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 and Hershel Parker and G. Thomas Tanselle, Historical Note by Leon Howard and 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…

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