Still Farther South Poe and Pym’s Suggestive Symmetries
In 1838, as the United States began its Exploring Expedition to the South Seas, Edgar Allan Poe published a novel that masqueraded as a travelogue. John Tresch guides us along this strange trip southward, following the pull of its unfathomable mysteries.
June 16, 2021
In May, 1837, the U.S. economy screeched to a halt; the panic struck. Martin Van Buren had inherited an impending disaster. Interest rates in England had recently risen and cotton prices plunged. The nation plummeted into seven years of stagnation.
All the while, Edgar Allan Poe worked with a focus sharpened by hunger. Years earlier, when Poe wrote to editors in hopes of publishing Tales of the Folio Club — each written in a distinct style, exaggerating the conventions and clichés of established genres and authors, often uproariously — he was warned that there was little public appetite for story collections.1 James Kirke Paulding, a reviewer for Harper & Brothers, said Americans preferred works “in which a single and connected story occupies the whole volume”.2
Poe took the advice. In late 1836, still in Richmond, Virginia, he began a seafaring novel inspired by Robinson Crusoe, with a hero whose name echoed his own: Arthur Gordon Pym. Poe’s novel would draw on popular excitement for a national scientific venture: a government-sponsored expedition to the South Seas. The project had been sparked by the lecturer J. N. Reynolds, who had been seized by the “hollow earth” theory of John Cleves Symmes, the “Newton of the West”.3
Symmes, a former army officer who moved between Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio, believed that the surface of the earth was the outermost of five concentric spheres; its poles were flat and open, and one might travel smoothly from its extreme north or south into the globe’s interior. Lit and heated by reflected light, the inner surface of the outer sphere (and the four smaller spheres it contained) was, Symmes contended, a “warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals”.4 Declaring the chemist Humphry Davy and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt his “protectors”, he called for “one hundred brave companions” to depart with him “with Reindeer and slays” from Siberia across “the ice of the frozen sea” and into the earth.5 Reynolds, a captivating speaker, joined Symmes on a lecture tour and argued that the U.S. government should sponsor an expedition to test the theory.
When Reynolds later spoke on the topic to Congress — having abandoned Symmes’ theory, but not his interest in an expedition to the South Seas — Poe took up the cause in the Southern Literary Messenger.6 Nothing less than “national dignity and honor” were at stake, he wrote. The United States was called to the world’s store of knowledge: “As long as there is mind to act upon matter, the realms of science must be enlarged; and nature and her laws be better understood, and more understandingly applied”. An expedition would boost U.S. trade in whale oil, sealskins, sandalwood, and feathers. It should include a “corps of scientific men, imbued with the love of science”, to correct navigational charts and “collect, preserve, and arrange every thing valuable” in natural history and anthropology. They would document “man in his physical and mental powers, in his manners, habits, disposition, and social and political relations”, studying languages to trace human origins “from the early families of the old world”.
By early 1837, Poe had moved to New York, where his income appeared to be nearly non-existent; he survived thanks to the care of his aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, who managed a boarding house. That June, before the full consequences of the economic crash were realized, Harper & Brothers registered a copyright for Poe’s novel. This “single and connected story” wove Poe’s excitement about the Exploring Expedition together with his investigations into the decipherment of ancient languages. Packed with shocking passages and ominous imagery, it teased readers with revelations while throwing mystifying obstacles in their way.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was published in 1838.7 Its title page was taken up by an outrageous 107-word subtitle, promising the “details of mutiny and atrocious butchery on board the american brig grampus, on her way to the south seas, in the month of june, 1827”, followed by a “shipwreck and subsequent horrible sufferings”, “deliverance”, “the massacre of her crew”, a visit to islands in “the eighty-fourth parallel of southern latitude”, and finally, “incredible adventures and discoveries still farther south”.
One reviewer asked, “What say you, reader, to that for a title page?”8 The page didn’t mention Poe, or that the book was a work of fiction — suggesting that Poe intended the book to be taken, at least at first glance, as a genuine travel account.
Adding to the Narrative’s verisimilitude were its precise details about currents, weather, and creatures of the sea and air. It closely resembled first-person voyage accounts — an extremely popular genre. It drew on Reynolds’ Potomac voyage and its details on the whaling trade (Reynolds’ Mocha Dick would later catch Herman Melville’s attention).9 Pym’s publication was timed to capitalize on excitement about the South Seas Exploring Expedition setting sail in August, which the narrator hoped would “verify some of the most important and most improbable of my statements”.10 The first edition also included notices of other Harper & Brothers books — travel accounts, histories, and biographies — encouraging readers to see the book in their hands as a truthful account of facts and actual experiences.
In that case, its author would be “Arthur Gordon Pym”.11 Yet Poe had published the first chapters the previous year in the Messenger as fiction, signed “Edgar A. Poe”.
To explain the contradiction, the preface (signed by “A. G. Pym”) claimed that after an “extraordinary series of adventures in the South Sea”, “Pym” met “several gentlemen in Richmond” who urged him to publish. “Pym” refused, thinking that the events of his journey were “so positively marvelous” that readers would take them as “an impudent and ingenious fiction”.
But “Mr. Poe, lately editor of the Southern Literary Messenger”, persuaded him that even if the narrative were rough, “its very uncouthness, if there were any, would give it all the better chance of being received as truth”. “Pym” agreed to tell his story, on the condition that “Poe” would transcribe and publish it “under the garb of fiction” hence its appearance in the Messenger. Yet despite the “air of fable” that “Poe” gave the account, many readers believed it. “Pym” grew convinced that the facts of his journey, if plainly reported, “would prove of such a nature as to carry with them sufficient evidence of their own authenticity”. He would tell his tale as it happened, in his “own name”.
After this mad squabble between “Pym” and “Poe” about the best means of convincing readers of the truth, the story began calmly enough: “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym. My father was a respectable trader in sea-stores at Nantucket, where I was born.”12 Pym, aged seventeen, sets out one night after a party with his close friend Augustus for a “spree” in a tiny sailboat, the Ariel. They are nearly crushed by a large brig, the Penguin, which returns to save them.
Pym lets Augustus talk him into another voyage. He stows away below deck on Augustus’ father’s whaler, the Grampus, with a copy of the account of Lewis and Clark’s expedition to keep him occupied. He nearly suffocates in the “dismal and disgusting labyrinths of the hold”, while above board is a mutiny. Helped by the half-Indian, half-European Dirk Peters and another sailor Richard Parker, Arthur and Augustus overtake the mutineers, playing on their superstitions. A storm ravages the ship; starving, they resort to cannibalism, drawing lots in a “fearsome speculation” that leaves Parker as the feast. Augustus dies; only Pym and Peters remain.
Rescued by a passing schooner from Liverpool, the Jane Guy, they sail farther south than any previous Europeans. They land on the island of Tsalal, whose natives are entirely black — clothing, skin, hair, and teeth — and are fascinated and horrified by the white skins and sails of the Europeans, at which they cry out, “Tekeli-li!” Seeing an opportunity for “profitable speculation”, Captain Guy sets up a market, trading European trinkets for edible sea creatures which abound on the island. All goes well for the would-be colonizers until the Tsalalians lure the sailors into a trap, burying them in a deadly avalanche.
Once again, Pym and Peters are their ship’s only survivors, hiding in the hills. Hunger forces them down through the black granite chasms of the island, which trace a strange path, like letters, which Pym records. On one wall of a cavern they also find engraved “indentures” that resemble a pointing human. They escape the island in a small canoe, taking a Tsalalian with them. As they paddle furiously away, the vessel is pulled “still farther south”. The air grows warm and the sea turns milky; white birds fill the sky, crying, “Tekeli-li!” The current increases and white ash falls on their boat. Before them appears a great white waterfall that they approach with “hideous velocity”.
The Tsalalian dies of fear as the darkness of the sky “materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us”.13 As they rush toward the waterfall, “a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow”. There — suddenly, bewilderingly — Pym’s narrative ends.
A mischievous “Note” closes the book, just as the preface opened it, explaining that Pym returned to the United States, and died, and that “Mr. Poe” “has declined the task” of reconstructing the final chapters of Pym’s voyage.14
The author of this final “Note” — neither “Pym” nor “Poe” — tentatively suggests an interpretation of the carved markings on Tsalal. In Egyptian, Arabic, and Ethiopian letters they appear to spell out “shady”; “white”; and “the region of the South”. The “Note” concludes with a mysterious, quasi-biblical utterance: “I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock.”
Pym’s ending — the “hieroglyphs” in the black chasms, the white figure in the “chasm” of spray and mist, the sudden break in the action, and the note announcing Pym’s return and death — provides more questions than answers. It was Pym who urged Captain Guy to push toward the South Pole: “So tempting an opportunity of solving the great problem in regard to an Antarctic continent had never yet been afforded”.15 Though he regretted the “unfortunate and bloody events” that resulted from this advice — the massacre of dozens of natives and the Jane Guy’s entire crew — he was pleased to have aided in “opening to the eye of science one of the most intensely exciting secrets which has ever engrossed its attention”. Riddled with ambiguities, Pym’s tale was about the quest for discovery and its costs.
An Inventory of Altered States
Even though detective fiction didn’t yet exist — Poe would invent the genre three years later — Pym’s bizarre events gave readers endless puzzles to solve. The book’s last paragraph, on the writing in Tsalal’s chasms, explicitly invited a variety of interpretations. “Conclusions such as these”, it read, “open a wide field for speculation and exciting conjecture”. Its call for a “minute philological scrutiny” of the ancient words “written in the windings” of the chasms suggested that the entire book could be studied just as closely.16
For example, readers might seek a natural cause for the “whiteout” of the ending: perhaps the sailors are funneled into the hole predicted by Symmes’ “hollow earth”. Perhaps the “white figure” is an optical illusion, the distorted image of an approaching ship — perhaps the very same ship, the Penguin, that saves Pym and Augustus at the book’s beginning.17
Or perhaps Poe meant readers to see the white figure as an encounter with divine truth, as in the book of Revelation’s “vision of the seven candlesticks” with its figure with “hair of white wool”.18 The story might have held a political commentary: some critics have seen in the extreme polarization of black and white in “the region of the South” an allegory of a natural basis for slavery or a reference to the biblical curse of Noah against the descendents of Ham; others read the Tsalalians’ deadly rebellion as a warning of slavery’s likely consequence.
The book explicitly addressed the slipperiness of interpretation: “In no affairs of mere prejudice, pro or con, do we deduce inferences with entire certainty, even from the most simple data”. For his descriptions of optical illusions, Poe drew on David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic. Pym experiences mirages, the visual distortions of twilight, and possibly, with the voyage’s closing image, “the Specter of the Brocken” — the vision of one’s own shadow as a giant when projected against a distant surface.19 Pym also confirms Brewster’s overall message, highlighting the power of optical tricks to manipulate naive believers. Dressing up as a corpse to play on the “superstitious terrors and guilty conscience” of the mutineers, Pym himself is “seized with a violent tremor” when he looks in a mirror; the first mate dies at the sight of what he takes for a ghost.20
The book underlined the unreliability of the senses by taking readers through an inventory of altered states of mind. As Pym suffocates below deck, he dreams of serpents, demons, and deserts; starving on the wrecked ship, he drifts into “a state of partial insensibility” with visions of “green trees, waving meadows of ripe grain, processions of dancing girls, troops of cavalry, and other phantasies.” His first adventure on board the small boat Ariel (the name of the magician Prospero’s familiar in The Tempest) establishes a narcoleptic rhythm in which Pym drops into a trance or visionary state, then staggers back into consciousness.
Repeatedly taking readers from false appearances to an underlying reality, Poe showed how material conditions — intoxication, hunger, expectation — affect states of mind. This psychological emphasis added a probing, philosophical dimension to the “explained gothic” novels of Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole. Yet much as in De Quincey’s Confessions, in Pym truth was a moving target.21 “It is utterly useless to form conjectures”, he noted, “where all is involved, and will, no doubt, remain for ever involved, in the most appalling and unfathomable mystery.” Every appearance might hide a contrasting underlying reality, while that reality’s causes remained shrouded in doubt. Illusions and unreliable revelations pull Pym and the reader along, through a fever dream of signs and wonders, collapses, burials, and recoveries.
Poe always took great care with his writings’ typography and physical layout — their visible “composition”.22 Just as he wrote his manuscripts in a precise, minute, and regular hand that resembled type, he worked closely with printers and typesetters. The eye-catching typographical layout of Pym’s title page seems to call out for decipherment, suggesting some meaning to its visual appearance. A copy of the French translation of Pym appears reflected in a mirror in a 1937 painting by René Magritte — an artist obsessed with the relations between images, words, and things; the suggestive symmetries of Poe’s original title page invite a closer look.
The eight words of the main title float above the denser, smaller type of the subtitle. If you look with eyes slightly unfocused — or askance — you can see the title forming a half circle, mirrored by the tapering, slightly rounded cluster of text below. The title and the first part of the subtitle appear to form the two hemispheres of a globe: the upper mostly white, the lower mostly black. The eye is pulled downward, “STILL FARTHER SOUTH”, funneling with some bumps down to the publisher and date — the record of the book’s birth. This brief visual voyage anticipates the route the story will trace toward the bottom of the earth and, perhaps, to a receding point of origin — right off the page.
Now look again. Can you see the four lines of the title forming two rows of sails, with the subtitle clustered below as the hull of a boat? Imagine a straight line drawn parallel to the line formed by the words “EIGHTY-FOURTH PARALLEL OF SOUTHERN LATITUDE”: you can then see the next clusters of words repeat, on a smaller scale, and upside down, the shape of the blocks of text above. Now we see a boat and its reflection, along with its sails, as if from a distance across a shimmering sea: an apt illustration for the maritime adventures about to unfold, as well as their doublings, inversions, and illusions.23
Symmetry and inversion were deeply engraved in Pym.24 As Poe knew from experience, setting pages for print required a typesetter to line up letters and words in a composing stick — in reverse order. This meant writing and reading backward — a mirror effect that could easily go wrong, through misrecognizing or transposing a letter.
Poe built this symmetry and reversal into Pym’s structure. Its twenty-five chapters divide neatly in half, folding back upon themselves. Events in the first twelve chapters mirror those at the same distance from the center in the last twelve. In the middle paragraph of chapter 13 — the center of the book’s central chapter — the Grampus crosses the equator, Pym’s best friend, Augustus, dies, and the vessel flips over. The cannibalistic feast of the previous chapter — a horrific parody of the Last Supper — is echoed in the chapter that follows, with the ship’s departure from Christmas Harbor and Pym’s symbolic rebirth. Where before they drifted above the equator, starving, now they drift below the equator among islands with plentiful food. Likewise, the mutiny on the Grampus parallels the revolt on Tsalal, and the doomed voyage in the small Ariel at the beginning is echoed in the canoe voyage at the end.
The book as a whole embodies the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, where elements of a phrase are repeated in reverse order — for example, “say what you mean and mean what you say”.25 The editor’s “Note” suggested a meaning for the shapes traced by Tsalal’s chasms — images of a journey that may form words, while the title page contained words that may form images of a journey.26 The first and last pages enwrap the verbal voyage between them.
The book’s ominous pairings hint at hidden truths about the malleable nature of reality. At the start, Pym speaks of the perverse wishes that drive him to sea, visions of “shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes”. In its parallel, final chapter, as he hangs from a cliff and imagines himself letting go, he “found these fancies creating their own realities, and all imagined horrors crowding upon me in fact.”27 By that point, his grisly visions have indeed come true; his “fancies” have created “their own realities”. It is as if in the second half of the book Pym were walking through the exaggerated projections of his mind. He meets his own thoughts and fantasies, but magnified, turned upside down, fused with the landscape — as if passed through a warped mirror, a kaleidoscope, a camera obscura, or a magic lantern.28
Like a natural theologian, Pym seeks evidence of a divine design or providential plan behind his experiences. He doubts, for instance, that the “chain of apparent miracles” on Tsalal could be “altogether the work of nature”, hinting that they might be divinely wrought. Yet no unambiguous revelation is at hand. In the central chapter, exhausted and starving but rescued from shipwreck, he reflects on the horrors from which he has “so lately and so providentially been delivered”.29 In comparison, his current pains appear “little more than an ordinary evil—so strictly comparative”, he reflects, “is either good or ill”.
In other words, any entity, and our judgment of it, depends on the other entities with which it is compared and with which it stands in relation.30 This theme was echoed in the mirroring between the Jane Guy’s sailors and the Tsalalians. Pym and other “civilized” men have become cannibals, while the natives turn out to be no more credulous or savage than the white speculators. If the book implied a racial allegory, it might have been one of a shared damnation.
Pym’s final line, “I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock”, suggests that Pym’s tribulations could be read as evidence that God created not out of generosity and benevolence but from some incomprehensible divine desire for revenge. After all, engraving matter with the originating Word, breathing spirit into dust, has been the cause of boundless human suffering. Perhaps, even more cruelly, the “vengeance” of the creator, whether God or Poe, was that despite the enticing hints of significance at every turn of the journey, there was no ultimate plan or redemptive design to be found.
Poe’s seafaring novel used remarkable literary precision to raise a set of questions it refused to answer; its meaning was a definite mystery, no matter how suggestive the symmetries.31
John Tresch is Professor and Mellon Chair in History of Art, Science, and Folk Practice at the Warburg Institute. His books include The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon, which won the 2013 Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science (2021), and Cosmograms: How to Do Things with Worlds (forthcoming from University of Chicago Press).