Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Pym’s Narrative in the American Newspapers: More Uncollected Notices,” Poe Studies, June 1978, Vol. XI, No. 1, 11:8-10


[page 8, column 2:]

Pym’s Narrative in the American
Newspapers: More Uncollected Notices

Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Emeritus

This additional gathering of notices of the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket offers even more proof of the long-standing error in most commentaries on the book: that it was either ignored in America or unequivocally condemned. On the contrary, these articles, added to the thirteen American treatments of the work previously discussed (1), provide additional reason to wonder why the book was not a commercial success, as a letter from the firm of Harper and Brothers to Poe asserts (2). Obviously, the major journals could not afford to ignore a novel issued by the great New York publisher, nor would the Harpers fail to distribute a large number of review copies. The following eleven brief announcements, notices, and reviews in nine different newspapers of New York and Philadelphia indicate also that Poe touched upon important interests and issues of the day (stirring up even the “Moon-Hoax” author himself) and that he was most shrewd in using a long title that both luridly, summarizes and economically advertises the fantastic work. Because so many articles rely upon the title for their copy, it seems best to give it once here, with the proviso that the differentiated capitals of the title page, our lack of any copy used for publicity purposes from the Harpers, and the varying styles in the reviews make it impossible to authenticate the accidentals of this text (in fact, in no review or catalogue entry today for the book is the curious period after “Pym” on the 1838 title page reproduced) (3).

Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket. Comprising the Details of a Mutiny and atrocious butchery on board the American brig Grampus, on her way to the South seas, in the month of June, 1827. With an Account of the recapture of the vessel by the survivers: their shipwreck and subsequent horrible Sufferings from Famine; their Deliverance by means of the British schooner Jane Guy; the brief Cruise of this latter vessel in the Antarctic Ocean, her Capture, and the Massacre of her Crew among a group of islands, in the eighty-fourth parallel of southern latitude; together with the incredible Adventures and Discoveries still farther South, to which that distressing calamity gave rise.

My approach will be chronological in general, save for a few instances of follow-up interplay and response to comments between the papers. The review copies must have been sent a few days before the official date of publication, Monday, July 30, 1838.4 No review precedes this date. The title enabled many of the earliest notices to give the impression of being based on a reading of the book, especially when the writer cleverly turned the title into review-text.

The first does not do even this, regarding the title as an ample summary. It is the notice of July 30 in the Morning Courier and New York Enq ‘6irer, a primarily mercantile six-penny paper, lively in text and with perhaps the largest circulation in the city. It was conducted by the [page 9:] colorful and irascible Col. James Watson Webb whose assistance, ten years hence, Poe intended to request in connection with his lecture of February 2, 1848, on “The Universe” (5). The reviewer, obviously, has at best skimmed through the book:

The Messrs. Harpers have just published a duodecimo volume under the following title: [title given]. There is certainly an array of horrors set forth in the title; but the volume is highly interesting in the story, well written, and to the lovers of marvellous fiction will be quite a treasure.

On the next day, July 31, the Daily Whig of New York published a “review” of Pym based solely on the title:

The Messrs. Harpers have published a duodecimo volume of the most exciting character, under the following title — from which the reader will be able to judge somewhat of the nature of the work: [title given].

The Whig was popular and widely circulated, in part, perhaps, because of the political letters specially sent to it by Horace Greeley from Albany. Its “article” on Pym caught the attention of the editor of the Pennsylvania Inquirer of Philadelphia, which apparently felt obliged to accord some space to a new Harper and Brothers book (6). On August 2, under the caption “An Exciting Work,” the latter paper printed this: “We learn from the New York Whig, that the Messrs. Harpers have published a duodecimo volume of the most exciting character, under the following title — from which the reader will be able to judge somewhat of the work: [title given].” The next day, August 3, it followed this with another article: “We have already noticed this entertaining and exciting narrative at some length, on the faith of paragraphs which have appeared in the columns of our New York contemporaries. The Harpers have favored us with a copy, and the adventures of Pym, although only occupying a small volume, are well calculated to enchain the interest and sympathies of every class of readers.” One doubts that having this very small book in hand led to the writer’s reading any portion of it.

By this time other papers in Philadelphia had received their copies of the book and could write their own reviews. The leading Democratic paper, the Pennsylvanian, is at least frank: “ ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket,’ is the title of a new work just published by the Harpers, containing the details of the voyages, mutinies and other disastrous chances which befell said Pym in and about the year 1827. We have not yet had time to peruse the volume, which it is hinted is from the pen of an able American writer, but from what report says, we doubt not that it is replete with interest. It may be had of Mr. Perkins, Chesnut street, and of the other booksellers.” The popular liberal penny-paper, the Public Ledger, also on August 2, “noticed” the book by title alone: “The Harpers, of New York, have published a work in one volume, with the following title: [title given].” Similarly, on the same date, August 2, the venerable United States Gazette, founded in 1789, published a notice relying overtly upon the title as summary but also indicating a glance into the Preface:

We have received through Mr. Perkins, no. 134 Chesnut street, a volume just from the press of the Harpers, of New York, [column 2:] with the following title, which we copy at length, with a view of setting forth the nature of its contents: [title given]. The work is full of the most wonderful details, which the author assures [us] are wholly true.

Back in New York City, the New York Gazette, with a long publishing history, brought into its notice of Pym an element of jocosity and even of political differences that should have helped to publicize the book widely. On July 30 (vol. 50, whole number 18,438) it printed the following article, showing at least a skimming acquaintance with the text. In its comment on Richard Adams Locke formerly of the Sun and then of the rival Democratic paper, the New Era (1836-1839) (7), the Gazette clearly hoped to evoke a response for use in its editorial columns:

The Messrs. Harper have published a very extraordinary volume purporting to be a narrative of “Arthur Gordon Pym,” who it is said lately deceased [sic] in some melancholy way, and his adventures as well as his death are referred to as of perfect notoriety. We don’t know whether he died at Cuddyhunk, Van Dieman’s [sic] land, Communipaw, or in the moon. The narrative is a most extraordinary one, and will be bought and read, we doubt not, with great avidity. It is hinted that Mr. Poe, the accomplished Virginia writer, has something to do about the book. We should be more inclined to think that Mr. Lock [sic], the very ingenious author of the Moon Marvel was the author.

This is the only review that acknowledges Poe’s curious hoax-statement in the first sentence of the “Note” in Pym: “The late sudden and distressing death of Mr. Pym [is] well known to the public through the medium of the daily press.” The list of places for his death is curious; I have found no real “Cuddyhunk,” a name perhaps devised after “cuddy hold” or after two real cities of India — Cuddalore and Cuddapah; Van Diemen’s Land, or remote Tasmania, twice occurs in Pym (ch. 15, pare. 7, and 16, pare. 9); Communipaw is a town near Jersey City, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The information about Mr. Poe, “the accomplished Virginia writer,” could almost be gleaned from the preface, but more probably it came from the gossip of journalists or publishers.

The rejoinder from Mr. Locke came swiftly on August 1. It must be remembered that Poe had deeply regretted the popular success of the “Moon Hoax,” begun in the Sun on August 25, 1835, when he had expected “Hans Pfaall,” his own treatment of space exploration in the June 1835 Messenger, to command universal admiration and, perhaps, credulity. In the “Literati” papers, Poe tells of the great acclaim of Locke’s hoax, which pretended to be based on scientific observation of the moon through Sir John Herschel’s new South African telescope as reported by a Scottish science journal. Using the same sources as Poe, Locke had correctly gauged the gullibility of the public and consequently increased circulation for the Sun with his hoax. Poe acknowledged Locke’s 1835 denial of having seen or imitated “Hans Pfaall” long after the event, in 1846, but not in 1838, when the Gazette might still hint at the borrowing charges as aired in the New York Transcript early in September 1835. Certainly Locke himself remembered them, as he shows in his rejoinder in the New Era:

The New York Gazette, in noticing a romantic narrative of voyages and discoveries lately published by the Harpers, purporting to be be [sic] written by one “Arthur Gordon Pym,” complaisantly remarked,’’It is hinted that Mr. Poe, the accomplished [page 10:] Virginia writer, had something to do with the book. We should be more inclined to think that Mr. Locke, the very ingenious author of the Moon Marvel was the author.”

Now this very ingenious person, duly thanking the editor of the Gazette for his double compliment, begs to say that he had no hand whatever in this new hoax, and verily believes that the merit of it, be it what it may, is entirely due to Mr. Edgar A. Poe. The author of the moon joke is too deep in the lunar mysteries of the Whig Young Men’s State Convention at Utica to spare time to read the book at present, but it shall be the next thing he reads after the marvellous “Address,” which takes precedence over all other hoaxes, ancient or modern.

In its reply of August 2, the Gazette used this for part of its copy:

Mr. Lock, the lunarian, utterly disclaims the authorship of “Arthur Gordon Pym,” as will be seen by the following and from his paper. We had intimated an opinion that the new work of fiction was likely enough to be from the pen that produced the admirable effort of imagination, so familiarly called in this country and Europe, the “Moon hoax.” [Cites the New Era paragraph, above.]

Of course we were not very serious when we made the ascription, but really, the “Man of the Moon” himself might have been willing to be considered the author. Mr. Gordon Pym’s imagination ought to “call and see” its cousin german at the Era Office for they are as alike as two lumps of chalk, and we believe the one as faithfully as we do the other. As to the moonshine upon which the author of the memories of the man bats is regaling, we wish him a pleasant repast, though it is our opinion that he will find his food of difficult digestion, and harder to swallow than some of the lacteal preparations of his loco foco friend of the Boston Post; both being made of green cheese.

The deliberate misspelling of the name of “Locke,” the “lunarian,” reputed to be a descendant of the great English philosopher, is part of the raillery of politics.

The last item, dated August 10, occurred in the sixpenny Whig evening Star, the paper of the versatile Major Mordecai M. Noah (8). Obviously the review is based largely upon the long title, but the misleading reference to the “millstone” and to “Mr. Pym’s secret” indicates that the writer had at least skimmed over the ending and the final “Note.”

Mr. Pym’s Narrative — The Messrs. Harper have just published a strange tale of adventure and peril, by sea and land, bearing the name of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, as its hero. It includes a vivid and appaling [sic] description of mutiny at sea, on board a whale ship, the subsequent wreck of the vessel and dreadful sufferings of the survivors, their rescue when reduced in number to only two by an English sailing schooner, the wonderful cruise of the latter in the South Atlantic Ocean, approaching within six degrees of the pole, and the still more wonderful adventures and discoveries of Mr. Pym and a single companion, still farther south, after the massacre of all their companions and destruction of the schooner by the astonishing savages inhabiting a most astonishing island lying in the eighty-fourth parallel of south latitude! What are we to think of it? There is a deal of ingeninus [sic] mystification about the author’s trip, which everyone must unravel according to his own fancy. For out part we say nothing; but we think we can see as far into a millstone as any body with no more than one pair of eyes to help them. Verb. sap. Let every man fathom Mr. Pym’s secret for himself, say we. He tells some wonderful things, that’s certain.

Not one of these reviews and notices is unfavorable to the book. Considering the total two dozen American reviews by now found and recorded, the question again arises: Why did Harper and Brothers have to acknowledge that their sales of so promising a book by so “accomplished” a writer were so low?



(1) See my “Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and the Contemporary Reviewers,” Studies in American Fiction, 2 ( 1974), 37-56; and “Three More Early Notices of Pym and the Snowden Connection,” Poe Studies, 8 (1975), 33-35.

(2) This letter of February 20, 1839, among the Griswold MSS. in the Boston Public Library, begins: “We are inclined to think that ‘Pym’ has not succeeded or been received as well in this country as it has in England.” Another sentence from it is erroneously cited in Killis Campbell, The Mind of Poe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1932), p. 49, n. 3. I owe thanks to Ian Walker of Manchester for a facsimile of the letter.

(3) I follow Burton’s review in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 3 (September 1838), 210-211, for the capitalization, for the reasons given in my “Pym and Contemporary Reviewers,” and the title page itself for the punctuation except for the curious period after ’ Pym.”

(4) I verify the date of publication from the advertisement of Israel Post Bookseller on 89 Bowery, New York City, in the New-York American. July 31, 1838, p. 3, column 5.

(5) See Letters, II, 357-358, for the reference in a letter to H. D. Chapin of January 17, 1848; see also II, 361, for the letter to Eveleth of February 29, 1848, asking for the return of the article from the Courier.

(6) My gratitude is owed to Dwight Thomas for providing me with careful transcriptions of all the items which he had found in the Philadelphia newspapers.

(7) See F. L. Mott, American Journalism, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1962), p. 225.

(8) See Letters, I, 65 and 116, for letters of 1835 and 1839; see also Poe’s flattering autography portrait of “Judge Noah” in Complete Works, XV, 207.


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