The Poe Museum recently received a small slip-cased volume in the mail. While most of the books that cross my desk contain Poe’s tales of terror (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and the like), this case holds an edition of the only novel Poe ever finished, The 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 Suffering 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. (Let’s just call it Pym.)
The unusual title suggests something of its strange contents which feature cannibalism, a sea voyage to the Antarctic, and a ghostly white figure.
Poe printed the first installments of what was intended to be a serialized novel in the Southern Literary Messenger just before he left the magazine. After moving from Richmond to New York, Poe completed Pym while adding a preface to explain that the parts that appeared in the Messenger had been written by Poe on behalf of Arthur Gordon Pym while the rest of the book was written by Pym himself. The preface, signed by “A.G. Pym,” further confesses that Poe and Pym had previously pretended the first installments were fiction. Since “A.G. Pym” states that all the details in the novel are absolutely true, some readers believed it might be a real account. The Evening Post noted, “The air of reality in the narrative is assumed with no small skill.”
Others were unconvinced and assumed it was just another hoax by Richard Adams Locke, author of “The Moon Hoax” a few years earlier. In a December 1838 review of Pym in Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine, William Burton declares, “A more impudent attempt at humbugging the public has never been exercised; the voyages of Gulliver were politically satirical, and the adventures of Munchausen, the acknowledged caricature of a celebrated traveller. Sindbad the sailor, Peter Wilkins, and Moore’s Utopia, are confessedly works of imagination; but Arthur Gordon Pym puts forth a series of travels outraging possibility, and coolly requires his insulted readers to believe his ipse dixit.”
Poe saw this criticism and later wrote Burton, “You once wrote in your magazine a sharp critique upon a book of mine — a very silly book — Pym. Had I written a similar criticism upon a book of yours, you feel that you would have been my enemy for life, and you therefore imagine in my bosom a latent hostility towards yourself.”
Some reviewers were more positive in their assessments. The New York Gazette called Pym “a very extraordinary volume purporting to be a narrative of ‘Arthur Gordon Pym,’ who it is said [is] lately deceased in some melancholy way, and his adventures as well as his death are referred to as of perfect notoriety.” The New-Yorker declared it “a work of extraordinary, freezing interest beyond anything we ever read.” The Morning Courier wrote, “the volume is highly interesting in the story, well written, and to the lovers of marvellous fiction will be quite a treasure.”
Harper and Brothers published an unknown number of copies in New York in 1838, but sales were disappointing. Within a year, the book was reprinted in England where it saw its first success. When the first British edition sold well, a number of British bootleg versions appeared in a multiple editions. Herman Melville’s brother was one of many who bought one of these unauthorized copies for which the author received no compensation.
Although Americans were mainly unconvinced by this apparent hoax, some English readers believed it was a true story. George Putnam recounted, “The grave particularity of the title and of the narrative misled many of the critics as well as ourselves, and whole columns of these new ‘discoveries,’ including the hieroglyphics (!) found on the rocks, were copied by many of the English country papers as sober historical truth”
The edition now on my desk was published earlier this year by the Folio Society, which has been printing finely bound and illustrated books since 1947 because—according to their website—they believe “great books deserve to be printed in a form worthy of their contents.” Their books are designed to be read, collected, and cherished by those who love great literature. With an astute introduction by novelist Marilynne Robinson and illustrations by David Lupton, the Folio Society’s edition is sure to be a collector’s item.
The Folio Society’s Editorial Director Tom Walker explained that this new edition of Pym was originally proposed by a reader. “We then wrote to a large number of our customers about a wide range of novels and this consistently came top of their list of books they wanted to see in a Folio edition. I think that is partly because we have already (some years ago now) published many of Poe’s short stories, and this underpublished novel was seen as a natural next step. Our readers of course admire Poe as one of the greatest of nineteenth-century authors, and the combination of classic status with horror and seafaring was I think irresistible for them!”
An admirer of her work, Walker chose Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson to write the introduction, which he deemed “all I hoped it might be – intense and broad reaching itself, and cleverly bringing the novel into the light of [Poe’s last book] Eureka.” Walker was also pleased with Lupton’s “dark, brooding” illustrations.
Aside from the fine illustrations (see below), the Folio Society’s Pym is notable for its craftsmanship, its sturdy binding designed to be handled and read by generations of readers, and its small size—in imitation of the small size of Poe’s first editions from the 1830s and 1840s. Click here to find out more about the book. To read an interview with the illustrator David Lupton, click here.