- Mr. Poe’s IndiansThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Edgar Allan Poe as a Southern Writer
Early in Mat Johnson’s recent novel Pym, the book’s narrator, a black college professor, states, “If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed, then we can learn how to dismantle it.” The professor’s main subject of study is Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As novelist Adam Mansbach writes in his review in the New York Times, “It’s as good a place as any to begin. Toni Morrison has written that ‘no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe,’ and his single work of long fiction is a simmering trove of racial terror.”1 “Horrors from the pit of the antebellum subconscious,” Johnson’s narrator calls it.
Most American readers today, if they know anything about Edgar Allan Poe’s life, think of him as a man born in Boston, who lived and worked in New York and Baltimore and wrote macabre poems and short stories. Yet he was raised in Virginia, spent much of his life there, and never considered himself anything but a Southern gentleman in his sensibilities. In this article I want to make a case for Poe as a Southern writer by looking principally at The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, perhaps the most racist novel produced by a major American writer. As will become evident, I am hardly alone in this claim, though it has been a much contested one. Most discussion has centered on Poe’s depiction of blacks in the novel. While I will do so as well, I want also to look in a much less studied direction. I will examine his depiction of Dirk Peters, the Indian character in his novel.
Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. Yet the place was merely coincidental: his itinerant actor parents were performing [End Page 38] at the Federal Theatre there. According to physician John Wooster Robertson in his 1923 book, Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study, “Poe was not proud of his Boston birth, and, in various statements he gave out for biographical notices, he named Baltimore as his birthplace.”2 On his application to the United States Military Academy, he claimed that he was born in Richmond.
By July 1810, Poe’s father was out the picture, having either died or abandoned his family. Elizabeth Poe left her older son with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore and took her two younger children south, first to the Carolinas and then to Virginia, securing a position with a theater company in Richmond. Frail and probably consumptive, she expired in late 1811. On December 9, 1811, a few days after his mother’s death, two-year-old Edgar was taken to live with John and Frances Allan in a comfortable Georgian home near the corner of Fourteenth Street and Tobacco Alley. During these early years, according to Poe biographer Una Pope-Hennessy, the Allans provided their young foster son an African American “‘mammy’ and, like most white children in Virginia, he was left entirely in her care, appearing only on occasions in drawing-room or dining-room, and then in his best clothes.”3 Pope-Hennessy speculates that the future writer may have first developed his interest in horror by listening to “hant” stories at his caretaker’s knee. She notes that Frances Allan’s brother, “behind whom the boy rode pillion, recounted that as they passed some wayside graves Edgar had shrieked, ‘They will run after us and pull us down!’”4
In 1815 the Allan family, including young Edgar, moved to Great Britain, but they returned to Virginia in 1820. In February 1826, Edgar enrolled at the University of Virginia, but he dropped out after only a semester due to mounting gambling debts. When John Allan refused to support him, Poe moved to Boston, working as a clerk and a newspaperman. Unable, however, to sustain himself financially, he enlisted in the US Army in May 1827. He was at first stationed in Boston. During that...