As promised, a second post for R(eaders) I(mbibing) P(eril) XIV, a celebration of any genre that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Four books, 2 of which also fit into my celebration of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday (double-dipping allowed here). I’m all about Edgar Allan Poe in this post (appropriate for this 170th year and month of his death), so get ready for some perilous and blood-curdling tales.
The Man Who Was Poe, Avi (1989), is a murder mystery set in Providence, Rhode Island, 1848. (It’s known that Poe was there in 1848, wooing a wealthy widow.) In Avi’s fictionalized Poe, we find a brooding, haunted, desperate man drawn unwillingly into solving the mysteries of a girl’s disappearance and her aunt’s murder. With images and imaginings of death piling up around him, Poe teeters on the edge of madness It is, perhaps, only the parallels between his own life and that of the orphaned Edmund, the boy he’s helping, that keep Poe on the case.
To hide his identity, Poe calls himself Auguste Dupin, and uses Dupin’s methods of careful observation, ruling out nothing as possible clues. Moving between tenements, saloons, the seaport and a cemetery, the book takes us through the seamy side of 19th century Providence, providing only a few moments’ relief in the widow’s well-furnished home. Throughout, everywhere he goes, Poe is continually reminded of his losses, which inexorably connect beauty, love, and death in horrifying cycles that can only be broken by alcohol. Poe and Edmund find themselves going deeper into danger, as they close in on the solution. Poe makes a good traditional detective (i.e., quirky, flawed, and difficult to like), in whom we see Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Jane Tennison. We expect him to help Edmund, even as we know he can’t help himself.
Poe: A Life Cut Short (Peter Ackroyd 2008) gives us an excellent overview of Poe’s life, one filled with tragedy (the premature deaths of so many friends and relations) and genius (those haunted tales). Ackroyd deals as best he can with the unknowns (“Poe might have said …” “He was probably thinking …” etc.), especially in describing those last few days of his life — his death the consequence of life-long poverty as much as alcoholism and tuberculosis. Ackroyd is honest about Poe’s character — proud, clever, deceitful, selfish, weak, entertaining — he could make friends when he wanted, but he couldn’t hold them. Yet he loved his bride and evidently lived happily with her and her mother for the few years they were married. Of all the people he cherished, only his mother-in-law outlived him.
Like a heavy cloak, the specter of death hung about him throughout his life, pushing his imagination in directions rarely seen before. Marilynne Robinson, in the New York Review of Books (05 Feb 2015), called Poe “a turbulence,” a perfect word for understanding his effect on the world. He disturbed everyone — still does.
Especially in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1837). I’ve reviewed Poe’s only novel before, and I have little to add. Yet to understand Mat Johnson’s novel (the 4th book discussed in this post), you need to know Poe’s basic plot. Arthur Pym sets out from Nantucket on what begins as a sea-going adventure story (young boy stows away, pirates take over the ship, wise sailor Dirk Peters saves him from certain death), but disaster follows disaster, and Pym discovers only horrors and undeniable evidence that humans are worse than animals.
In brief — Pym survives 3 shipwrecks, each wreck dropping him further and further south until he ends up with Dirk Peters on a tiny boat in the Antarctic Ocean, sailing due south towards Tsalal, an unknown island inhabited by people whose black skin contrasts with the whiteness of the snow-covered landscape. The final scene, a vision-nightmare as Pym and his companion sail further and further south, concludes with this diary entry:
The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.
That’s it. We know that somehow Pym survived and returned to civilization, because the Preface starts thusly: “UPON my return to the United States a few months ago, after the extraordinary series of adventure in the South Seas and elsewhere, of which an account is given in the following pages ….” HOW he got back, Pym (and Poe) doesn’t say.
In her article about Poe, Robinson writes that “the extermination of the native people” was “a major business of Europeans, or whites, virtually everywhere in the world at the time Poe wrote”, and as a southerner, Poe should have valued whiteness over blackness. But Robinson argues otherwise. More importantly, she suggests that Pym’s Narrative was a turning point in his writing, because we find in his subsequent tales something that was never present in the writing that preceded it:
the inescapable confrontation of the self by a perfect justice, the exposure of a guilty act in a form that makes its revelation a recoil of the mind against itself.
In other words, in Poe’s tales, “reality is of a kind to break through the enthralling dream of innocence or of effective concealment and confront us—horrify us—with truth.”
That’s shattering view of reality is what we find in Mat Johnson’s Pym (2011), his sequel to Poe’s novel, set 180 years later. In it, failed academic Chris Jaynes believes Narrative of Arthur Pym is where America’s “pathology of Whiteness” began, and when he accidentally inherits Dirk Peters’ remains, he’s convinced that Poe’s tale was NOT fiction — and Jaynes’ journey south, on Pym’s trail, begins. His ship’s crew, 6 men and 1 woman, all African Americans, each with different reasons for sailing with Jaynes, are searching for Tsalal, the island whose inhabitants are so black that not even their teeth are white. What they find instead is a frozen land inhabited by what can best be described as a race of white-furred yetis who live in a huge complex of ice-caves, and who quickly enslave the entire crew of Jaynes’ ship. And it’s within the ice-caves that Jaynes discovers Arthur Gordon Pym, still alive 180 years later.
Johnson’s satire skewers assumptions about race and racism, art (including a hilarious parody of artist Thomas Kinkaid) and academia, yet still can be painfully blunt about racism’s insidious workings. At one point, Jaynes reminds himself that when Pym’s ship arrived at Tsalal, the ultra-black natives killed all but 2 of the ship’s crew (Pym and Peters were the exceptions), and then wonders why every people, upon meeting a shipload of white sailors, didn’t do the same. They probably often wish they had, he muses.
Much later, Jaynes escapes the furry white race with his friend Garth, dragging Pym along as a guide to the island of Tsalal. Pym, typical of an antebellum Southern gentleman, refuses to “hear anything negative about the race from the caves”.
That is it, [writes Jaynes,] that’s the trick … I saw it all become clear to me. That is how they stay so white: by refusing to accept blemish or history. Whiteness isn’t about being something, it is about being no thing, nothing, an erasure. Covering over the truth with layers of blank reality just as the snowstorm was now covering our tent….
Johnson ends this tale as Poe ended Arthur Pym, with two survivors, starved and lost, sailing towards an unknown fate. What Jaynes and Garth eventually find is an island inhabited by “a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority.” Their fate looks to be much happier than Pym’s — and Poe’s.
*If I’ve inspired you to read Poe’s weird novel, you can find it, entire, here.