Claiming that this is the true narrative of a sea voyage by Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allen Poe records the strange, unbelievable events aboard the ship Grampus in 1827 and on a voyage of discovery to the Antarctic six months later. Published in 1838, Poe's fictionalized narrative, supposedly penned by Pym, a young man from Nantucket, describes Pym's experiences beginning in July, 1827. Stowed away in the hold of the ship and aided by his friend Augustus Barnard, whose father is captain of the Grampus, Pym endures more than a week alone and in almost total darkness before he discovers that a mutiny has occurred onboard.
Macabre details of ghastly deaths and unrelieved bloodlust, the massacre of the crew, and the casting adrift of the captain presage even more gory events. A countermutiny, equally bloody, leaves only four men alive on the Grampus. A gale, a gruesome death ship which passes them, circling sharks, and additional deaths leave only two men alive when the brig capsizes.
The second half of the account details the trip of discovery taken by Pym and the other survivor, along with an English crew from a passing ship, south to the "Antarctic Sea," a voyage in which they go "more than eight degrees farther south than any previous navigators." On this journey they encounter a monstrous "Arctic bear," more than 15 feet long, a cat-like animal with red teeth and claws, warm water with Galapagos tortoises, a series of islands inhabited by canoe-paddling natives, the Aurora Borealis, hot and milky water, white ashy showers, and a huge human figure in white, not the sights reported by later Antarctic explorers.
Poe's only novel, in the romantic tradition of sea adventures, presages the publication of Melville's Typee, which is a true story. In this case, Poe plays with the reader's sense of reality, claiming that his fictional narrative is true and that the fictional Pym had "refused" to publish it because he thought no one would believe his tale. Ironies abound, matched only by the romantic embellishments and imaginative "discoveries" in Antarctica that make this fast-paced narrative as full of tense drama as any soap opera. The abrupt "conclusion" remains ironically inconclusive. Breathless excitement and near death experiences, combined with mystical visions and inexplicable events, make this exciting narrative fun to read. n Mary Whipple