Adventure on the ocean was probably the single most popular genre of fiction in Poe's day. Continental writers had been fishing these waters for years; Poe, in "A Descent into the Maelström," his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and other fiction, tried his hand at it, too; Melville's most commercially successful novels of sea adventure would be published while Poe was alive. Poe, as usual, responded to current interests and trends in fiction.
The tale is told by a somewhat nervous and moody isolated aristocrat whose weird adventure is made at least partially credible by his psychological instability. The narrator of "MS. Found in a Bottle" has been reading works of "eloquent madness"; perhaps the wild experience is simply a vision.
It is interesting to see how soon in his career Poe developed his basic patterns; this is a very early tale (see note I). Yet we recognize devices Poe was to use in almost all his fiction. Though the narrator takes pains to tell us how rational he is, how prone to explain everything in physical and scientific terms, he has been reading that "eloquent" German "madness," is temperamentally restless and nervous, cut off from family and country, and ill- used: enough like the usual Poe narrator to lead us to conclude that Poe most frequent formula for keeping a fantasy at least reasonably credible occurred to him very early in his career.
Poe combined folklore, current pseudoscientific speculation, and material from a well-known contemporary book. The folklore is the "Flying Dutchman" story, which has to do with a fated ship which is supposed to appear as a terrifying omen to mariners whose own ships are about to sink. Any number of authors of Poe's time made fiction of the old superstition; the best-known use of it today is probably Wagner's opera "The Flying Dutchman" ( 1843).
The pseudoscience is the belief that the earth is open at the poles. This was taken seriously enough for an American Congress to appropriate funds for an expedition to find out; the notion was propagated in John Cleves Symmes fiction and in his book Symmes' Theory of Concentric Spheres ( 1826) (Mabbott 9, II). Poe liked the idea--it is used in his story "Hans Pfaal " (see Levine 4); Poe's episodic novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym also ends with the hero plunging to an unknown fate at the South Pole.
|The Baltimore Sunday Visiter, October 19, 1833|
|The People's Advocate (Newburyport, Mass.), October 26, 1833|
|The Southern Literary Messenger, December 1835|
|The Gift, 1836|
|Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 1840|