is, in fact, a book of wonders.”



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

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

(3) Two long quotations from Pym, apparently printed from the same plate, also appeared without editorial comment in Franklin’s Miscellany, August 17, 1839, and in the London Free Press and Literary Times, August 24, 1839; these quotations, headed “Sufferings from Thirst” and sub-titled “From Gordon Pym’s [page 44:] Narrative,” are Pym’s diary entries for July 31, August 1, and August 2 from Chapter VIII. In reprinting the reviews I have cited the quoted sections of Pym by paragraph as the text is printed in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), III, -245.

The research for this article was made possible by grants from the American Philosophical Society and the North Texas State University Faculty Research Committee.


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