"Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain"
Pursuing the Known Culprit

In Poe's detective story "The Purloined Letter," C. Auguste Dupin suggests to the Prefect of the police that the case about which he seeks Dupin's opinion is "too plain. . . too self-evident." To Dupin's suggestion the Prefect replies with a laugh and the words, "oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!"

The Prefect knows that his culprit is the Minister D--. D-- has in his possession a stolen letter, a letter which the Prefect and his entire police force cannot locate within D--'s chambers. In fact, the letter is in plain view, and it is precisely this which prevents the Prefect from finding it. If the Prefect could think as the Minister D-- thinks, if he could enact "an identification of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent," he could solve the mystery, but the Prefect is capable only of exhaustive police work that gets him nowhere.

D-- is both a poet and a mathematician. Dupin, the rationalist, is by his admission, "guilty of certain doggerel." Dupin is suited to align his intellect with D--'s; thus he locates the letter and is able to use it to his purposes. Dupin's method does not lead to the prosecution of D--; on the contrary, Dupin replaces the letter with a facsimile. D-- is left believing his position of superiority, as the holder of the incriminating letter, unaltered; he is unaware that Dupin is now holding the cards.

"The Purloined Letter" grants particular insight into the workings of Poe's imaginative process. Critics have pointed to the correlation between Poe and Dupin, who have the same number of letters in their full names. However, Dupin consistently achieves what Poe, at times, could not: Dupin is able to physically enact his mental conceptions. In an 1841 letter to Dr. Snodgrass, Poe wrote,

To carry out a conception is a difficulty which--may be overcome (qtd Harrison 77).

Dupin's detective work is almost entirely a mental process: in order to solve the crime he conceives it in his own mind. In the case of the Purloined Letter, he solves, then commits the crime (he purloins the purloined letter) to gain the upper hand. It is important to note that Dupin's action is significant only if the Minister D-- attempts to use the letter to further his own ends. Until he looks at the letter to see that it is not what he thinks it is, he is safe; once he does, he is trapped.

If there is a correlation to be found between "The Purloined Letter" and Pym, it is in that Pym, in the final analysis, resembles a mystery story. The mystery is the disappearance of Arthur Pym; the case revolves around finding the knowledge that would justify the quest that took him so far from Nantucket. But Pym lacks a Dupin figure; this is a mystery story without a detective. Dupin really would have no place in Pym: Pym's mingling of "fact" and "fiction" prevents the mental conception enabled by a pure fiction. Pym is a muddle.

Pym not only lacks a Dupin figure, it seemingly lacks any single authority. Pym teases us with multiple authorities. Narratives of exploration are duly cited. Hieroglyphs pretend to ancient wisdom. Poe seemingly removes his prankster cap and reveals his hand--or is that Mr. Poe's hand? The anonymous editor comes at us quoting quasi-scripture. But when we most need a signpost or intrepid leader we find instead a chasm and an awful vacancy.

But let us recede. I have said that the shrouded human figure is nothing less than the appearance of truth. When paired with the Preface, it is also a play on words. It is a vision of truth that can enter the world only under the mantle given it by the artist: the garb of fiction. It is an artist's rendering of truth and it appears in the world because the artist gives it the mechanism to do so. It establishes the primacy of the artistic vision, and ascribes true authority solely to the artist. Specifically, it establishes the primacy of Poe's vision and Poe's authority over all other sources.

By establishing his authority, Poe ceases to be the culprit in the case of Pym, and plants this responsibility firmly on the reader. The ultimate responsibility must rest with the reader. The reader may, like the Minister D--, believe himself to be in possession of secret knowledge. In doing so, he is pretending to unwarranted authority. He is also allowing the barbarism and senselessness of the tale to occur (the Prefect was not kidding when he said Dupin would be the death of him). In order to remove himself from the trap of multiple, and muddled, authority, the reader has little choice but to align himself with the artist's truth. Otherwise he is stuck with a letter he can never open.

Pym does not reveal a truth so much as it speaks for the authority of the artist to reveal the truth when the time is right. In 1845, Poe wrote,

To appreciate thoroughly the work of what we call genius, is to possess all the genius by which the work was produced. But the person appreciating may be utterly incompetent to reproduce the work, or any thing similar, and this solely through lack of what may be termed the constructive ability--a matter quite independent of what we agree to understand in the term "genius" itself. This ability is based, to be sure, in great part, upon the faculty of analysis, enabling the artist to get full view of the machinery of his proposed effect, and thus work it and regulate it at will; but a great deal depends also upon properties strictly moral--for example, upon patience, upon concentrativeness, or the power of holding the attention steadily to the one purpose, upon self-dependence and contempt for all opinion which is opinion and no more--in especial, upon energy or industry.

While Pym is certainly mechanical, it lacks in morals. It is a tale of estrangement, empty at its heart.