I highly recommend the book, Pym, by Matt Johnson! The edition of Poe on the right is a Heritage Edition reprint with illustrations by Rene Clark.
In Pym, Mat Johnson has created a wildly satirical novel that takes a tremendous bite right into the heart of American civilization – slavery and its racial aftermath. You don’t have to be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or have read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Nantucketer to like this book, but it does add another delicious dollop of cultural allusion and dissection to it. The book stands on its own as the very darkly hilarious (Any metaphorical use of light/white and dark/black have to be tentative in discussing this book, lest one become part of its subject!) riff on Poe’s only novel-length work, American history, and race, not to mention contemporary American taste as exemplified by The Painter of Light.
The narrator of the tale is Chris Jaynes, an African-American scholar of American Literature, who can’t hack it in the tenure track of Academe. He confronts the president of the small college that has canned him in a very funny scene, only to retreat, humbled, after ripping off the man’s bow-tie. It’s a clip-on job: appearances, appearances. Obsessed by Poe’s tale of Pym and his perilous adventures in Antarctica, and convinced it has a profound racial subtext, he strikes pay dirt when he comes into possession of an authentic manuscript written by one of the tale’s characters. It isn’t fiction, it’s fact! What a scoop! He manages to scrape together the funds for an expedition to Antarctica to get to the bottom of it all.
The story of Arthur Gordon Pym involves cannibalism, and the drawing of straws to determine the victim, strange, gigantic figures of perfect white, devilish black natives of a strangely warm land in the antarctic, known as Tsalal, who fiendishly dispose of most of the white visitors, and it is enigmatically broken off at the end. Pym cleverly mimics and inverts much of the narrative, substituting street-wise jive for Poe’s absurdly melodramatic prose. It also displays much wonderful deadpan humor: In this passage, the narrator, having discovered the real Arthur Pym, miraculously still alive after more than a century, tries to talk to him:
“I’m a Natucketer,” he replied.
“Well, are your family landowners?” At this, the supposed Nantucketer shook his head with enthusiasm and then annoyance that I would even question that fact.
“Well, you’ve been gone awhile, things have gone up in value,” Nathaniel followed, and this time Pym deigned to hear him directly. “Land in Nantucket sells for about two million, two hundred thousand an acre on today’s market. You probably have quite an estate to attend to.” Already growing a bit more alert, at the sound of the figure Pym’s eyes seemed to gain a greater level of consciousness. The ghost of a man leaned in toward me.
“Is this true?” he muttered.
“Yes, it is,” I told him, relieved that we finally seemed to be getting closer to an actual conversation.
“In a world where people would pay so much for sand,” Pym started, clearly awed by the thought of this, “how much did these niggers cost you?”
Pym, who is a caricature of Poe himself, in this story at least, generates a lot of humor by saying in a completely nonchalant way things that are, today, completely outrageous – but they weren’t in the ante bellum USA. And among some people today, they probably are not yet. The characters on the expedition, all black, are thrown up against their own notions of race and class, and their status as free men and women when they are taken on as slaves by a race of giant, antarctican white hairy ape creatures. And then there is that painter who has created his own pleasure dome down there, but who becomes part of the conflict. It all gets pretty crazy: it’s reminiscent of the best parts of The Planet of the Apes.
Well, race, and slavery based on race, is a crazy idea, but as we like to forget, it is what the Hispanic and Anglo empires built North American civilization with. And though it ended with the Civil War (not really with the Emancipation Proclamation, but with the abolition of slavery by individual states, starting with, of all places, Texas, as commemorated this week with Juneteenth), Reconstruction saw to it that much of its cultural apparatus remained intact for another hundred years. And what was it all based on?
As the narrator of Pym reflects on the One Drop Rule at several points, it is clear that it is based on power pure and simple. What can you make of a rule that says that a person is “black” if they have one drop of black blood in them, no matter how white they look? Logical, in a sick way, on the face of it, but why does it run only in one direction? In today’s NYTimes, there was an article about Michelle Obama’s ancestor in the ante bellum South, a woman slave who had a child by the son of her owner. So, why isn’t Michelle Obama white by a One Drop Rule?
Weelll…the One Drop Rule only goes one way, except, perhaps, in a society where everyone is black…like Tsalal, for example. Which is where the expeditionary crew in Pym ends up, with predictable consequences for Arthur Gordon Pym. It’s the ultimate literary irony of the book. And just how did the writer ever get his manuscript to print, anyway..?
I collect illustrated editions of two books: Candide and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and I have a particular thing for Pym. I came across this etching from a children’s, or perhaps young adult, edition of the grisly Poe novel. I imagine they edited out the “good parts.” I couldn’t quite recall whether the drawing of lots to determine who would be sacrificed to feed the other surviving crew members was followed by an actual meal, and if the hero partook, so I checked the text.
I recovered from my swoon in time to behold the consummation of the tragedy in the death of him who had been chiefly instrumental in bringing it about. He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by Peters, when he fell instantly dead. I must not dwell upon the fearful repast which immediately ensued. Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality. Let it suffice to say that, having in some measure appeased the raging thirst which consumed us by the blood of the victim, and having by common consent taken off the hands, feet, and head, throwing them together with the entrails, into the sea, we devoured the rest of the body, piecemeal, during the four ever memorable days of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth of the month.
In searching for the text, and yet again for illustrated editions of the book, I came upon several webpages dedicated to the “strange” pre-cognizance of Poe’s tale: it seems that forty or fifty years hence, there was a famous shipwreck that led to some castaways in a lifeboat drawing lots and eating the loser. The name of the victim was, as in Poe’s story, Richard Parker. He was a mere cabin boy, and probably didn’t know about Poe’s book, or he would probably have shipped under a different name, just in case, that is. And, of course, Richard Parker was also the name of the tiger (real or imagined) in Yan Martel’s The Life of Pi.
It was a dull, cloudy day out, so even with some lights turned on, this interior shot was exposed for about 9,000 seconds; that’s two and one-half hours. 🙂 The aperture is 0.2mm and the focal length is 0.9″ for an f-stop of about 114. My collection of first editions of illustrated copies of Voltaire’s Candide and E. A. Poe’s The Adventure of Arthur Gordon Pym are hardly legible. 😦
This is the image I should have taken with my pinhole camera yesterday at The Cloisters! But it was made with my iPad.
I can try to blame it on the fantastic blog 50 Watts, or on this fine exhibit at The Morgan, but in fact, it’s all on me: I’ve loved books with woodcuts since I was a boy, and I recently went on a bit of a spree getting illustrated and limited editions of a few of my literary favorites. None of them are particularly valuable, but all are, as they say, “collectible“.
Above, is an edition of Poe’s tales that was issued in the 1940s, although I recall these images from a library book, perhaps a reprint, when I was in school. The book is in great condition, and I re-papered the tattered slipcase, one of my new hobbies. I love that Fortunato and Montresor!
This collection of Poe stories (remember the old song from Mad Magazine?) is part of a series of woodcut-illustrated classics published in paperback by Penguin Books, and featured in the Morgan exhibition. Found it online, but it has not arrived in the mail yet.
Of course, when it comes to Poe, my favorite, after Amontillado, and distiguished by being his only novel, is the Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym. I bought a few editions in French, all translated by Charles Baudelaire, who introduced Poe to France in the 1850s. This is a nicely illustrated copy from the 1970s.
And here is a first edition of Pym’s Adventures, first edition in French, that is, published in 1858. Why is it that the French were so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to paperbacks? The book on the mantle of this well-known painting by Magritte is Arthur Gordon Pym, although I can’t make out the date.
Finishing with Poe, I got this selection of tales, again in French, because I liked the wonderful lithographic illustrations.
Done with Poe! Candide is one of my all-time favorite books, so I have many copies of it, including a variety of cheap paperpacks, but I decided to upgrade my collection. This French edition is illustrated by the Italian Umberto Brunelleschi using stencils, or pochoirs. It was published in the 1930s – quite a racy little paperback.
Back to woodcuts with this 1920s edition, also heavy on the erotic aspect, as is par for the course with Candide, and why not!
Not in the greatest condition, this one, but it was cheap, and get a load of that volupté
And a tiny little softcover edition from the 1920s, complete with woodcut illustrations and vignettes. Did I mention that one of my Internet passwords is Pangloss?
I have a few editions of Candide with illustrations by Rockwell Kent – it was such a popular production that it was issued several times in different formats, but I had never even seen a copy of the Kent Moby Dick. (I read that it was a big deal that Melville’s name wasn’t on the cover, as if you needed it!) This Random House edition from 1930 is the first reissue of the Kent illustrated version, originally published in a very limited three-volume set. (There is also a fancy gold and blue covered version of this book from 1933.) Kent’s pictures are fantastic, but they are ink drawings, not woodcut prints, although they are almost always referred to as such.
I like Barry Moser’s art work a lot, and I have a few trade editions of his books – Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein – so I figured I should get a copy of his Moby Dick. It’s often cited as a superlative example of book design and production, and the original letterpress edition goes for many thousands of dollars: I settled for the hardcover University of California reprint. I like it, but it just doesn’t excite me the way Rockwell Kent’s does.
And while I was on this Herman Melville theme, I read this book about the slave trade, by a local historian. The facts of the trade are unspeakably appalling, a veritable holocaust that played out over centuries. Even the language of the traders is similar to what we know of Nazi organizers of the death camps: the main difference was that slaves were expected to reproduce, rather than simply work themselves to death. One of the benefits of a pre-industrial age.
It’s a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade, using Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno, as unifying narrative device for the history. Until I read this book, I had thought that Melville based his story on facts from the Amistad case, but actually, there really was a Captain Delano! He was an ancestor of FDR, and quite a few other people as well, and he was involved in the slave trade himself, fine old New Englander that he was. The story is based on his memoir which recounts in detail his encounter with the historical Don Benito. I purchased this limited edition illustrated edition of Benito Cereno with woodcuts by Derrick Palmer, published by the Imprint Society.
The pictures below show Delano being rowed to the captive slave ship, and Babu’s head on a pike, after the truth has been revealed.
The NYRB edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is great, but let’s face it – it’s a pain to lug around! It is certainly the best to read, because it retains the endless series of Latin quotations in the text while providing their translations right after each one, in brackets. No need to constantly thumb to the notes to see what they mean, and with the English right there, sometimes they are fun to read.
It turns out that the text first appeared in the Everyman’s Library, revived recently, in a larger format. So, I searched and found a copy of Burton’s work in the original three-volume edition from the 1930’s. Ah!..much easier to handle.
The slipcase was made by me to hold them together – they are a bit delicate, and I will probably cover them in paper before I toss them into a backpack. I have taken up the craft of making cases for my little treasures, such as my recently acquired Poe-Pym-Baudelaire illustrated edition. It is not nearly as hard as I had feared to get a pretty decent result.
Today, I marched against the NYC Stop and Frisk policy. The march was to be a silent one, in the tradition of hhistorical antecedents, and, as marches go, it was pretty quiet – no chanting, no music. It began at the northeast corner of Central Park, where there is a fairly new monument honoring Duke Ellington.
A few shots from the 1199 Service Workers Union contingent where I was marching.
[Note 6/18: I was engaged in a conversation about the demonstration by a young Ukranian visitor who was trying to understand the issues. I wish I could have given him this excellent piece on ‘data driven policing’ that appeared in the NYTimes today. It wraps up with this simple and essential comment: Policing in a democracy is not easy, nor is it meant to be. Reducing crime numbers is simple if you disregard basic rights, ignore victims, mandate quotas and manipulate numbers. This earlier post is also relevant.]
I liked these signs: the photo on the right is of the Teacher’s Union contingent.
Just happened to pass by this museum advertising this show. Amusing, given the context, not to mention the attention to Michelle Obama’s racial heritage in the NYTimes in the last few days. And then there’s that book, Pym, that I just read.
Lately, I’ve been watching Hawaii Five-O during my daily treadmill exercise. At first, it was just a fun bit of nostalgia as I used to watch the show as a kid in the late 60’s. I thought it was dumb then, with its outrageous spy plots, the unerring McGarrett, and the predictable plots, but watching it today, I like the production values, the mens’ suits, and the bright color of the scenes.
Now, after seeing a season, I begin to fathom the true appeal of Five-O: McGarrett is a spiritual guide, a guru figure. He’s always calm, only losing his cool when one of his men is injured by a crook. He is deeply humane: gently leading a serial murder psychopath he has apprehended away to the looney bin, without gloating or celebration. He feels the pain of the victims he interviews: the flicker of muscle movement on his face shows it. Women are drawn to him, but he does not pursue them. He is witty, and enjoys the philosophical games of crime solving.
McGarrett’s arch-enemy is the Red Chinese agent, Wo Fat, with whom he spars on many episodes, holding up the USA end of the cold war game. The Chinese spymaster is no match for Steve. (He is played by New Jersey native, Kenneth Dickerson, aka Khigh Dheigh, who is of north African descent – not Chinese – and who created a foundation for the study of Taoism late in life.) They are an entertaining pair.