Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Written in Stone: Slavery and Authority in the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Written in Stone: Slavery and Authority in the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

Article excerpt

A religious hubbub, such as the world has seldom seen, was excited during the reign of Frederic II, by the imagined virulence of a book entitled "The Three Impostors." it was attributed to Pierre des Vignes, chancellor of the king, who was accused by the Pope of having treated the religions of Moses, Jesus, and Mohamet as political fables. The work in question, however, which was squabbled about, abused, defended, and familiarly quoted by all parties, is well proven never to have existed. (Poe, "Pinakidia" 15)

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, begins with a crash between two vessels, the small and drunkenly captained Ariel and the large whaling ship, the Penguin. To read these ship names allegorically is to recognize that Poe's adventure novel begins with a collision between a literary figure and a bird that "embodies" the novel's obsession with blackness and whiteness. It is this crash between a vessel of culture and a vessel of nature, a crash in which culture is shipwrecked, that sets the novel in motion.

Pym is full, not only of encounters between the natural and cultural world s, but of descriptions in which it is hard to differentiate between the two. The significance of the naming of the Penguin is underscored when actual penguins make an important appearance further on in the novel. The strangely attentive description of the natural nesting habits of the eponymous penguins and of albatrosses in the South Seas is later offered in such intricate detail (152-53) as to attract considerable critical attention (Pollin, I: 291-98; Irwin, "Quincuncial" 175-87). Pym proposes to tell us "something of their mode of building and living," and describes the way these two species "assemble," "for some days appear to be deliberating," and "trace out with mathematical accuracy" the boundaries of their rookery or "colony." The penguins and albatrosses, along with other birds, "enjoy all the privileges of citizenship," provided, of course, that they stay within their designated living spaces. The natural world is offered in the terminology of culture. And just in case we've missed it, Pym ends his description by praising the "spirit of reflection evinced by these feathered beings," and suggests that "nothing surely can be better calculated to elicit reflection in every well regulated human intellect" (153). What looks cultural is actually natural or, somehow, obscures the difference. Indeed, one of the questions this color-coded episode provokes is whether divisions between different "species" of humans are natural or cultural. Pym was composed at a time when arrangements between the races were being challenged, when people were considering the extent to which these arrangements were manufactured by culture and the extent to which they were natural, a designation that for many had religious implications. It is no wonder that critics have suggested that the scene offers Poe's commentary on the plantation arrangement (Worley 234).

And yet, more than any other major writer of the period, Poe has been treated as somehow outside of political concerns. He is often seen as aloof, eccentric, an aesthete obsessed with language, the darling child of psychoanalysis and deconstruction. And those critics who have been interested in Poe's views on the slavery issue that raged in his day have traditionally been satisfied to end their inquiries at the apparently indisputable position that Poe was proslavery. In The Power of Blackness, Harry Levin summarizes his generation's critical verdict that Poe's "letters and articles reveal him as an unyielding upholder of slavery, and ... no great admirer of the Negro" (120). Poe's recent biographer Kenneth Silverman concludes that "Poe opposed abolition and identified with slaveholding interests.... Although in no way consumed with racial hatred, he considered blacks less than human" (207). In reading Pym as "a thinly disguised allegory of Poe's manifesto `Keep the South White,'" John Carlos Rowe considers himself to be in the tradition of the earlier readings of Harold Beaver and Sidney Kaplan. …

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