Edgar Allan Poe and Isolationism: His mysterious years in New York
After leaving Richmond in 1837, Edgar Allan Poe moved to New York City to pursue a position in journalism. Little is known about this period in Poe’s life. He lived in downtown New York and worked on his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which was published in June 1838. Eventually his attempts to acquire a stable life failed, and he relocated to Philadelphia in 1838. In 1844, however, he returned to New York and gained fame in his second attempt at living there. What caused this success?
During hard times, Poe attempted to keep publishing his works in various magazines. “The Raven,” which was published in early 1845 and instantly acclaimed, made Poe nationally famous and gave him a notable status in New York journalism. New York in Poe’s time was a tumultuous city, the zenith of political journalism, in which political newspapers flourished and argued for the expansion of the United States for the sake of security. This led to the Indian Removal Act and the establishment of the Republic of Texas, which was to be annexed to the United States. New York journalism needed a genius who could exemplify American supremacy.
However, this political desire for expansion was counter to what Jefferson had depicted in the Declaration of Independence, so the nineteenth-century U.S. policy opposed the original intentions of the founding fathers. One of their intentions had been to limit the political sphere of the U.S. on the American continent for the sake of security (i.e., the liberty of the people), thus leading to the legacy of American isolationism.
To what extent was Poe influenced by this political climate? The allegedly apolitical Poe must have participated in the political discourse to obtain a journalistic position, although his situation as a newcomer from the South positioned him as an “isolate.” Poe tended toward isolation by nature because of his experiences in his youth. This characteristic had rhetorical proximity to the American political discourse.
It is not surprising that the political allusions in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym provide clues to the intricate relationship between Poe’s character, his literature and American politics. The story of Pym is often cited for its autobiographical elements and to show Poe’s winding biographical process. It begins as a young man’s whaling adventure, describes incidents of mutiny, shipwreck, and massacre in the South Seas, and ends with a strange journey to the South Pole. This variety of incidents in Pym indicates a careful composition because Poe’s principle was to plot a logical sequence for his storylines. Thus, it is not strange that the contingencies of his life, with traumatic experiences and many vicissitudes, produced the novel-length story of Pym.
With regard to politics, is it remarkable that certain passages of the Declaration of Independence can be related to Pym’s storyline. The Declaration of Independence contains a section in which the King’s tyrannies are enumerated: “He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
This passage shows that “Pym” can be read as a parody of the American Revolution — as a story that reinvents a modern sense of barbaric oppression and the terrifying incidents of colonization. This similarity can illuminate the passages in Pym that present a justification of isolationism for the survival of the protagonist. American politics had adopted a policy of isolation from England’s tyranny, monarchy and colonization. Pym’s adventures went through identical phases of opposition to American political idealism.
Poe exemplified this story as an isolated genius. His critical commentary is often allied with the New York literary movement, but his stories exhibit a fear of involvement and a tendency toward isolation. While enlarging Pym, Poe might have anticipated the chaos of New York journalism and braced himself for future danger. Poe’s ambiguity could have been taken advantage of by New York journalism for its political discourse; Poe needed to cope with this ambiguity to survive his isolated mind for his art’s sake.
Poe’s short stories and poems have been long adored for his artistic device and symbolism. In his only novel-length tale, however, we can see a trace of Poe’s contradictory relationship to political journalism and a sign to his success as an author. The paradox of his isolationism and his publishing coterie reveals the contradictory relationship between literature and politics in nineteenth-century America.
Editor’s Note: This article is based on Mikayo Sakuma‘s presentation at the Fourth International Edgar Allan Poe Conference in New York City earlier this year.
Read more essays on Poe:
Edgar Allan Poe: London’s claim on Baltimore’s greatest poet
Edgar Allan Poe’s way of thinking science with Eureka
To the Dreamers I offer this Book of Truths: Edgar Allan Poe’s lifelong quest for a livable world
See Special Reports on Edgar Allan Poe.
Mikayo Sakuma is a scholar of 19th-century American Literature. She is a professor of English at Wayo Women’s University, Japan. She is a recipient of a 2014 Fulbright Researcher grant to study the Transcendentalists at Harvard. She publishes articles in various academic journals. Her recent works include “‘Povertiresque’: The Representation of Irish Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century America,” The Japanese Journal of American Studies 22 (2012), “Presenting Discord toward Harmony: the Presence of Ungar in Clarel” in Melville and the Wall of the Modern Age (2010) and “Emerson’s Proto-Evolutionary Idea: Its Formation in Transatlantic Contexts,” Studies in English Literature 48 (2007).