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Melville’s Fever

Pierre, or the Ambiguities

by Herman Melville, edited by Hershel Parker, pictures by Maurice Sendak
HarperCollins, 449 pp., $30.00

Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Historical Note by Leon Howard and Hershel Parker.

by Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford, by Hershel Parker, by G. Thomas Tanselle, Historical Note by Leon Howard, by Hershel Parker
Northwestern University Press, 435 pp., $14.95 (paper)

During the winter of 1850–1851, Herman Melville seemed, in the psychological terminology of his time, to have been seized by “monomania.” With his wife, Elizabeth, their baby boy, and a rotating delegation of visiting sisters, he had moved into a newly purchased house near Pittsfield, where he worked “at his desk all day,” as his wife later recalled, “not eating anything til four or five o’clock.” As he put it in a letter to his New York literary patron, Evert Duyckinck, he would go after morning chores “to my workroom & light my fire—then spread my M.S.S. on the table—take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will.” Around mid-afternoon, Elizabeth would knock by prearrangement at his study door to remind him to eat—then, forbidden to enter, she was to keep knocking until he rose and came to the door. Melville’s widowed mother recalled a March visit that ended with his speeding her off to the Pittsfield train station, where, in his rush to get back to work, he insisted on “dumping me & my trunks out so unceremoniously at the Depot—Altho we were there more than an hour before the time, [and] he hurried off as if his life had depended upon his speed.” Only when his eyes gave out under the strain of the oil lamps and candlelight did he pause until morning.

Melville himself was concerned by his own incivilities, but was more alarmed at his weakened eyes: “My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room—not being able to read—only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.” His work-in-progress was the story of a mutilated captain’s pursuit of a huge white whale that had mauled him—to be published in England in November 1851 as The Whale; and in the United States, a few weeks later, as MobyDick. As he headed into the final surge of work in early spring, the best he could do to savor the retreat of winter was to venture out at dusk, when he would “steal about by twilight … like an owl.” He kept himself indoors at his manuscript all day, since the daylight that came through his study window was too precious to waste.

The pages Melville wrote during this period were full of brave boasts about the ambition of what he was doing. “Give me a condor’s quill!” he declared in one of the later chapters of Moby-Dick, “Give me Vesuvious’ crater for an inkstand!” But his private letters were muted, and doubtful about the book’s chances for public success. In December 1850, he wrote to Duyckinck that he did not know whether

a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf—at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel—you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety—& even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.

Even before Moby-Dick was fully transferred from brain to paper, Melville had written to a neighbor, Sarah Morewood, with premonitory resentment about how it would be received by genteel female readers like herself:

Dont you buy it—dont you read it, when it does come out, because it is by no means the sort of book for you. It is not a peice of fine feminine Spitalfields silk—but is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables & hausers. A Polar wind blows through it & birds of prey hover over it.

Melville was coping in these months not only with the “outreaching comprehensiveness” of his artistic conception but also with his need for money. Carrying a $1500 mortgage, he stood $5000 in debt to his father-in-law, and owed more than $2000 to a friend from whom he had borrowed to finance improvements on the house. These were large debts in 1850, and the publication of Moby-Dick did nothing to relieve his financial stress. Numbering only about 500 copies, the English edition never earned back the advance that had been paid against projected sales. The American edition of 3000 had not sold out by the time, two years after publication, a fire destroyed most unsold copies in the Harpers’ warehouse. In June 1851, Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom he dedicated Moby-Dick “in token of my admiration for his genius”), that “the calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose,—that, I fear can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar.” Yet even as he fretted over the fate of the book into which he had thrown himself with such ferocity, Melville was conceiving another work—one for which he made still grander claims. Having begun it, according to Sarah Morewood, “under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health,” he wrote to Hawthorne that it was his most ambitious work yet: “So now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish;—I have heard of Krakens.”

The first hints of what this Kraken-sized work might be came in the same letter in which he had warned Sarah Morewood against the brine and brackishness of Moby Dick. “The Fates,” he reported, “have plunged me into certain silly thoughts and wayward speculations.” Surounded by women (his two-year-old son, Malcolm, and the newborn Stanwix, were the other males in his household), Melville seemed beset by the fact that he had lost his appeal for women readers, who constituted much of the audience for fiction, and whom he had evidently dragged out too often to the male world of ships and sea. As he got to work in earnest on the novel, he tried to make amends: “My Dear Lady,” he wrote to Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, in January 1852, “I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water. The next chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk.” By spring, he was writing to his English publisher, Richard Bentley, that his new book possessed

unquestionable novelty, as regards my former ones,—treating of utterly new scenes & characters;—and, as I beleive, very much more calculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine—being a regular romance, with a mysterious plot to it, & stirring passions at work, and withalll, representing a new & elevated aspect of American life.

This prediction proved to be among the least accurate in American literary history. Melville’s publishers guessed better. Dismayed by the string of failures since his brisk-selling South Seas romances, Typee (1846), and Omoo (1847), they were skeptical about prospects for his new novel, no matter how “regular” and “elevated” it might be. Chiding him for producing his works “in too rapid succession,” Bentley proposed a contract that Melville took as an insult; and the best that Harpers’ would offer was a flat royalty of twenty cents per copy. At one point in the negotiations, Melville even made the pathetic suggestion that he publish the new book anonymously or under a pseudonym.

In July 1852, Melville published Pierre, or the Ambiguities under his own name. It was a critical and financial disaster. “His fancy is diseased,” reported the American Whig Review. The New York Day Book put it more bluntly: “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.” The respected critic Fitz-James O’Brien, writing in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, issued a more civil warning: “Let Mr. Melville stay his step in time. He totters on the edge of a precipice, over which all his hard-earned fame may tumble with such another weight as Pierre attached to it.” O’Brien proved to be right: Pierre marked the beginning of the long decline of Melville’s reputation, which dropped so steeply that by the time the Cambridge History of American Literature was published in 1917, some twenty-five years after his death, he was consigned to a few perfunctory sentences, mainly in the section on “Travellers and Explorers.”

The book that cost Melville his reputation has now been reissued in an edition designed to give it a new chance with wary readers. This Pierre is shorter by some 13 percent than the version Melville published in 1852, because the editor, Hershel Parker, has eliminated what he considers Pierre’s dispensable tirades about the stupidity of publishers. Parker believes that the sections late in the novel about Pierre, as Melville put it, “immaturely attempting to write a mature work” were tacked on in the last weeks before publication, and that into these passages Melville “poured his anger at the reviews which had led people in Pittsfield to gossip about him self-righteously and had laid him open to the Harpers’ punitive contract.”

A respected Melville scholar and author of a long-awaited biography whose first volume will be published next year, Parker has argued for nearly two decades that Melville was actually working in two divergent directions in Pierre—writing, as he put it in a 1978 essay, one story that “examined the growth of a deluded but idealistic soul when confronted with the world’s conventionality,” and another that “expressed Melville’s sometimes sardonic, sometimes embittered reflections on his own career.” Now Parker has acted on his belief that “there was no successful fusion of the two.” He has cut out the second story.

With this act of editorial surgery, Pierre joins a growing list of classic American novels (recent instances include Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage) that have lately been issued in substantially revised versions. The rationale for this practice usually involves returning to the author’s manuscript and trying to discriminate between changes made under external pressure (interference from the publisher, bungled editing, or other last-minute interventions), and changes that reflect the author’s free artistic choice. In the case of Pierre, however, there is a problem: there is no surviving manuscript. So Parker is forced to argue for his deletions on the basis of internal evidence in the first published text, and on extraneous biographical information that leads him to conclude that Melville was in a pique when he threw in the sections about Pierre as a frustrated writer. Excising them, Parker believes, constitutes a “reconstruction of the text that Harper & Brothers grudgingly contracted to publish a hundred and forty-three years ago.”

This kind of tampering is a risky business, especially since Melville was a digressive writer who did not always purify his work of false starts and imaginative excursions. Moby-Dick, for instance, includes characters who are introduced with fanfare and then disappear altogether. Fastidious readers have always found this sort of thing maddening—but it befits a writer whose fiction is a transcription of spontaneous thought rather than the arrangement of thoughts in a retrospectively calculated relation to one another. Parker, of course, knows this aspect of Melville; and so he presents his new Pierre not as a definitive edition, but as an alternative to the standard Northwestern University—Newberry Library text (just reissued in paperback, with a banner across the cover proclaiming it “the complete, authoritative edition”), of which he happens also to be one of the editors. What we have here is a kind of editorial proposal in the form of an edition; and Parker seems content to let readers judge which Pierre they prefer.

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