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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mat Johnson’s Pym twists anew a controversial Edgar Allan Poe adventure tale

It looks like another Edgar Allan Poe work is getting an update. Poe’s only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), relates the adventures of a young stowaway on a New England whaling ship as he endures shipwreck, mutiny, and even cannibalism among the islands of the South Seas. Pym shares his adventures with another sailor, Dirk Peters, “son of an Indian squaw . . . and a fur trader.”
Peters himself was one of the most ferocious-looking men I ever beheld. He was short in stature, not more than four feet eight inches high, but his limbs were of Herculean mould. His hands, especially, were so enormously thick and broad as hardly to retain a human shape. His arms, as well as legs, were bowed in the most singular manner, and appeared to possess no flexibility whatever. His head was equally deformed, being of immense size, with an indentation on the crown (like that on the head of most negroes), and entirely bald.
The novel occasioned charges of racism for passages like the one above and for Poe’s depiction of a tribe of black islanders who, after being initially friendly, turn savage and slaughter the crew of Pym’s boat. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison wrote that “no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe.”

How remarkable then that Mat Johnson, James Baldwin fellow and author of the acclaimed graphic novel Incognegro, should make Chris Jaynes, a literature professor who prefers teaching Poe to Ralph Ellison, the central character of his new novel Pym. Jaynes uncovers the lost manuscript of Pym’s companion, “The True and Interesting Narrative of Dirk Peters. Coloured Man. As Written by Himself.” To authenticate the account Jaynes organizes an expedition to retrace Peters and Pym’s route to the Antarctic and, through a comical chain of events, encounters Pym himself.

Pym thus joins Death Looks Down (1945) by Amelia Reynolds Long, The Gold Bug Variations (1991) by Richard Powers, Nevermore (1994) by William Hjortsberg, Nevermore (1999) and four other Poe mysteries by Harold Schechter (editor of the LOA’s True Crime anthology), The Poe Shadow (2002) by Matthew Pearl, In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe (2003) by Jonathan Scott Fuqua, Entombed (2006) by Linda Fairstein, and The Pale Blue Eye (2006) by Louis Bayard, among countless other works by American writers, in reimagining Poe and his tales in new forms.

Related LOA works: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (in two volumes)


  1. "Channeling" Poe doesn't usually work out too well--he's one of those writers it's practically impossible to imitate--but this novel sounds more original than most. Interesting.

  2. Mat Johnson uses the Pym story as a departure point (as oddly as a point of return) for an imaginatively constructed story about race, slavery and snack cakes.


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