“For the Bright Side of the Painting I had a Limited Sympathy”: Emancipation and Counter-Emancipation in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
The article focuses on the contradictory construction of a free and self-reliant (and “imperialist”) white male identity in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Poe’s romance builds up the myth of sea travelling as a way to reach an individual emancipation from the constraints (but also privileges) of social and familiar conditioning which ultimately fails due to a sort of “return of the repressed,” of the censored reality that allows those same socio-familiar conditions to exist as they are – namely, the subjugation of black or non-white people who in the romance do not accept the role white domination would like to impose on them. On the other hand, the analogies linking Pym’s predicament to the condition of African Americans in antebellum America (something symbolically alluded to in the famous quote “For the bright side of the painting I had a limited sympathy”) threaten to subvert Poe’s construction of a free and authorative white identity, undermined also by the sheer fact that at the end of the romance we have only one last man standing who knows the final outcome of the story – and this man is not Pym, but mixed-blood Dirk Peters, half white and half Indian, and showing some distinctly African American somatic features. The route of the American “ship” comes therefore to ultimately look as already bound towards a dramatic redefinition of the power relationships between whites and non-whites, despite Pym’s (and Poe’s) desperate attempt to resist this change and reinstall individual and collective white authority.
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