As Rethinking Early American Literature comes to a close, it becomes more pertinent to bridge connections between all the works that the class has studied. What is American Literature? What are its defining characteristics? Edgar Allan Poe, revered as one of America’s greatest authors, has only completed one novel in the span of his lifelong writing career. This book, entitled The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, contains many similarities to other classic nineteenth-century American texts. In particular, Poe tells a story that heavily defines deviant character archetypes.
The eponymous main character, Arthur Gordon Pym, is a youth who inadvertently enters dire circumstances at sea. Motivated by the thrill of exploration and sea-faring, Pym begins his adventure upon the Grampus, a whaling ship headed by the father of Pym’s school friend, Augustus. Pym’s hopes are shot down by his parents early on; his parents and grandfather disapprove of his desires to sail. This, however, motivates Pym to circumvent the odds and go out to sea anyway. “These difficulties, however, so far from abating my desire, only added fuel to the flame. I determined to go at all hazards; and, having made known my intention to Augustus, we set about arranging a plan by which it might be accomplished” (Poe 12). This characteristic defines this text as uniquely American; such as the pilgrims who crossed the ocean to found the New World, Pym enters his “new world” through the revelation of accidental seafaring. Pym’s opposition motivates his resolve and heightens his courage to act.
Many of the characters of previous readings encounter some external conflict that incites their frustration. In particular, hierarchical institutions challenge a character’s morals. Although not exactly the same as Poe’s novel, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, displays the main character, Linda, as a mother who suffers a life of mental and physical abuse by her slave owner. As she ages, she acquires strong maternal and religious morals that guide her future actions. Linda is thrust into a world that gives her little choices to fight back, but she ultimately makes sacrifices and decisions that are consistent with her views of the world.
Similarly to Poe’s novel, The Female American involves a mutiny in its story. This is in line with the nature of American texts: it represents the transnational conflict from which America emerged. In the story, Eliza Winkfield is stranded on an island after her defiance to marry her ship’s captain. Funnily enough, Nantucket is an island as well, which is an important to know when comparing these texts and how they portray their worlds. This theme of maternity is prevalent in Stowe’s story, too. On the island, Winkfield explores the geography and uncovers old Native American artifacts. Interestingly, both Poe and The Female American incorporate the Earth as characters; the sea in Pym, and the land and sky in The Female American. The storm and its impact on Arthur Gordon Pym are what disturb him enough to seek adventure. In contrast, Eliza Winkfield’s captivity underground and interaction with thunderstorms are what test her faith and spiritual fortitude. Again, both of these themes correlate to the advent of America: Europeans embarked on dangerous journeys across to the sea to reach their new land, whilst under the pressures of abandoning their theological governments. Ultimately, all of this circles back to defiance and maternity; these characters embark on quests plunged in isolation to form something new.
American literature incorporates the struggles, pain, and deviance that the young founders of our nation once felt. These characteristics are prevalent in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and the story portrays Pym’s departure from the status quo and, subsequently, civilization itself.
Poe, Edgar. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. “Dover Publications Inc.” “Harper & Brothers.” 1838.
Winkfield, Unca Eliza., et al. The Female American; or, The Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield. Broadview Press, 2014.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2010.
Image Source: Williams, Richard. “Edgar Allen Poe’s Snifter of Terror Season 2 #1.” Edgar Allen Poe’s Snifter of Terror, Ahoy Comics. Oct. 2019.