The Complicated Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

Title page, from Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym [pseud.] of Nantucket (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1838). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.
What constitutes a travel narrative – fact or fiction? To Edgar Allan Poe, it may have been fiction posing as fact.

Pictured above is the cover page of Poe’s first and only full length novel – entitled The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym [pseud.] of Nantucket, North America: Comprising Details of 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 – in which he describes the journey of a young Nantucket man stowed away on a whaling ship.

Published in July of 1838, the book opened up to mixed reviews – with a number of critics mistaking the novel for a real life voyage. Many publishers and libraries included a note in future printings of the book, alerting readers that the narrative was in fact fictitious and that many critics had unjustly reviewed the novel accordingly. The book went on to inspire many other authors, including Herman Melville, in his famous novel Moby Dick, and French science fiction author Jules Verne, in his sequel An Antarctic Mystery. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges even went on to call The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “Poe’s greatest work.”

The copy owned by the Johns Hopkins Rare Book Collection is a first edition 1839 English printing by publisher Wiley and Putnam, featuring a trade binding with a board cover and hunter green cloth overlay. The cover also contains intricate floral detail, accompanied by inlaid gold print along the spine and a glue binding. As demonstrated by the imprint on the title page, Poe did not assume authorship over the piece during its first English printing and decided instead to publish under a pseudonym. The common typeface and plain paper present the book as a classic travel narrative, one written by an unknown author named Pym. The lack of end papers and illustrations, along with no frontispiece, further deny the book any artistic and fictional complexity. As a result, the confusion over the book’s genre – memoir or fiction – was abetted by its plain publication form, which lacked the visual and material clues necessary for its readers to decipher its validity. Poe later deemed The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym a “silly” book, which makes the reader question whether or not Poe intended to trick his audience or whether it was an unforeseen, almost comical byproduct.

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