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.
The HarperCollins reduced version, which gains in momentum but loses some texture by dropping Melville’s screeds against the “entomological critics,” is illustrated by Maurice Sendak, a longtime admirer of Pierre. Sendak’s lusty drawings have the same foreshortened squatness that makes the monsters in his children’s books look less scary than goofy. Trying to catch the simultaneously ominous and comic tone of Melville’s prose, he tilts toward the comic: Sendak’s Pierre looks like a pudgy version of Superman squeezed into a pair of tights at least one size too small.
To summarize this now-streamlined and illustrated story is to confirm that Melville had indeed lost his senses—at least in regard to his idea that he had written a book that would sell. Pierre Glendinning is a pampered country boy who grows up in an Arcadian villa in upstate New York under the loving eye of his widowed mother. There are hints early on that she is rather too loving. Certain “never to appear in the presence of her son in any dishabille that was not eminently becoming,” she dotes on him with a “playfulness of…unclouded love” that seems a rehearsal for sex play. Mother and son call each other sister and brother, which titillates Pierre, since “much that goes to make up the deliciousness of a wife, already lies in the sister,” and he has often “mourned” that “a sister had been omitted from the text” of his life.
Recognizing that Pierre is not without “uncelestial” appetites, Mrs. Glendinning arranges his betrothal to the “reverential, and most docile” Lucy. Pierre is dutifully pleased with his fair-haired fiancée, but he has presentiments (expressed in soliloquies whose parodic bombast marks Melville’s ironic distance from his earnest hero) that Lucy may be too delicate for the coming exertions of marriage. “Methinks,” Pierre muses, “one husbandly embrace would break her airy zone, and she exhale upward to that heaven whence she hath hither come, condensed to mortal sight.”
Sensing his hesitations, and aware that her son is obsessed with a recurring vision of a beautiful young woman’s face, Mrs. Glendinning worries that Pierre might be swept away from his designated bride by “some dark-eyed haughtiness.” And so he is. On a visit to two charitable spinsters who employ wayward girls as seamstresses, he encounters the haunting face in the person of a raven beauty named Isabel who gives vent to a muffled shriek when he is introduced by name. Transfixed by the “contracting and expanding” velvet collar that encircles her neck, he is beset by doubts about his engagement, and even about his mother. When she deflects his questions about the mysterious girl, he begins to discover in her maternal devotion the “scaly, glittering folds of pride.”
Now comes the letter that explodes Pierre’s fabricated world, which is drenched in maternal love and consecrated to the spotless memory of his father. Isabel writes to him, claiming that she is, in fact, his illegitimate sister, born to his father’s French mistress, and subject ever since to the charity and abuse of strangers. Abandoned by their common father, she has lived bereft until now, when she stands, at last, within reach of Pierre’s redemptive love. Pierre reads, assents, and with amazing alacrity, renounces everything he has previously believed about his family, his obligations, and his place in the world—and dedicates himself to saving the misused girl from ignominy and isolation.
The attentive reader will notice, as the psychologist and eminent Melville scholar Henry Murray remarked nearly fifty years ago, that “Pierre ‘fell’ for the Face before he knew it was his sister’s.” But this awkward fact in the chronology of his devotion does not give him pause about why he is so swiftly convinced that Isabel is all truth and that all else is falsehood. The pace and tone of Melville’s novel now become as frantic as the processes of Pierre’s mind. “Not only was the long-cherished image of his father now transfigured before him from a green foliaged tree into a blasted trunk, but every other image in his mind attested the universality of that electral light which had darted into his soul.” A fanatic in possession of what he thinks is an infallible divining rod, Pierre finds hypocrisy and deceit everywhere he looks—in the family’s clergyman (nicely named Mr. Falsgrave), in his relatives and friends, even in nature itself, which had once seemed a kind of moral alphabet that spelled out love to the senses (“Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth, the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof”), but now taunts him with its indifference to the enormity of what he has discovered. The only sound audible to him is what Melville’s friend Hawthorne—in “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), another story about the sudden inversion of a young man’s sensibility—called an “anthem of sin.”
The rest of the novel is an account of Pierre’s manic effort to find a way to restore the lost virtue of the universe he has renounced. He gives himself over, as Sacvan Bercovitch has put it, to “an excess of outrage bred in an excess of hope.” Struck by Hamlet’s lines about setting aright the disjointed world, Pierre concocts a plan to rescue Isabel by feigning marriage to her, and fleeing to New York City. For good measure he takes along a “fallen” girl whom the local grandees have spurned. It is as if Hamlet had run away from Elsinore to the nunnery with Ophelia.
New York, however, turns out not to be a chaste place. Despite Isabel’s insistence that “there is no sex in our immaculateness,” and Pierre’s pledge that “we will love with the pure and perfect love of angel to an angel,” Melville renders their love in emphatically physical terms:
He held her tremblingly; she bent over toward him; his mouth wet her ear…. The girl…leaned closer to him, with an inexpressible strangeness of an intense love, new and inexplicable. Over the face of Pierre there shot a terrible self-revelation; he imprinted repeated burning kisses upon her….they coiled together, and entangledly stood mute.
Although this is about as far from euphemism as Melville ventured, it was too far for the taste of the time. Even his friend Evert Duyckinck was shocked:
We cannot pass without remark, the supersensuousness with which the holy relations of the family are described. Mother and son, brother and sister are sacred facts not to be disturbed by any sacrilegious speculations. Mrs. Glendinning and Pierre, mother and son, call each other brother and sister, and are described with all the coquetry of a lover and mistress. And again, in what we have termed the supersensuousness of description, the horrors of an incestuous relation between Pierre and Isabel seem to be vaguely hinted at.
Sendak chooses not to leave the matter as a vague hint. Where Melville writes of Pierre’s “all too obvious emotion” at his first encounter with Isabel, Sendak presents him to us with an evident erection.
Preaching selfless duty, but driven by something closer to lust, Pierre carries his putative sister off to live among artists and soap-box philosophers in New York, where he tries to make a living as a writer. Soon, the ménage comes to include the ever-faithful Lucy, who, despite the broken engagement, remains devoted to Pierre. He, in turn, learns that Mrs. Glendinning has died embittered against him and left her estate to his cousin, Glen—for whom he had felt “an ardent sentiment” in the days when they had explored “the preliminary love-friendship of boys.” (“The great men are all bachelors, you know,” another childhood friend reminds him.) With “tremendous displacing and revolutionizing thoughts… upheaving in him,” Pierre grows “skeptical of all tendered profundities,” and begins to wonder if Isabel’s story is the product of “an imaginative delirium.” When the usurping Glen announces himself as Lucy’s new suitor, Pierre loses what remains of his mental stability, murders Glen in a rage, and, after he is imprisoned, the story winds its way toward a corpse-strewn conclusion. Lucy dies, apparently of shock, at the revelation that Isabel is Pierre’s sister; Pierre and Isabel succumb to self-administered poison.
What is one to make of this frenetic book? As Murray put it in a wonderfully apt phrase, it is a book about the sources and consequences of “altruistic debauch.” Its theme is the narcissism that lies at the heart of the reformer’s motivation. If there is hyperbole in Parker’s claim that Pierre was “the finest psychological novel anyone had yet written in English,” it is certainly true that among Melville’s American contemporaries only Hawthorne took up the theme of the self-deceived crusader (in The Blithedale Romance—also published in 1852), and not until Henry James wrote The Bostonians (1886) did an American writer treat these themes with comparable power.
With its explicit attention to incest, and its implicit hints of homosexuality, it is no wonder that Pierre was repugnant to contemporary readers. “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY” was about the best the first critics could do. Still, it is not quite fair to readers of the time to attribute their judgment to prudery. Pierre was an aesthetic failure. It is a book, as John Updike has put it, that “runs a constant fever,” and whose characters “are jerked to and fro by some unexplained rage of the author’s.” Pierre’s passion for what he deems justice is deformed by uncontrollable resentment against the powers (his smothering mother, his fanciful memory of an impeccable father) who have tried to form him in their own image. Reading Pierre’s story is like witnessing a tantrum. If he sometimes reaches Ahab’s rhetorical heights (“Lo!,” he shrieks after reading Isabel’s letter, “I strike through thy helm, and will see thy face, be it Gorgon!… From all idols, I tear all veils; henceforth I will see the hidden things…”), there is an absurd disproportion between his vaulting emotion and the occasions that set it off.
Pierre’s emotion—to which the famous words T.S. Eliot wrote of Prince Hamlet’s apply more aptly—is “in excess of the facts as they appear.” Like Hamlet, Pierre has been defended from the charge of overwroughtness, and critics have seen in his story a covert drama that is best understood in psychoanalytic terms. “Isabel,” in Murray’s Jungian reading, “is the personification of Pierre’s unconscious”—by which he means that she is the embodiment of Pierre’s “anima,” or the archetypal image of the female within himself:
One reason for the anima’s attracting power is that she embodies the repressed and the as-yet-unformulated components of the man’s personality: the child in him who felt unloved, the passivity and the death wishes which were forsworn, the grief and the self-pity which have been bottled up, the feminine dispositions which have been denied, and, in addition, scores of nameless intuitions and impulses, the open expression of which has been barred by culture.
The idea that Melville was working toward the symbolic expression of unconscious mental processes is not farfetched. He had written shortly before in Moby-Dick about Fedallah (the atavistic harpooner whom Ahab secretly brings aboard the Pequod) as “such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate zone only see in their dreams”—one of those “odds and ends of strange nations come up from the unknown nooks and ash-holes of the earth.” Like Hawthorne, Melville anticipated Freud’s paradoxical insight that civilization requires repression, and yet that repression yields pathologies that are dangerous to civilization. As Pierre feels the stirring of taboo desire (“Pierre felt that never, never would he be able to embrace Isabel with the mere brotherly embrace; while the thought of any other caress, which took hold of any domesticness, was entirely vacant from his uncontaminated soul, for it had never consciously intruded there”), Melville steps out of the novel, and in his own voice reminds Pierre of what civilization requires: “We, as it were, abdicate ourselves, and take unto us another self, Pierre; in youth we are, Pierre, but in age we seem.”
This abdication is never complete, but it is Pierre’s discovery of seeming that proves too much for his sanity. First his father’s mendacity and lust come into view, then, as his motive for saving Isabel reveals itself as a rationale, he begins to detect his own self-deception. As these realities break through into Pierre’s consciousness, and the web of domestic love in which his mother had enveloped him unravels, Melville again steps outside the narrative and offers a general principle to account for Pierre’s bewilderment:
If a man be in any vague latent doubt about the intrinsic correctness and excellence of his general life-theory and practical course of life; then, if that man chance to light on any other man, or any little treatise, or sermon, which unintendingly, as it were, yet very palpably illustrates to him the intrinsic incorrectness and non-excellence of both the theory and the practice of his life; then that man will—more or less unconsciously—try hard to hold himself back from the self-admitted comprehension of a matter which thus condemns him. For in this case, to comprehend, is himself to condemn himself, which is always highly inconvenient and uncomfortable to a man. Again. If a man be told a thing wholly new, then—during the time of its first announcement to him—it is entirely impossible for him to comprehend it. For—absurd as it may seem—men are only made to comprehend things which they comprehended before (though but in the embryo, as it were).
This passage is a remarkably precise gloss on Melville’s best work of the 1850s. It illuminates retrospectively the account in Moby-Dick of how Ishmael’s initially conventional mind first recoils from, then opens to, the strange practices of the cannibal Queequeg. It forecasts the theme of Melville’s great story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), in which an ordinary lawyer is confronted by the extraordinary phenomenon of an employee who will not work. At first, like Pierre, this man “tries hard to hold himself back from the self-admitted comprehension of a matter which thus condemns him,” but as the truth emerges of how pointless and deadening are the tasks that he requires, “he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith.” Melville knew (and expressed in a passage that Parker has chosen to excise) that once a man has glimpsed the contingency of all the axioms of life that had previously seemed self-evident, the world comes unmoored: “Appalling is the soul of a man! Better might one be pushed off into the material spaces beyond the uttermost orbit of our sun, than once feel himself fairly afloat in himself!”
When Melville wrote Pierre, he was “afloat in himself.” It is the book through which one glimpses the darkness in his soul that led his family and friends to fear for him. Melville’s father had died bankrupt, in a state of mental anguish (“Mince the matter how his family would,” he writes in Pierre, “had not his father died a raver?”), and now his friends noted Melville’s own chronic irreverence, his indifference to his social reputation (“He is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen,” reported Hawthorne), and signs of increasing morbidity and depression.
The hectic pages of Pierre bear the marks of his condition. It is an almost venomous book, animated by disgust at the pretensions of genteel society, which, at first, he had hoped to please with his new novel, but which soon became the object of his contempt. It is an argument that civilization and hypocrisy are synonyms—that the socialized self is hopelessly divided between proscribed inner longings and compulsory outward performance. But Pierre goes beyond satire, because even as it curses sentimental culture for refusing to recognize that its standards and practices are arbitrary, and its collective memory as entranced by myth as that of distant savages, it sees no salvation in the release from culture. Melville felt this dilemma more acutely than his friend Hawthorne, who somehow seemed able to regard it as merely an intellectual problem. For both of them it was a lifelong theme; it preoccupied Melville from his early writings about free sensuality in the putatively primitive South Seas to his posthumously published meditation on the cruelty of law in the supposedly civilized British navy, Billy Budd.
Nowhere in his fiction does he look more deeply than in Pierre into the formation of the self as both the most creative and most destructive act of culture. At one moment, Pierre is a devotee of the very culture whose hypocrisy he has disclosed—a hyper-moralistic exile ranting at those who have betrayed the sacred truths by which he was nurtured. At the next moment, he is a monster of unregulated desire who has broken free from the groundless prohibitions of the culture he has exposed as a sham. In facing up to this duality that links the urge for order with the will to anarchy, Melville came close to our contemporary suspicion that nature and history are nothing more than blank surfaces upon which man inscribes meanings which, with gigantic arrogance, he declares to be timeless and true. Here, in a sentence that catches the relativistic tone of our own day, is the reason why the republication of Pierre—still best read in its entirely—is a timely event. It is, again, a sentence that Parker deletes: “Say what some poets will, Nature is not so much her own ever-sweet interpreter, as the mere supplier of that cunning alphabet, whereby selecting and combining as he pleases, each man reads his own peculiar lesson according to his own peculiar mind and mood.”
Melville’s own mood continued to darken throughout the 1850s, as he was reduced to working on the scale of the novella and the short story. By the end of the decade, the market for his fiction was gone; and, with the exception of Billy Budd, which he left in manuscript at his death in 1891 at the age of seventy-two, he turned in his remaining years to lectures and poems, of which some were privately printed. Moby-Dick, with its ecstatic wordplay and immense allegorical reach, was eventually recognized as Melville’s masterpiece, but Pierre was his pivotal book—his frankest contemplation of the appalling possibility (as he had first expressed it in Moby-Dick) that “all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within.”
April 4, 1996