The Facts in the Case
Pym as it was published by J. & J. Harpers in 1838 begins with a Preface, in which one "A. G. Pym" explains the publication history of the Narrative. The first readers of the Narrative would not have read this Preface; they would have been reading the story in the Southern Literary Messenger in January and February of 1837, and, although the tale would have had a factual tone, they would have seen Poe's name attached to it in the index and, being familiar with his work, would have accepted the Narrative as a fictive work. In doing so, they would have been playing directly into the hands of Mr. Poe, as "A. G. Pym" explains, in the 1838 Preface. This Mr. Poe published Pym's story under his name in response to Pym's fears that his experiences would not be believed. Under Mr. Poe's name, and, therefore, "under the garb of fiction," this true story could enter the public sphere without cause for fear of disbelief.
But Mr. Poe did not get to tell very much of Pym's adventures: after only two episodes, the story was discontinued; Messenger readers were left in the lurch. Until July of 1838, by which point Pym, having witnessed the response of readers and finding it skeptical, not of the story's verity, but of its fictiveness, had decided to remove the garb of fiction and present his Narrative as the true account of his adventures "in the South Seas and elsewhere." So ends the Preface. And so begins The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
Or is the Preface actually the end? Edgar Poe, Editor of the Southern Literary Messenger until January of 1837 (the first segment of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym appeared in the last issue of the magazine for which Poe served as Editor), took his tale of "Incredible Adventures and Discoveries" to J. & J. Harpers in the Spring of 1837. In 1836 Poe had sent to Harpers a volume of short stories, which Harpers declined for three reasons: most had already appeared in print; they were on the whole too "learned and mystical;" the volume consisted of "detached tales and pieces." Elaborating on this last point, Harpers wrote:
Our long experience has taught us that both these are very serious objections to the success of any publication. Readers in this country have a decided and strong preference for works (especially fiction) in which a single and connected story occupies the whole volume, or a number of volumes, as the case may be (qtd Quinn 251).
A year later, Harpers accepted Pym.
Pym's copyright date is June, 1837. Financial problems prevented Harpers from printing Pym until July, 1838. The Preface is dated July, 1838, so it was not attached to the manuscript Poe originally took in for publication. The Preface is signed by "A. G. Pym" and makes reference to the segments that had appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger; it is in keeping with the hoax it ends up revealing. At the end of the Narrative, an unsigned Note remarks on "the late sudden and distressing death of Mr. Pym" as well as the oversight of Mr. Poe on a certain aspect of the account.
Harpers knew the Narrative was fiction. It is unlikely that readers would have thought anything but that Edgar Poe was the man behind Pym. This was a reading public not only familiar with, but quite enamored of, Edgar Poe's literary high jinks. All the confusion over authorship enacted by the Preface and the Note is part of the game. The name of the game is not so clear-cut. The game readers would have understood themselves to be playing is the one in which Pym is a device, used by Poe, in order to take them on this fantastic journey unlike any attempted by an ordinary man on the East Coast in the early Nineteenth century. But the sudden disappearance of Pym indicates another game.
The other game, the one that readers would not have known they were playing, until it was too late, has to do with the destination of this journey. Pym's journey takes him to regions unknown. But Pym is not a typical explorer, who ventures to strange lands and renders them less strange, who makes maps of blank spaces, who uncovers new knowledge. He is not even a typical fictional explorer, who might venture to a faraway place thinking it "unknown" and find it to be, on the contrary, quite inhabited. This fictional explorer can bring back new knowledge from these inhabitants whose life is more "civilized" than that of those living in "civilized" society. Pym, as an explorer, is a failure. His journey gets the better of him.
Readers who dutifully play along with Poe and follow Pym "to the South Seas and elsewhere" rightfully expect to be rewarded with some kind of knowledge at the end of it all. What they get instead is increasing strangeness. Pym is a downward spiral of estrangement.
The story involves a lot of turmoil. After stowing away, almost starving to death, a mutiny, killing, the death of his closest friend, other horrific events I won't detail here, and eventual rescue, Pym arrives in the southernmost regions of the earth. He finds them, in keeping with Symmes' theory, to be much warmer than would be anticipated, but inhabited by a completely black people. Relations are friendly at first. The chief, Too-wit, speaks of brotherhood. However, he turns on Pym and Pym's companions; a massacre ensues; only Pym and his friend Peters are left alive. They escape the island with a captive, sail into a region in which white ash falls continuously from the sky, and are about to rush headlong into a cataract when in their path appears
a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men.
And herein "ends" his story.
In the natural course of events, the reader would not, upon reaching the end of a tale, return to the tale's preface. Yet this is the course taken by the writer, for whom the preface is actually the final word. Poe places the Preface to Pym chronologically "after" the journey; since readers have been getting Pym's story in part through dated journal entries, perhaps he is hoping they will pick up on this clue and continue to proceed in time. What might the reader find, should he return to the Preface?
What he finds is a virtual foreshadowing of the end. Italicized words in the preface call attention to certain key phrases: Pym speaks of the Narrative's "appearance of truth" and of its publication "under the garb of fiction." The "shrouded human figure," blocking Pym's and Peters' pathway into the cataract IS the appearance of truth; its shroud IS the garb of fiction. Poe knew this all along; he knew the end when he wrote the beginning. Readers had no choice but to enter his trap, to read the beginning and then the end, only to realize they were back at the beginning.
Pym functions similarly to the narrator of Poe's tale "A Descent into the Maelstrom" (1837), whose telling of a perilous adventure has thrill potential but no surprise potential: if the old man is telling the story, we know he didn't die in the whirlpool. Poe likes to surprise us with what we already know. The difference in Pym is that he doesn't let us know what we know: somehow to be surprised by what we didn't know we knew does not have the same effect.
The fact that Poe, a man who exercised strict control over the publication of his writing and the profits gained therefrom, allowed a lapse of a year to go by between the copyright date and the printing of his longest and arguably most ambitious work is yet another strange aspect of Pym. True, Poe could not control the financial crisis of Harpers. But there seems to be no mention of Pym in his letters or other writings during the period between June, 1837 and July, 1838. Poe's single reference to Pym is to call it a "silly book."
The fact that the Preface is dated the same month of the eventual printing indicates that Poe was working on the text up to the last (I find no reason to think that the Preface was written earlier and postdated). The Preface seems a last ditch effort to exert some form of control over a narrative that had spun out of bounds. Though perhaps conceived as merely a fictional rendering of the narratives of exploration so popular during the early Nineteenth century, Pym became something quite different. Poe was a proud writer. It is out of character for him to call his own work "silly;" his silliness is serious business. But Pym ran away from him, he let it go unpublished, he didn't acknowledge it; and then it was to be printed. He had to act.
The Preface imparts to the text an overall unity. Pym is a text full of doubles. Nothing happens just once, no character is without a doppelganger in some form, and even when mirrors make an appearance in an episode in which Too-wit sees for the first time his reflection, there are two of them. Doubling both expands the action and contracts it. There is twice as much going on, but it's really all one thing. Overall unity, however, comes at a higher level, an extra-textual level: it comes at the level of the Preface.
In later writings, Poe articulated the import of unity to the text. "The Philosophy of Composition," the 1845 essay which makes ratiocinative the poetic process, states in part,
It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give the plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the time at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
And "Eureka," the epic "prose poem" of 1848 in which Poe explains the beginning, and the end, of the universe, can be succinctly summarized in its infamous sentence:
In the original unity of the first thing lies the secondary cause of all things, with the germ of their inevitable annihilation.
If we apply these later writings to the earlier text of Pym (which is, I think, beneficial and justified by Poe's lifelong adherence to manifestoes that were only later articulated but which had been acted out from the start), we must view the Preface as the moment which foretells the "denouement," as the "first thing." The denouement is "in view" in the italics: phrases involving italics point to the ultimate "development of the intention," that is, the appearance of the shrouded human figure. The Preface is exemplary of unity, it's point being to assert that the Narrative proves its own authenticity: it suggests a closed circle. Its key phrases appear again at the end of the Narrative, causing the reader to circle back to the Preface. The text is contained and self-encompassing.
The text that contains only itself is a bit of a ruse. But this is to be expected: ruse is a word italicized in the Preface, too. Another italicized word is expose. This one we can excuse: it's a foreign language word, therefore italicized. But let's not disregard it completely. Pym calls what he does in the Preface an expose. He is exposing a fiction that is not really a fiction. Since readers knew, as soon as was uttered the name of Mr. Poe, that this was surely a hoax of some sort, and therefore fiction, Pym's expose is knocking on the wrong door. Where the reader really wants, and could use, an expose is at the end. Expose the shrouded human figure. Instead of a denouement, the revelation disappears as soon as it appears. It disappears along with Pym.
The revelation with which we are left is that Poe is holding all the strings. And has been, for longer than the reader was aware. Pym is an enactment of the coherent artistic vision, to which only the artist has access.
Poe, the artist, grants to Arthur G. Pym the ability to speak. It is Pym who "writes" that Preface which ultimately contains all things and the end of all things. But Poe cannot let Pym have the upper hand. He must get rid of Pym, but he must do so without bloodying himself. This is where the Note comes in to play.
The Note follows the end of the text. It is truly the last word. Because of what it has to tell us about Pym, it has to come chronologically after the Preface, in which Pym is still alive. In the Note, an anonymous editor addresses the problem of the loss of the narrative's concluding chapters, which would have seen Pym safely home. Due to the sudden death of Pym, the circumstances of which "are already well known to the public through the medium of the daily press," these chapters are most probably "irrevocably lost." This anonymous editor goes on to lament the loss of the information surely contained in the lost chapters about the region at the Pole, and, finally, to offer some "remarks" on the chasms outlined by Pym, and on the figures carved on the rocks therein.
These remarks consist of the "facts in question," which have, "beyond doubt, escaped the attention of Mr. Poe." We then learn that the shapes of the chasms, as drawn by Pym, when put together "constitute an Ethiopian verbal root-'To be shady'," and that the carved figures denote in part the Arabic verbal root 'To be white,' and in part the full Egyptian word meaning 'The region of the south.' The editor then proclaims that
Conclusions such as these open a wide field for speculation and exciting conjecture.
At this point it is up to the reader to be thrilled or not at the prospect of yet another wide field. Isn't that why we followed Pym in the first place? This editor wants us to be ecstatic that at the end of our journey to a wide field is another wide field. He seems to be distracting us from his real message: Pym is dead and Poe has left the building.
We've been duped, we have a dead man on our hands, and our culprit has fled to that realm he rules better than anyone: the realm of the mystery whose solution lies only in the mind of he who dreams it up. We may enter this realm, but too often unawares and at our peril, compelled by the right-hand man of the realm's ruler, the Imp of the Perverse. We can offer in our defense only that we were warned, and didn't know it.