The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Literary significance and reception

Contemporary reviews for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket were generally unfavorable. Fifteen months after its publication, it was reviewed by Lewis Gaylord Clark, a fellow author who carried on a substantial feud with Poe. His review printed in The Knickerbocker[72] said the book was "told in a loose and slip-shod style, seldom chequered by any of the more common graces of composition."[73] Clark went on, "This work is one of much interest, with all its defects, not the least of which is that it is too liberally stuffed with 'horrid circumstances of blood and battle.'"[72] Many reviewers commented on the excess of violent scenes.[56] In addition to noting the novel's gruesome details, a review in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine (possibly William Evans Burton himself) criticized its borrowed descriptions of geography and errors in nautical information. The reviewer considered it a literary hoax and called it an "impudent attempt at humbugging the public"[74] and regretted "Mr. Poe's name in connexion with such a mass of ignorance and effrontery".[75] Poe later wrote to Burton that he agreed with the review, saying it "was essentially correct" and the novel was "a very silly book".[63] Other reviews condemned the attempt at presenting a true story. A reviewer for the Metropolitan Magazine noted that, though the story was good as fiction, "when palmed upon the public as a true thing, it cannot appear in any other light than that of a bungling business—an impudent attempt at imposing on the credulity of the ignorant."[76] Nevertheless, some readers believed portions of Poe's novel were true, especially in England, and justified the absurdity of the book with an assumption that author Pym was exaggerating the truth.[77] Publisher George Putnam later noted that "whole columns of these new 'discoveries,' including the hieroglyphics(!) found on the rocks, were copied by many of the English country papers as sober historical truth."[63]

In contrast, the renowned 20th century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who admitted Poe as a strong influence,[78] praised the novel as "Poe's greatest work".[79] H. G. Wells noted that "Pym tells what a very intelligent mind could imagine about the south polar region a century ago".[80] Even so, most scholars did not engage in much serious discussion or analysis of the novel until the 1950s, though many in France recognized the work much earlier.[81]

The financial and critical failure of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket was a turning point in Poe's career.[41] For one, he was driven to literary duties that would make him money, notably his controversial role as editor of The Conchologist's First Book in April 1839.[82] He also wrote a short series called "Literary Small Talk" for a new Baltimore-based magazine called American Museum of Science, Literature and the Arts.[83] In need of work, Poe accepted a job at the low salary of $10 per week as assistant editor for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine,[84] despite their negative review of his novel. He also returned to his focus on short stories rather than longer works of prose; Poe's next published book after this, his only completed novel, was the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840.[85]


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