It’s a book whose metatextual enigmas attracted credulous postmodernists in hordes

Thursday, November 10th, 2022

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is the Voynich manuscript of American literature:

As the only novel written by Edgar Allan Poe, its historical importance is unquestionable; as a literary work, it is mystifying. Its catalog of atrocities and incidents, which includes cannibalism, drownings, ax murders, shootings (with muskets and pistols), a ghost ship crammed with rotting corpses, a shark feeding frenzy, a landslide, and a mass-casualty explosion, combined with a nightmare symbolism have inspired both interpretation and incredulity.

Long forgotten after Poe had been buried both literally (in 1849) and critically, Pym moldered in ragged omnibus editions for nearly 100 years before W. H. Auden and the New Critics resurrected it for the Age of Academia. Since then, every subsequent critical school has interpreted Pym through its own narrow aesthetic, or increasingly political, perspective. It is a metaphor for the creative imagination; a meditation on God and Providence; a pre-Freudian return-to-the-womb allegory; a rite-of-passage myth; a parable about race. The most recent critical trends generally focus on Pym’s self-reflexive qualities. It’s a book whose metatextual enigmas attracted credulous postmodernists in hordes from Yale to the University of California, Irvine.

But the real mystery surrounding Pym, aside from its shocking and indeterminate ending, is whether it is a flawed work produced by an author under duress or a conscious literary hoax. This is, after all, a novel that begins with a preface from the narrator, “Arthur Gordon Pym,” that stresses the implausibility of the events he is about to recount and ends with a postscript from Edgar Allan Poe, the “editor,” who refuses to complete the story because of his “disbelief in the entire truth of the latter portions of the narrative.”

Not long after the boom in Pym studies began, a few sharp-eyed critics realized that Poe, with his long history of hoaxes and pranks (to go along with perpetual hardship) had produced something dubious.


Understanding Pym is impossible without delineating the personal challenges Poe faced when he composed it. Starving, with a teenage wife to support, and unemployed during one of the worst depressions America had yet seen, Poe needed to deliver a manuscript as soon as possible, in hopes of a quick payout. That meant repurposing material from the Southern Literary Messenger, plagiarizing from several nonfiction books, and possibly, fusing two different narratives and passing them off as one.

(Hat tip to Castalia House.)


  1. Cleanthes says:

    A prose homage to ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, with even more disaster. Lovecraft had to have giant carnivorous penguins when he attempted to top it in the Mountains of Madness. Hmm, did Lovecraft ever read AGP of Nantucket?

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