Edgar Allan Poe remains best known for blatantly macabre stories like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Murders in the Morgue’ and the ubiquitous poem, ‘The Raven.’ All of these works, and his many others, revolve around horror, angst and abhorrence. None, however, are as blood-curdling as Poe’s only novel, ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,’ which promoted a far more potent, omnipresent terror: racism.
Penned in 1838 and generally derided by critics of the time, ‘Narrative’ concerns a 16 year-old protagonist, the eponymous Arthur Pym, who stows away on a friend’s whaling ship and heads off into high sea adventures. It sounds fairly innocuous, no? And it is; in the beginning.
As the reader embarks on Pym’s journey, the tale reads like an adventure-turned-terror tale: Pym ends up trapped below deck, stranded in the all-pervasive, anxiety-inducing darkness, alone with his fears — “My sensations were those of extreme horror and dismay,” Pym recalls. “In vain I attempted to reason on the probably cause of my being thus entombed.”
Poor Pym soon begins to suspect that something must have gone wrong above deck. And he was right: mutinous sailors had taken over, led by a murderous black cook, whom Poe describes as a “perfect demon.” It’s here that ‘Narrative’ starts down its dark path.
The cook’s by far the most “blood-thirsty” of the mutineers, and carries out murder with an eager hand. “A scene of the most horrible butchery ensued,” notes Poe of the insurrection. “The bound seamen were dragged to the gangway. Here the cook stood with an axe, striking each victim on the head… In this manner twenty-two perished.”
Though the cook and company are eventually overthrown, more blatantly skewed black characters soon appear, and they resemble a woefully familiar stereotype.
After a series of humanity-testing trials, including cannibalism, Pym and a few survivors end up getting rescued by another ship, this one traveling south, beyond the Cape of Good Hope, and into the heart of Antarctica, where they discover a constellation of tropical islands. The islands, not surprisingly, are inhabited by “savages.”
Poe paints the island’s natives in typical terms for his time: They are a pitiful and primitive people who’s language resembles “jabbering,” and are astonished by the simplest of things. “Upon getting alongside [the ship], the chief evinced symptoms of extreme surprise and delight, clapping his hands, slapping his thighs and breasts, and laughing obstreperously,” recalls Pym. “His followers behind joined in his merriment…”
While hospitable at first, the natives soon slay the entire crew, save for Pym and a friend, who realize, to their dismay, they “were the only living white men upon the island.” And Pym makes no secret of his distaste for the natives: “In truth, from every thing I could see of these wretches, they appeared to be the most wicked, hypocritical, vindictive, bloodthirsty, and altogether fiendish race of men upon the face of the globe.”
Again, Pym’s tenacity and spirit pay off, and he, Peters, and a native called “Nu-Nu” float into the sea, sure to perish in the icy water. But soon a figure, a brilliantly white figure who literally scares black Nu-Nu to death, appears to offer Pym salvation.
“The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us,” writes Poe. “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 the perfect whiteness of the snow.”
And then the novel ends, leaving the perfect whiteness hanging in the air.
Poe’s portrayal of white and black “races” could easily be chalked up to the times — Narrative was penned at the height of the African Scramble, when world powers started taking wide swaths of Africa, and it’s people, for their own, and slavery was still going strong in the States. And, according to biographer Kenneth Silverman, Poe disapproved of abolition, and truly believed black people were inferior.
“Poe opposed abolition, and identified with slaveholding interests in the South,” notes Silverman. “Although in no way consumed with racial hatred, he considered blacks less than human… [and] therefore ‘utterly incompetent to feel the moral galling of [their] chain.’” But Poe’s racist imagery wasn’t simply a reflection of his cultural upbringing or politics. He’s trying to teach a gruesome lesson.
The writer made clear in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe explains that poetry and prose both must communicate a “truth” through a “unity of impression.” The writer must plot out and convey a meaning for the reader. ‘Narrative’ and its black characters, then, are an allegory for Poe’s idea of humanity: black is bad and white is right, a twisted “fact” that he used to address the white man’s fear of moral disintegration.
Author Toni Morrison specifically calls out Pym and Poe in her book, ‘Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.’ Like so many of his peers, she says, Poe used whiteness, and its opposite, blackness, to highlight the white man’s superiority. “Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; nor repulsive, but desirable.” Morrison continues, “Africanist idiom is used to establish difference or, in a later period, to signal modernity.”
Poe’s black characters are the moral and cultural opposites of his ideal white man, and reading ‘Narrative’ today, when racism seems more common place as ever, one’s struck by the tenacity of our nation’s racially insensitive tradition, one that’s far scarier than any story Poe could ever write.