You wouldn’t know by what eventually happened, but Pierre; or The Ambiguities (1852), Herman Melville’s follow-up to Moby-Dick, was conceived as a popular entertainment. It was heavily influenced by the semi-Gothic, romantic novels that were fashionable at that time. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights had been around only five years when Pierre was published, and it was popular both in England and in the United States. Melville seemed to be trying to write a story that would appeal to the same audience. He also drew inspiration from other well known works, both classical and contemporary, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton; even his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables.
Melville had hopes that Pierre would be appreciated by those who read “women’s fiction.” At the same time, he was experiencing steadily increasing pressure to write a book that would move a large amount of copies and bring financial stability to his family. The problem was that he was too inherently rebellious to play by the rules. His hunger for knowledge and his pre-occupation with larger concerns made the limitations of one particular genre seem suffocating. Professor William C. Spengemann, in his illuminating introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Pierre, wrote that “the prose style … also mocks the sort of novel that Melville at once felt financially obligated and temperamentally unable to replicate.”
The result of this indecision and misdirected effort was a novel that critic F.O. Matthiessen once called, for these and other reasons, “the most desperate in our literature.” The novel was, by any measure, an unmitigated flop.
Pierre concerns a young man “just emerging from his teens” whose father died when he was small and who enjoys an uncomfortably close relationship with his manipulative and shallow mother, whom he refers to rather bizarrely as “sister.” The hints towards an incestuous connection with his own mother at the beginning of the novel are merely one of my many unappetizing aspects of Pierre that set readers immediately on edge.
Although engaged to a sympathetic but paranoid young woman named Lucy Tartan, Pierre Glendenning is a morose fellow, bound by that nearly impenetrable web of apron strings, an untamed passion to make strides in the world, and a chronic restlessness. When he by happenstance meets a young woman named Isabel who claims to be his half-sister, from a previously unknown (to him) indiscretion by his late father, he becomes utterly obsessed with her, and she with him, to the point where his impending marriage and his very sanity, perhaps, are threatened.
Pierre and Isabel, subsequently, grow far too close for comfort; and since no one around him can tolerate – much less endorse – this sudden infatuation, Pierre abruptly flees with Isabel and a pregnant servant girl from his palatial country upbringing in New England to the bustling streets of New York City. There he hopes to establish the three of them in a modest situation in Manhattan through a cousin named Glen, who was once Pierre’s childhood companion. When they arrive, however, Glen denies Pierre, turning him and the two women away, and the odd trio is left in the cold without resources.
Around this point the “plot” of Pierre shifts quite abruptly, suddenly turning from what was a variation on a romantic love triangle into a narrative about writing, creativity, philosophy, and the struggles of the artist. Pierre suddenly decides he is going to write a novel, a “comprehensive compacted work,” and sets out to fulfill that ambition, even though doing so bears directly on the trio’s solvency, which was more or less nonexistent to start with.
This change of direction comes across as a kind of misstep on the part of the writer. Those who would have read the novel because it was in a similar vein to Wuthering Heights – even if they had endured all of the uncomfortable hints towards unnatural relations between members of the same family and the ornate, sometimes cumbersome chunks of prose on weighty themes – probably would have put the novel down once it started to be a treatise about a struggling writer. The sudden turn makes it seem as though either the writer didn’t know what he was doing, or he just didn’t care whether or not he jerked his audience around. Neither option seems likely to have impressed 19th century readers.
Still, it’s nearly impossible to believe the first of these possibilities. Melville was too gifted a writer and had, in spite of his relatively young age, accomplished too much by then to suddenly forget how to do his job. He was bucking convention; or, to take it one step further, he was improvising new standards on the fly. As Professor Spengemann argues:
At that moment, when the adventures of Pierre give way to the writing of Pierre as the primary subject of the novel, Melville’s career arrives at a turning point. …. His tendency…to discover in the course of composition unsuspected problems and possibilities that nullify his original intentions and set the narrative on an altogether different, unanticipated path allows us to trace the evolution of his mind and art with unusual ease.
According to this logic, Pierre – instead of being the result of a kind of mounting madness in its author – reveals a method behind that perceived madness. Yet most critics did not agree. One of the most famous assessments, published by the New York Day Book in July 1852, ran under the notorious headline “Herman Melville Crazy.” But Melville had by then matured enough as an artist to ignore base literary principles – otherwise, he never would have written any of Mardi (1848); or introduced a narrator that fades in and out of Moby-Dick without ever revealing anything about himself other than his first name; or inserted a chapter in that novel that zoologically catalogues an entire order of animals. To me the bucking of established methods in Pierre seems quite the opposite of “crazy.”
Much more than just an insane rant with the hide of a popular novel draped over its shoulders, I see Pierre as a conscious choice not just to go in a radically different direction, but also to deliberately trigger the “evolution” Spengemann refers to. But having said that, the transformation that plays out on Pierre’s pages is still striking and comprehensive.
Since I am a child of the 1970s and 1980s, and to some extent have been influenced by the goofy pop “culture” that emerged from those memorable decades, I am reminded of a long-buried celluloid gutterball from the 80s that only has lasting appeal to a certain aging, but still kicking, subset of our society. The film is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, with the original Star Trek cast, including Leonard Nimoy in the titular role (he also directed). Thanks to some exhaustive research, I have learned that this would have been that Orwellian year of 1984. I can remember seeing this film on the big screen with my buddies for $2.00 at a Mom-n-Pop movie theater in my hometown that, of course, no longer exists.
At any rate, due to one of those barely coherent plot twists for which the entire science-fiction genre enjoys widespread notoriety, I remember a key sequence in the film involving the re-birth, I suppose, of Mr. Spock. I don’t recall a damn thing about the rest of the story, and does it really matter? Mr. Spock, who apparently perished in a sealed chamber awash with radiation during the harrowing conclusion of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, was placed in some kind of coffin-pod and launched deep into space. This turn of events, as everyone knew instinctively, couldn’t have been the true end of Mr. Spock, for that would have made impossible the other eight or ten sequels that were obviously forthcoming.
Hence, the “search” of Star Trek III. That quest, led by Captain Kirk of course, eventually locates the person it’s seeking, but thanks to some warp in the plot-friendly time-space continuum, he’s on a newly created planet, and he’s a toddler. As we all understand, a pre-pubescent Spock does no one any good. Fortunately, though – and I have no recollection of how they attempted to explain this – this weird planet appears to be disintigrating rapidly, and the “youthful” Spock suddenly ages many years in a very short window of time.
Great news for the film’s scriptwriters, for this provided a way to bring the adult Spock back toute de suite, but not so great news for Spock himself. This is because, in the one conceit of this whole yarn that makes at least a little sense, aging a few decades in the space of several hours is apparently very painful. So what stayed with me were a lot of moments of first a young boy with pointy ears and dark hair howling and doubling over, then a teenager doing the same thing; and, eventually, Leonard Nimoy squalling and carrying on, until the storms passed and he had “grown” into that legendary Vulcan we all know and love.
How far off the track are we going to wander here? the reader asks with mounting concern. And with good reason: having introduced the Star Trek universe into the mix, the length of this digression could literally have no end.
Never fear. I merely bring this up because, believe it or not, Pierre in some ways reminded me of that sequence from the otherwise forgettable Star Trek III. Melville changed, and he did so in a hurry. He was transforming into a different writer altogether right in front of the reader’s eyes, or at least the ones who bothered to read his novel, and that transformation seemed awfully painful. You can practically hear him howl and watch him convulse on the page.
After Pierre, Melville was no longer the same man who had produced Moby-Dick, and nothing he wrote for the rest of his days even approaches his monumental “fish story.” That’s not to say he did not produce any more quality work – he did, and most of it has been under-appreciated. But he had outgrown of his old skin and taken on a new form.
This may account for why Pierre was so off-putting, because the change in the writer was so undeniable and uncomfortable. The book is suffused with confusion, struggle, and melancholy. The reader suspects that Melville was on thin ice the entire time, and that everything he knew seemed at least to have come into question, if not already confirmed as an outright lie. This state of mind led to mercilessly bleak passages:
That hour of the life of a man when first the help of humanity fails him, and he learns that in his obscurity and indigence humanity holds him a dog and no man: that hour is a hard one, but not the hardest. There is still another hour which follows, when he learns that in his infinite comparative minuteness and abjectness, the gods do likewise despise him, and own him not of their clan. Divinity and humanity then are equally that he should starve in the street for all that either will do for him.
If you think this passage betrays a man with “issues,” it is nothing compared to much of the rest of Pierre. But note the raw humanity – the guts to admit that one feels this destitute! Do we not all have similar moments, at one time or another? Haven’t you felt abandoned by both man and God at the same time? This is what makes me feel a certain forbearance towards the catastrophic pile-up that is Pierre. It’s not that crazy. It’s truthful.
After Pierre, his half-sister, and the servant girl (named Delly) are turned away by his cousin, they end up finally securing lodgings through a sympathetic law clerk that happens to hail from the same New England community that they do. Those quarters are in a strange, abandoned house of worship known, not insignificantly, as the Church of the Apostles – now converted into a kind of artist’s hovel of sorts, with the ghosts of the departed religious and maybe even of religion itself lingering in the stone halls. Here Pierre sets to work trying to produce an epic novel that will restore his name and perhaps his mind as well.
The results are disastrous. Pierre agonizes profoundly over his work, and is irreversibly distracted by his convoluted feelings about his half-sister and Lucy Tartan, the woman he abandoned. Then things get even more complicated when Lucy herself, recovering from her own nervous breakdown, shows up at their door with an easel, intending to move in with Pierre and the other two women, and unwilling to accept any other arrangement. From here things spiral out of control, and the reader understands that nothing good can come out of it. Nor can the world at large tolerate the bizarre situation of Pierre living with three women, one of whom he left without marrying, and another with whom he may be having incestuous relations.
Finally, inevitably, Pierre’s cousin, who has teamed up with Lucy’s enraged brother, makes an attempt to forcibly intervene. Pierre deflects it at first, but it nudges him over the edge. At this point Pierre basically goes nuts. He finds two pistols stowed away in a drawer, seeks out his cousin and Lucy’s brother on the New York streets in broad daylight, and attacks them with guns blazing. He kills Glen outright and wounds the other man. Onlookers quickly apprehend him, and he ends up locked away in the notorious prison referenced earlier in this book, called “the Tombs.”
At the end of the novel the two women, Isabel and Lucy, visit Pierre in the gloomy underground cell he will not escape from. There he admits to Lucy the nature of his relationship to Isabel. Lucy’s reaction to this news is to promptly expire, presumably of a broken heart. Then Isabel herself, who has smuggled in to the prison a vial of lethal poison, kills herself. Pierre follows suit.
The final image of the three of them united in death in a prison cell is, of course, reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy. Melville then closes this taxing and ill-fated misadventure by abandoning his reader, Glen-like, in a very dark place.
By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid – and nobody is there! – appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of man!
Such an oppressive, burdensome journey the reader who makes it all the way to that prison cell has endured! What can you say about a story as anguished as this? When the critics got a hold of it, as Melville biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant explains, “all hell broke loose.” In terms of his reputation among that group, and any standing he may still have enjoyed in the New York literary scene in general, Pierre blasted all of that to hell. It took a beating that far surpassed anything his previous efforts had sustained; one that may exceed, perhaps, any critical assassination an American novelist had been subjected to before or since. It was almost universally reviled, and derided in any number of ways: “the dream of a distempered stomach;” “a dead failure;” a “crazy rigmarole;” a “literary mare’s nest.” One critic suggested that those close to Melville lock him away and keep him apart from any writing instruments.
Many writers have speculated at length on Melville’s psychological state of mind around the time he wrote Pierre, and more specifically about the vicissitudes of his marriage to Elizabeth “Lizzie” Shaw. They have probed the novel and all the surviving evidence around its conception and construction for clues to his sexual life, his latent homo- or bisexuality, and the turmoil he was experiencing relative to these thorny matters. I’m not put off by these considerations. Neither am I much qualified to speculate on them, however; let alone float any heretofore unexpressed theory. Clearly the author was deeply troubled, but these troubles seemed to extend in several different directions at once. It is hard to pin the entire failure that is Pierre on to any individual problem or circumstance. Melville was engaged in a kind of epic conflict with nothing less than his soul at stake, and it seemed to have been escalating on a number of fronts: the personal, the financial, the literary, the metaphysical, the theological.
A writer can heroically fight on all of these battlefields at once, slashing and lunging and absorbing countless blows, bloodying and getting bloodied. He can do so alone, in his own chamber, believing that the fight is his and that no one else need suffer. But no writer exists in a vacuum, and no matter how personal he thinks his struggle is, those who are closest to him will get drawn into it.
I have learned even in writing this book that when I attempt to comprehend on a blank page what my own struggles have cost and what their ultimate meaning might be, I am also dragging the pain and the pride of those whom I love, those who depend on me, into the open. My intentions may be noble – I am trying to understand my own story; to draw lessons from it through which I can ultimately improve; and, also, to draw nearer to the full realization of who God has called me to be. But my actions may still hurt innocent bystanders who have only tried to support me along the way.
So too with Melville. When he let it all fly in Pierre, and opened the doors to his own personal anguish and psychological chaos for all the world to see, he exposed his wife, his immediate family, and all those related to him. Watching Melville get hammered from all sides must have been agonizing and humiliating for Lizzie Melville, as it must have been for Melville’s mother and his numerous siblings. They saw it all unfold and reacted, according to Robertson-Lorant, “with stunned silence.” Arguing that Pierre was subversive, that it anticipated a new literary era, and that it was a unique amalgamation of styles and genres would have done nothing to assuage those feelings. If nothing else, Pierre was a lesson for me down these lines, a reminder of what exactly you are putting at risk when you plumb so far into yourself for the sake of making art.
While it is difficult to call Pierre a satisfying novel, I found it much more engaging and thought-provoking than expected. I do consider it a courageous book, but there is also an undeniable car-crash quality to it. Part of what kept me turning pages was just to see how spectacular a wreck Melville could stage in the confines of one novel. Everything gets laid out in all its bloody and confused disarray. One can feel the pain and the profound sadness that must have been coursing through the writer as he worked.
There are also moments of high comedy, both intentional and probably not so much. When Pierre finally produces some writing, and summons the considerable guts to gather up a sampling of his work and send it off to a publisher who tendered him a slight advance, he receives this response in the mail:
Sir:—You are a swindler. Upon the pretense of writing a popular novel for us, you have been receiving cash advances from us, while passing through our press the sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody … Send not another sheet to us. Our bill for printing thus far, and also for our cash advances, swindled out of us by you, is now in the hands of a lawyer, who is instructed to proceed with instant vigor. (signed)
Steel, Flint, and Asbestos
The working writer reading this missive at once winces in pain and explodes in laughter. This the same kind of hilarious and dignity-robbing moment that Sting described a hundred and thirty years later in the song “Synchronicity II” as “a humiliating kick in the crotch.” Owww, the writer exclaims, physically flinching. On the other hand, one might think that no matter how troubled Pierre was, he might have had the sense to steer clear of a publisher with an appellation as, well, incendiary as the one with whom he was attempting to transact his business.
Then there is the climax of the novel, which I do not believe was intended to be funny, but still is. Melville’s indecision and frustration took the story in so many convoluted directions that it gets downright amusing after a while. It’s like watching someone try to juggle four or five objects that are nowhere near the same size and shape – the harder it gets, and the more feverish their efforts to keep them aloft, the funnier it becomes.
If you were a producer bringing Pierre to the screen in a literal adaptation, you’d almost be forced to hire three different directors. You’d need a seasoned pro from Masterpiece Theater or perhaps the BBC to stage the domestic, quasi-aristocratic drama and rather baroque dialogue from the first half of the book. You’d need someone who has tackled Shakespeare before – maybe Kenneth Branagh, for example – to set the correct tone for the melancholy finale in the darkened Tombs. But to handle that sequence where Pierre goes apeshit and takes the fight straight to his enemies in the New York City streets? For that you need John Woo, the Chinese action director. No one stages the classic double-fisted pistol attack like Woo.
Just trying to imagine a film that cobbles together sequences such as these, while a hilarious exercise, reveals the sort of uneven imbroglio that is Pierre. Readers and publishers expected Melville to deliver an entertaining story that in some way reflected their values and allowed them to temporarily escape from the complexities of their own lives. But Melville, his biographer writes, “saw the self as essentially unknowable and the universe as a conundrum, full of teasing ambiguities.” At least he was kind enough to provide a clue in the book’s subtitle.
Melville was a man immersed in struggles that would be challenging for anyone to negotiate, who had already devoted so much of his heart and his strength to his work. He wrote a novel that reflected this conflict and was punished mercilessly for it. That he moved on from there at all is downright extraordinary. Yet he did: he fought through all obstacles; he found an inner fire that gave him the courage to continue.
Even if no one else ever appreciates it, I think all of the struggling writers and artists of the world, from Melville’s time through our own and beyond, can and should be grateful for Pierre – a book saturated with, in its own words, “the burning desire to deliver what he thought to be new, or at least miserably neglected Truth to the world.”
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Jude J. Lovell received an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in 2001 and his writing has appeared in Touchstone, Rock & Sling, America, St. Austin Review, Paste, The Other Journal andAmerican Chronicle. He is also currently writing a book about Herman Melville.
His other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.