Saturday, October 22, 2016

Edgar Allan Poe and "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket"

"Shall I ever forget the triple horror of that spectacle? Twenty-five or thirty human bodies, among whom were several females, lay scattered about between the counter and the galley in the last and most loathsome state of putrefaction. We plainly saw that not a soul lived in that fated vessel! Yet we could not help shouting to the dead for help! Yes, long and loudly did we beg, in the agony of the moment, that those silent and disgusting images would stay for us, would not abandon us to become like them, would receive us among their goodly company!"

(from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, 1838)

Terry Southern once quipped that the Edgar Allan Poe tale The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was never found in high school reading lists "by virtue of its extreme weirdness." Today, it seems that the Gothic overtones of Poe's own life (and death) continue to make his an American story of excess and a mythic, singular literary weirdness of its own.

By the standards of any age, it was a miserable way to go; in his surviving papers he left begging letters to magazine editors asking for as little as $10 to pay the fare to Richmond or Baltimore. Edgar Allan Poe, dark romantic writer and poet credited with inventing the genre of detective fiction, then suffered a death far more Gothic and gloomy than any of his stories.

It began badly when he was found, aged 40, wandering the streets of Baltimore, penniless, raving unintelligibly, dressed in someone else's clothes, possibly having been beaten up. He died four days later, on October 7, 1849, in the hospital, having uttered the final words: "Lord, help my poor soul."

From there it only got worse, although he was at the time probably the most famous writer in America. His cousin Neilson Poe omitted to tell anyone he had died, and so fewer than ten people turned up for the funeral. The priest couldn't be bothered to give a sermon, and the entire ceremony lasted three minutes.

But since his pauper's death Poe has left a rich and extraordinary literary legacy. His innovations in detective writing can be seen as the direct antecedent to Sherlock Holmes, for instance, and to the story-telling style of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
His stories also sparked the expansive and creative imagination of Jules Verne.

His "Balloon Hoax" of 1844 - in which he wrote a newspaper article reporting as fact the fictitious crossing of the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon -- cuts a straight path to Orson Welles's famous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds 94 years later. And Dan Brown's huge success with The Da Vinci Code would have been impossible without Poe's "The Gold-Bug," in which Poe incorporated ciphers as part of the story.

But it is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket -- Poe's only complete novel -- that sends grisly shivers down the spines of many readers. Its bizarre images of cannibalism, unexplained plague, and travelers shouting to the dead on a doomed vessel (and the fear of the dead receiving them "in their goodly company") are elements in a unique horror tale that should find a prominent place in today's ever-expanding pop market of vampires and zombies and flesh-eaters of all kinds:
At this instant another sudden yaw brought the region of the forecastle for a moment into view, and we beheld at once the origin of the sound. We saw the tall stout figure still leaning on the bulwark, and still nodding his head to and fro, but his face was now turned from us so that we could not behold it. His arms were extended over the rail, and the palms of his hands fell outward. His knees were lodged upon a stout rope, tightly stretched, and reaching from the heel of the bowsprit to a cathead. On his back, from which a portion of the shirt had been torn, leaving it bare, there sat a huge sea-gull, busily gorging itself with the horrible flesh, its bill and talons deep buried, and its white plumage spattered all over with blood.
Poe himself brings the story to an uncertain, abrupt edge-of-the-world end that leaves the tale unresolved: the boat is headed through a final portal guided by a ghostly, white figure that suggests beyond is the South Pole -- or another world entirely, marked with Arabic signs and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In 2009, to the amusement of Poe experts, the double anniversary of the start and end of his life led to an unseemly scramble between several US cities -- notably Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, New York and Boston -- to claim "ownership" of the writer.

In Baltimore, nearly 160 years almost to the day since his sorry passing, Poe finally was given the send off that his multitude of fans passionately believe he deserved. A life-size recreation of his body was carried in a horse-drawn carriage from his home in Amity Street, to the Westminster Burying Ground, where not one, but two full-length ceremonies were held in front of an estimated 700 admirers.

Playing their ace card, organizers of the Baltimore funeral put out a press release: "We have the body!"

"There's a somewhat symbolic struggle going on to claim him," said Stephen Rachman, president of the Poe Studies Association. Of all the great classical American writers of the 19th century -- Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to name but three -- Poe had the most hapless existence. "Poor Edgar Allan Poe, of them all he was the poorest; his life was very precarious," Rachman said.

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