Melville began writing Pierre, or The Ambiguities in August 1851; he had just turned 33 and was already the author of six books. The most recent of these, Moby-Dick, was about to be published, and reviews of it, largely negative in the United States and somewhat less so in England, would begin appearing while he was working on the new novel and negotiating the terms for its publication. Of the books already in print, only the first two, Typee and Omoo, had had much commercial success, and even Typee, which made him for a time a minor celebrity, had been criticised, as nearly all his works would be, for blasphemy and untruth, prompting his publishers to ask him to revise for the second printing, adding some assertions as to the veracity of the story and cutting some unflattering references to Christian missionaries.
When he submitted the manuscript of Pierre to his publisher, Harper & Brothers, at the very beginning of January 1852, he was already in debt to them for earlier advances. He was nonetheless surprised and disappointed when they offered a contract less generous, so he thought, than for any of his earlier books. Though he reluctantly agreed to their terms, he almost immediately began to write sections and passages that he then added to the manuscript, and by 21 January his brother Allan was informing Harpers that the manuscript already exceeded the length originally agreed to, possibly hoping, but in vain, that they would pay a bit more for it. No manuscript of the novel has been found, but it is estimated that the additions make up about 13 per cent of the total published by Harpers in July 1852. This published version has since been accepted as standard, and it served as copy text for the edition of Pierre published in 1971 as part of the authoritative Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker and G. Thomas Tanselle.
Now, in 1996, this same Hershel Parker, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, has constructed an alternative version meant to approximate the originally completed novel Melville delivered to Harpers. In the absence of any manuscript copies, it is impossible to determine exactly what or how much was added to the original version or where any such additions may have been put in. Parker has convinced himself that the sure mark of any added material is that some direct reference is made in it to Pierre as a working poet or novelist. And since, again in his view, all references of this kind only begin to occur about two thirds of the way into the novel, in Book XVII (‘Young America in Literature’), he starts out by deleting that and then goes on to cut Books XVIII (‘Pierre, as a Juvenile Author, Reconsidered’) and XXII (‘The Flower Curtain Lifted from before a Tropical Author; With Some Remarks on the Transcendental Flesh-Brush Philosophy’), along with bits and pieces ranging from several pages to a few words from other of the later Books. This means the deletion of one of the most powerful passages in Melville, Pierre’s vision of the Enceladus in Book XXV. In an extensive Introduction, Parker tries to explain why this new edition is worth owning, aside from the fact that it is handsomely produced and has pictures by Maurice Sendak.
Parker makes it clear that his reconstruction is not meant to replace the Northwestern-Newberry edition of the standard version. Nonetheless, he quite heatedly insists that his shorter version is much to be preferred. The alleged additions, he asserts, ‘wrecked’ such precious elements as Melville’s ‘symmetrical’ time scheme and the novel’s ‘meticulous control’, though of what we’re never told, and played havoc with its ‘hyper-coherence’. By the end he is in something of a froth against any suppositious reader who might dare to disagree with him. ‘For readers of Pierre as originally published but not as originally completed, the aesthetic lesson of my evidence is that it is folly to look for ways of seeing the Pierre-as-author theme as unified with the rest of the book. To find unity in the mixed product of ecstatic confidence and reckless defiance after failure is to trivialise Melville’s aspiration, his achievement, and his wrecking of that achievement – to dehumanise Melville as man and artist.’
This summarising passage cannot be called literary criticism; it is a plea of sorts, not on behalf of Pierre but of Melville. Like the Introduction as a whole, the passage fudges the critical issues it raises. Why, one wants to know, is ‘unity’, or ‘hyper-coherence’, such an overriding criterion, especially when in this instance it seems to involve mostly mechanical aspects of plot-making? And is the shorter version of the novel actually as ‘unified’ as Parker likes to think it is? Pierre in either version harbours a deep incoherence between its historical dimensions and its psychological ones, and this comes into play in the very first Book, which was composed well before any of the purportedly added sections. It’s this evidence of incoherence that makes Pierre, no less than Moby-Dick, more interesting to think about than it otherwise might be.
The deficiencies in Parker’s interpretation of the novel have their source, I suspect, in his belief, perhaps inevitable in someone now completing a two-volume life of the author, that Melville’s style at crucial moments is necessarily determined by his state of mind at the time of writing, or more exactly by what Parker assumes that state of mind must have been. His extravagant assertion that by making the so-called additions to Pierre Melville succeeded only in ‘wrecking his achievement’, is based finally on the biographical conjecture that while writing those additions Melville was ‘bitter, overwrought, and even suicidal’. Why would he not be, in Parker’s view, faced as he was by emerging evidence that Moby-Dick would be a critical and commercial failure and, related to that, by what Parker calls Harper’s ‘punitive contract’ for the new book?
Parker’s conjectures may or may not be right, but Melville’s state of mind, whatever it was, did not necessarily dictate what he wrote at the time or his artistic decisions about where and how to insert that writing into the book. As it happens, the longest of the Books that offend Parker, Book XVII, includes some of the funniest, certainly the most comically modulated writing in the novel. It is a high-spirited send-up of Pierre’s fame as a juvenile writer, best known for ‘that delightful sonnet “The Tropical Summer” ’, and of literary celebrity in general.
As for the contract offered by Harpers for Pierre, why is it ‘unfair’, much less ‘punitive’, given the sales and reception of most of the books by Melville immediately preceding it? Melville’s disappointment isn’t surprising but only because a disappointment of that sort is common enough among writers. Any additions he then proceeded to make to the new novel were designed in part to increase the price of the book and thereby his own proceeds. This was not an unworthy ambition, and it is only one of the many indications of Melville’s own commercial impulses and of his constantly increasing financial needs, as a writer in debt, with no private means and with responsibility for a large and growing household. If he is a martyr to commercialism, then some of the commercialism was his own. He and his publishers together were in the business of making a living, which doesn’t mean that they hadn’t other ambitions that worked meanwhile against financial profit-taking. He intended each of the seven books he had written by 1852 to be a popular success. At the same time he took the commercial failure of most of them as evidence of his artistic distinction and a reason for boasting of failure. Failure was a price worth paying for engaging in what he calls, in ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’ (1850), ‘the great Art of Telling the Truth’. In a letter of 6 October 1849 to his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, to whom he owed a considerable amount of money, he claims that ‘it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to “fail.” Pardon this egotism.’ In the meantime, his publishers and some other of his correspondents were being assured that the book then in progress was also designed to sell.
Melville was genuinely confused on this issue. It is never a good idea to hold him strictly to what he says about it in any particular instance, not even when he wants to sound as if the writing enterprise is a courageous and perilous adventure. Immensely excited when he met Hawthorne in the summer of 1850, while he was working on Moby-Dick, and convinced, for a time, that here was another American capable, as he thought himself to be, of proving a match for Shakespeare – at once supremely great and immensely popular – he was apt to address his new friend with an exceptional degree of self-infatuated portentousness. He was already well into Pierre when he wrote to Hawthorne in November 1851, still exhilarated by Hawthorne’s response to Moby-Dick, to whom the book was dedicated: ‘I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb ... Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. 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’ (a fabulous Scandinavian sea monster).
This is an early example of a macho agonism especially pronounced among American male novelists who like to talk about landing or shooting or climbing The Big One: Mailer as Babe Ruth wanting to ‘hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters’ or Hemingway, who ‘wouldn’t fight Dr Tolstoi in a 20-round bout because I know he would knock my cars off’. Obviously, what Hawthorne had dismissed as a band of ‘scribbling women’ are not expected to produce contenders.
One of the many extravagances of Parker’s edition of Pierre is that he chooses to call it ‘The Kraken Edition’, assuming that, in his letter to Hawthorne, Melville is making ‘his first unmistakable reference to his new book’. Melville is implying, he writes, ‘that Pierre was to be bigger, deeper in its profundity, than Moby-Dick’. The reference isn’t at all ‘unmistakably’ to Pierre. It can refer more generally to any future work done by either of the writers. Furthermore, if applied to Pierre, the characterisation is totally at odds with what is obviously meant to be a clear reference to the novel, not mentioned in Parker’s Introduction. It can be found in a letter dated 8 January 1852, by which time Melville had already submitted a version of the novel to his publisher – a version which Parker now claims to have reconstructed – and had besides, begun to write the material he intended, according to Parker, to add to it. The letter this time is not to Hawthorne but to his wife Sophia, thanking her for what he terms her amazing insights into Moby-Dick. He then remarks; ‘My dear Lady, I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water. The next chalice I commend will be a rural bowl of milk.’ Clearly, ‘a rural bowl of milk’ is expected to suit the tastes of the general public, though it may be significant that in the novel Pierre’s appetite for bowls of milk provokes from his mother the mock warning that he is becoming a milksop. In any case, ‘a rural bowl of milk’ is a most unlikely habitat for a kraken.
If the two images are put together, however, a kraken in a rural bowl of milk, an upsurging, destructive turbulence that finds itself trapped within a pacifying and confining domesticity, is quite appropriate to Pierre. It is, in addition, an apt enough description of a writer whose lifelong financial needs and intense desire for fame compelled him to hope for commercial, popular success, even as it simultaneously provoked in him a revulsion against the concessions to stylistic and formal conventions he would be required to make. Thus, in the opening sections of Pierre, as in the opening sections of Moby-Dick, he initially commits himself to familiar modes of romantic and domestic fiction, only in both instances progressively to disown them.
One reason why many people admit to confusion while reading this novel is that Melville indulges himself in literary conventions about which he holds an instinctive suspicion – as indeed he does of all uses of language. At crucial points it is impossible to determine whether or not or by how much he intends to be writing parody. He seems particularly given to exaggerated versions of styles that are themselves inherently exaggerated, like the pastoral-heroic idyll or the Gothic, antecedents for which in Pierre include Byron’s Manfred and, I would guess, Richardson’s Clarissa, where a coffin is used as a writing desk. Melville had read Spenser before he took up, in early 1849, a close study of Shakespeare (‘if another Messiah ever comes,’ he then wrote to a correspondent, ‘’twill be in Shakespeare’s person’). He found in the plays precedents for the rhetorical overreachings of Ahab and of Pierre, along with the use of minor characters for commentary in the manner of the porter’s scene in Macbeth. Some of this is quite clumsily managed, and the echoings in the speeches of Ahab and Pierre of Lear and Hamlet can be taken as heroic questings of mind or mere folly. There’s often no way of knowing how to take them. Uncertainties and puzzles of this kind, which abound in Melville’s work, can be thought of as disablements or as relatively inconsequential in the light of his enormous imaginative ambition and attainment.
Great literary and intellectual ambition can assume a variety of forms when it comes up against the mediating counterforce of formal conventions. In Melville, as in other writers given to works of encyclopedic dimensions, from Spenser to the Romantic poets to Joyce and his successors, it often manifests itself as a celebration of the heroics of authorship, of the effort to cope with the cultural accumulations that over the centuries have been building up within literary practice. The reader is invited, in such instances, to attend not only to the actions of the characters but to the activity of the writer, a designation that may include the fictional hero as well as the author himself, as it does in Pierre. One result is an often quite direct foregrounding of literary technique. Attention is called to the manipulative prowess required of a writer who, even as he makes use of inherited modes, also tries to show that they have, at best, only a temporary utility. Particularly in the last century and a half there has developed a tendency, comic or plaintive as the case may be, to highlight the inadequacy of available techniques to the organisational tasks they are expected to perform. And the evidence of this inadequacy includes the nurtured incoherence and asymmetry of the work at hand. Failure of a sort thus becomes a sign of the lonely bravery of authorial effort in the modern dispensation, of the writer’s willing self-sacrifice in the service of some necessary but unspecifiable cultural change.
Melville in Moby-Dick wrote a version of Ulysses before he wrote, in Pierre, his version of a portrait of the artist as a young, a very confused young man. As his career developed he was overwhelmed by his sophisticated doubts about literary composition, including at last his own compositional efforts. It is as if increasingly he measures his achievements by the degree of critical corrosion he can bring to bear on the cultural and literary origins of his own writing, along with its contemporary viability, and this becomes even more important to him than any similar scrutiny of the cultural or literary or historical origins to which his characters might lay claim. Origin and originality are the issues that matter most to him in Pierre.
The plot of the novel can only superficially be derived from the chronology of its events or the murky psychological developments in its characters. Any coherence or ‘hypercoherence’ inferable from these factors proves to be illusory. Rather, the plot of this novel evolves from the obsessively repeated discoveries of likenesses where none was expected, of topographical namings and renamings, of reflections, of multiple, slightly varying portraits of the same person, of mirrorings and echoes, including echoes of other literary works. All of these increasingly call into doubt the lineages, familial and historical, which give Pierre an initial sense of his identity. His peculiar avidity in seeking out possible likenesses, as between what he already knows and what he chances on, gradually erodes whatever trust he might have had in the distinctness of his inheritance, his origins. And with that comes a confusion, too, as to the standards in terms of which he might confidently affirm some degree of individual variation or originality.
The prose of the first Book is cluttered with literary allusions and mimicked styles, as if to suggest that, initially at least, Pierre is contented to be ‘heaped,’ as Ahab complained of being, with the accumulated weight of inherited forms and models. There are hints, however, that he will in due time feel compelled to release himself from these by inventing, like a Melvillian novelist, alternative forms and models. As the novel opens, much is made of the fact that he is heir to every possible advantage. These are described, however, in the language of the fairy tale, an early suggestion that his heritage will in some degree prove to be fraudulent. Physically beautiful and athletic, the only child of a startlingly youthful-looking widowed mother, he is at 18 destined to own a vast, idyllically situated estate in upper New York State. All round him are visible evidences in the family properties of the heroic military feats by which his recent ancestors took violent possession of the land during the Indian and Revolutionary Wars. He is engaged to a 17-year-old neighbouring beauty, named Lucy Tartan, also of a distinguished and wealthy family. When we first meet them they are speaking to one another in the language of Romeo and Juliet, or, rather, in the Petrarchan mode of the first scene more appropriate to Romeo’s discredited mooning over Rosalind. Their dialogue – ‘“Smell I the flowers, or thee,” cried Pierre. “See I lakes, or eyes,” cried Lucy, her own gazing down into his soul, as two stars gaze down into a tarn’ – finds its equivalent in Melville’s commentary: ‘Love sees ten million fathoms down, till dazzled by the floor of pearls.’
Such writing has to be called intolerably bad or taken as parody. Melville wants no decisive choice to be made on that score, however. If he allowed his own writing at such moments to become clearly parodistic, then it would make the equivalent language used by Pierre and Lucy obviously an object of ridicule, and he is determined not to expose his hero to that possibility. At several points in the opening Book, entitled ‘Pierre Just Emerging From His Teens’, Melville intrudes directly to caution the reader – much in the manner of Henry James in Portrait of a Lady, on behalf of the romantically youthful Isabel Archer – not precipitously to judge someone destined to suffer unduly. Paragraphs in which his characters are allowed to exult in their situations tend to conclude with dropped hints of bad things to come, and when these same characters use idealising literary allusions, it is often with a kind of distortion that only confirms the unreality of their expectations. When, for example, Pierre’s mother says to her son, ‘You are a Romeo,’ she then has to add that she trusts he will be married ‘not to a Capulet, but to one of our own Montagues; and so Romeo’s evil fortune will hardly be yours. You will be happy.’ She cannot know, though he may already have a premonition (he interjects at this point: ‘The more miserable Romeo!’), that by grotesquely fulfilling her wish that he marry within the family, he will destroy everyone, including himself. He will soon tell her a lie calculated, he likes to suppose, to protect her and his late father from disgrace. He is, he will say, already married, and to a strange, beautiful girl named Isabel, about whom no one, including herself, knows much of anything. He wants desperately to disguise the fact, as he impulsively thinks it to be, that Isabel is his illegitimate and long forsaken half-sister. It’s a ruse by which he hopes to bring the girl under his intimate protection and at the same time redeem, without revealing to anyone, the sins of his father.
Pierre is even more given to literary allusions than his mother, who ‘looked the daughter of a General, which she was’. And though of Pierre we are told that ‘on both sides he sprung from heroes’, Melville gives altogether greater emphasis to his literary interests and inclinations: ‘not in vain had he spent long summer afternoons in the deep recesses of his father’s fastidiously picked and decorous library; where the Spenserian nymphs had early led him into many a maze of all-bewildering beauty.’ His lineage, his literariness and his surroundings all suggest a figure in heroic-pastoral romance, which is consistent with the style of the first Book. It isn’t enough that he is said to have ‘a delicate and poetic mind’; he is credited also with having ‘the complete polished steel of the gentleman’, an allusion, possibly, to another 16th-century writer, George Gascoigne, in whose satire ‘The Steele Glas’, the hero can see not only his own faults but those of kings, lords and knights. Pierre will similarly come to see the faults of his father mirrored in the little portrait he has cherished of him as a debonair young man, a portrait that, once he is persuaded by the story of Isabel, he will throw into the fire.
Being more exactingly literary than his mother, Pierre is haunted early on less by Romeo and Juliet than by Dante’s Inferno, and even as he looks forward to an evening with Lucy when they plan to look through a book of Flemish prints and Flaxman’s illustrations of Homer – yet further references to copies and reflections – he emphatically rules out in his mind any inspection of Flaxman’s Dante. He has a fearful premonition that he would find there too close an approximation of the face of the mysterious girl that has haunted him for weeks, though he has seen her only once and doesn’t yet know that her name is Isabel:
No, we will not open Dante. Methinks now the face – the face – minds me a little of pensive, sweet Francesca’s face – or, rather, as it had been Francesca’s daughter’s face wafted on the sad dark wind, toward observant Virgil and the blistered Florentine. No, we will not open Flaxman’s Dante. Francesca’s mournful face is now ideal to me. Flaxman might evoke it wholly, – make it present in lines of misery – bewitching power. No, I will not open Flaxman’s Dante! Damned be the hour I read in Dante! More than that wherein Paolo and Francesca read in fatal Lancelot!
A novel whose hero is as obsessed as this one with finding possible relations, reflections and origins for himself, is also necessarily crowded with figures drawn from history, painting, poetry and mythology. And many of these, just as necessarily, will get distorted by his compulsion to shape life so that it fits his illusions. Pierre’s agitations about Dante are an example of how, especially in the opening books, Melville characterises his hero as someone who has immersed himself in literature in order to probe the mystery of his psychological states and at the same time lend them a grand historical or mythological dimension. He is here alluding to one of the most celebrated passages in the Inferno, where, in Canto 5, Dante and Virgil meet the shades of Francesca and Paolo. These two 13th-century contemporaries of Dante were the central players in a famous scandal, when, discovered in the illicit act, they are murdered by Francesca’s husband, who happens to be Paolo the Handsome’s hunchbacked older brother. They have been consigned to the circle reserved for carnal sinners, and all the lovers found there have been made known to later times mostly through ancient epics or medieval romances or will be immortalised, like Paolo and Francesca, through Dante’s poem.
The importance to their story of Lancelot and Guenevere is wholly invented by Dante, and it is significant that Melville makes a point of mentioning it. These two earlier illicit lovers betray King Arthur doubly, as both husband and ruler. So do Francesca and Paolo betray Giovanni Malatesta, since he is husband to the one and elder brother to the other. It is their exposure to an actual text of the Lancelot-Guenevere story that induces, according to them, the sin that leads to their deaths Melville thus creates a hall of mirrors. He has contrived to have a character in his novel look forward to an evening over the books with a young lady he loves in which, during a scene of reading, they will look into a text where they will discover another romantic couple also involved in a scene of reading, these in turn also finding in their text the same illicit and initial moment of intimacy between a still earlier couple, the legendary Lancelot and Guenevere. Paolo and Francesca can thereby claim literally to have been mutually seduced by the book they are reading as much as were Lancelot and Guenevcre by the pander Galleto. Indeed, in her speech to Dante and Virgil, Francesca, speaking of the book they read, says, ‘A Galleto, that book.’
Though Melville makes no mention of this remark, readers are free to think of it as one of the many indications that much of Pierre’s trouble comes from his desire to imagine life for himself as if it were part of one or another of the more conventionalised literary masterpieces. This is hinted at in the early paragraphs of the novel when it is said that Pierre looks on the perfection of his life at Saddle Meadows as an ‘illuminated scroll’ and that there is ‘only one hiatus discoverable by him in that sweetly-writ manuscript. A sister had been omitted from the text.’ That is, even before he catches sight of Isabel he has invented a place and a specific role for her in his ‘text’. His life is likened to an evolving work of art which, for the very reason that it is so conventional, artificial or scroll-like, is ready to accommodate any romantic revisions he wants to make in it.
While Parker may complain, as did some of the novel’s first reviewers, that Melville doesn’t directly identify Pierre as a writer until Book XVII, without then going back to insert earlier mentions of this in his book, there nonetheless abundantly exists in the opening sections a pattern of metaphors, starting with the first passages of Book I, that suggest that he treats his life, disastrously, as if it were already a work in progress and he its composer. To discover such compositional patterns in a novel doesn’t make it any better than its many adverse critics have said it is. Nor does it to suggest that without the added material on Pierre-as-writer the book would have been, in Parker’s phrase, ‘a masterpiece’, or that with the additions it is nonetheless, as Sacvan Bercovitch claims in his massively detailed interpretation in Rites of Ascent, ‘a work of sustained brilliance’, ‘a major text not only in but about American literary history’. By which I mean that simply because close analysis may reveal some potentially complex meaningfulness in Pierre, or some scaffoldings of a coherence among certain of its metaphors or submerged strands of allusiveness, it does not thereby make the book any more recommendable. At most, such analysis merely offers clues as to some of the author’s powerfully registered intentions. It is no proof that he ever fully or adequately realised or executed those intentions. What ought to concern us are not adducible meanings but the manner in which these are made available and whether or not they allow themselves to be experienced at the pace of civilised, educated reading. This is a pace rather different from systematic decoding of only certain passages.
It is necessary to ask why, since its first publication, many intelligent readers who admire a book as erratically put together as Moby-Dick confess that they find Pierre more or less unreadable. They don’t mean that it is indecipherable. Henry James put it best, I think, in his 1884 lecture ‘The Art of Fiction’
I can think of no obligation to which the ‘romancer’ would not be held equally with the novelist. The standard of execution is equally high for each. Of course it is of execution we are talking – that being the only point of a novel that is open to contention. This is perhaps too often lost sight of, only to produce interminable confusions and cross-purposes We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnée; our criticism applies only to what he makes of it ... We may believe that of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can make nothing at all, and the event may perfectly justify our belief; but the failure will have been a failure to execute and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded.
By intellectual conviction Melville was deeply wary of the pleasures afforded by any of the fictional modes already familiar to him. He was persuaded in his own mind that a book could indeed be ‘a Galleto’. But he wanted and needed to believe that he could freely indulge in these conventions while also engaged in ‘the great Art of Telling the Truth’. In April 1852, months after he is said, by Parker, to have finished his additions to Pierre, he wrote to his English publisher, who in the end refused to publish it, that the novel ‘possessed unquestionable novelty, as regards my former ones’, and yet at the same time was ‘very much more calculated for popularity than anything you have yet published of mine’. He is doubtless saying that he has tried to cater to the popular taste for pastoral romance combined, as it is in Pierre, with urban and Gothic sensationalism. And yet he is also choosing to forget his own complicated mockings of these same things and, especially, the sometimes formidable density of his prose. One of the probable attractions for him of Canto 5 of the Inferno is that it masterfully bridges any such difficulties. It is among the most popular parts of the poem while also being especially complex of purpose in its implicit critique of the romantic clichés it is successfully making use of.
The passage about Dante in Pierre is notable not simply or even primarily because of Pierre’s allusion to the lovers. More significantly, it constitutes Melville’s own allusion to Dante’s mythic method and his variation on it. It is a method of juxtaposition that scarcely waited to be invented by Joyce, as Eliot once claimed it had been, and in which current experience finds an explanatory version of itself in some apparently similar experience already represented in the literature and mythologies of the past. The implication in Melville and in Dante is that while the mythic method may prove expedient in literary composition, it is to be avoided by those, like Francesca or Pierre, who would use it to create excuses for conduct in life that has already been marked in the past by tragic consequences. Deployed in this manner, the method becomes not only a great convenience to the literary magnification of experience. It also becomes a moral instrument, warning against the naive appropriations of the power at work in literary texts.
I suspect Melville especially appreciated the way Dante indulges Francesca in her bold assertion that it was her reading with Paolo of the story of Lancelot and Guenevere that actually caused, even as it also for ever glamorises and immortalises, their fateful and, as she would have it, unpremeditated act of sexual love. Melville goes a step further than Dante even in indulging his hero. He lets him revise Canto 5 so that he may conjure up a figure carefully left unmentioned by Dante, namely Francesca’s daughter. At the time of the murder, Paolo was in actual fact a married man with two children and Francesca, herself married for ten years, was the mother of a daughter already nine To have brought this daughter on stage would have seriously compromised Dante’s poignant if critical characterisation of the mother Even though condemned for eternity, Francesca remains forever touchingly devoted to the romantic cliché of her reputation and the projection of her romantic image. Mention of a daughter, whose age in those days would have qualified her to be engaged to be married, would have crippled the mother’s efforts to appear as a historical exemplification of young love and of the fatal consequences of a first giving in to an unthinking romantic impulse.
Pierre’s abrupt introduction of this daughter’s face as a suitable image of the haunting face of Isabel is another example of the extent to which Melville indulges his hero’s compulsive illusion that he is free to blind himself not only to reality but even to reality as represented in literary inheritances and, with that, to family and historical inheritances.
Along with these early and repeated characterisations of Pierre as a literary illusionist in his responses both to life and to the texts that propose to represent it, there is a concurrent development in the novel strictly relegated to authorial commentary. In these asides, Melville reveals his intense disdain for the perpetuated illusions, scarcely restricted to his hero, about patriotic, military forebears and the nobility of their contribution to the founding of America. In the first dozen pages, before the introduction of Isabel and long before the appearance of any of the material to which Parker takes exception, Melville remarks on his hero’s view that there was ‘only one hiatus’ in the ‘illuminated scroll of his life’.
Meanwhile, however, we have already been alerted to ‘deeds of his ancestors’ far more reprehensible than the siring and desertion of the illegitimate child who might one day fill the ‘hiatus’. Just a few paragraphs before the passage about the omission of a sister from the ‘text’, Melville makes reference to a more damning cover-up – of how ‘vindictive’ was the war by which these ‘sires’ had come into possession of Saddle Meadows, which was in fact named after one of the battles over the property. ‘The Glendinning deeds by which their estate had so long been held,’ he writes, ‘bore the cyphers of three Indian kings, the aboriginal and only conveyancers of those noble woods and plains.’
The derision in this wording could easily be missed by many readers, and may have been intended to be missed. The quasi-parodistic style of the opening Books does not invite the kind of attentiveness required of the pun here on ‘ciphers’, which can mean both hieroglyphs and also non- or obliterated identities, or the pun on ‘deeds’, referring both to legal title and to these acts of brutal appropriation that first secured that title. It is as if Melville wants to disguise, even to hide, from his general audience a good part of his historical-political intentions. Equally troubling is that Pierre is himself completely insulated from the Melvillian critique of his historical inheritance. Melville again intervenes directly to protect him (‘I beg you to consider that Pierre was but a youngster as yet’) from any reader who, if he has managed to catch what Melville has been insinuating, might then choose to question the ‘proud, elated sort of way’ in which the hero has been brought up to think of his ancestors. A case in point is the grandfather. Famous for his exploits in the Revolution and, before that, in the Indian Wars, this ‘mildest hearted and most blue eyed gentleman’, measuring six feet four in height, ‘had annihilated two Indian savages by making two reciprocal bludgeons of their heads.’ There is an ironic, quasi-Swiftian pitch to Melville’s writing at such moments, as when he compares English to American pedigrees, ‘pedigrees I mean in which there is no flaw’, and then quietly moves on to the innocently delivered conclusion that Americans have as much inherited right as the British to take credit for imperialist excesses.
Not just as a ‘youngster’, but even in his later, rhetorically grandiose expressions of general despair, Pierre never participates in or even indicates an awareness of the author’s acts of historical deconstruction. This gap or failing in the novel, as I take it to be, is perhaps best understood as a consequence of Melville’s desire to keep his critique of America from becoming a more public, more audible factor in a book that will in any case be open to the usual complaint that he is irreligious, blasphemous and indecent, especially with a hero clearly intent on some sort of incestuous career. Of course incestuous compulsions by themselves could be said to constitute a desire to discredit and then destroy ‘the great genealogical and real-estate dignity’ of a family line. Incest is one of the most time-honoured devices for bringing great families to ruin, a classic literary sign of degeneracy, often following on the discovery of some great earlier family sin. By itself, however, it carries no specifically targeted historical content, and it isn’t given any here either by the novelist or his hero. In fact it is made evident from the very outset that Pierre has incest on his mind even before he finds someone to incite the erotic feelings that go with it. Among the first things we’re told about him is that he and his mother address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and that Pierre nonetheless feels cheated of a real sister. In Melville’s account of this there is a perplexing blend of prissy elegance, prurience and superciliousness:
He mourned that so delicious a feeling as fraternal love had been denied him. Nor could the fictitious title, which he had so often lavished on his mother, at all supply the absent reality. The emotion was most natural; and the full cause and reason of it even Pierre did not at that time entirely appreciate. For surely a gentle sister is the second best gift to a man; and it is the first in point of occurrence; for the wife comes after. He who is sisterless is a bachelor before his time. For much that makes up the deliciousness of a wife, already lies in the sister.
This passage encapsulates some of the complications that make this a fascinating novel, one that fails, in part, by overloading itself with possibilities of meaning – something Melville was prone to do – without managing to bring them into any sufficiently reciprocal or productive relationship. For what is most interesting here are the hints that while striving to write a proto-Faulknerian novel about a young man’s need to discover the true nature of a historical and landed inheritance, assuming such a discovery is ever possible, it is even more, but quite separately, a psychological novel, and a very confused one, about the hero’s profoundly destructive erotic needs. These needs find an object in the ‘face’ or vision of Isabel, the very tenuousness of whose claims to sisterhood allow her also to be called his wife, and, we can confidently assume, to engage with him in that capacity. She represents the precise confusion in a single flesh-and-blood woman that he desperately seeks, in part to displace the frighteningly virginal Lucy. He contrives that Isabel shall give him both the ‘delicious feelings of fraternal love’, and the ‘deliciousness of a wife’, two satisfactions customarily kept separate but joined in the passage by Melville’s rather leering repetition.
In a passage so gushingly benign in its phrasing, this repetition, if noticed at all, would likely seem devoid of ulterior motive. And in what sounds like a still further effort to muffle, even while acknowledging, the remarkable perversity of Pierre’s project, the sentence which begins by saying that his ‘emotion was most natural’ immediately admits that the emotion is al together murky: ‘the full cause and reason of it even Pierre did not at that time entirely appreciate.’ The time will never come when he will, and it’s evident that Melville isn’t sure what he means to be communicating here. It might be supposed that he is saying only that Pierre hasn’t yet become aware of the existence of his half-sister Isabel. But her existence has nothing to do with any ‘cause’ or ‘reason’ for the ‘emotion’; the ‘emotion’ has always made him feel the want of someone like her. It’s this prior emotion that wishes or dreams her into existence, and when she does appear on the scene he remains perplexed by his ready acceptance of her claims.
This compulsion to create a sister-wife for himself seems to be impelled by motives more mysterious and destructive than any understood by him; and whatever they might be they are never effectively woven into the novel by Melville. His incestuous impulses are evidence, apparently, of an unconscious and for that reason all the more desperate determination to bring his line to an end, to disown his inheritance and to terminate everyone closely associated with him, including himself, his mother, Lucy, his cousin and counter-image Glen, whom he murders outright, and of course Isabel, who is there to assist him in these efforts. And yet the motive brought forth by Melville is phrased in such a way as to suggest, grotesquely, that his incestuous desires are linked to literary aspirations. That is, he wants, again, to correct that ‘hiatus’ a word with interesting anatomical suggestions, under the circumstances – in the ‘sweetly written text of his life’. In doing so he will transform that text into a family nightmare, a Gothic novel of incest.
Faulkner, who learned something from Melville and more from Conrad, makes far better use of an incestuous situation similar to Pierre’s in Absalom, Absalom!, because he successfully develops its connections, as Melville never does, to specific and psychologically energising historical circumstances. Faulkner’s would-be agent of incestuous retribution is a young man, part Negro but easily passing for white, named Charles Bon. Close to the beginning of the Civil War, Bon discovers that by his partially Negro mother in Haiti, he is the never acknowledged, even if financially assisted, son of the now remarried, immensely propertied Mississippi planter Thomas Sutpen. This also means that he is the half-brother of Sutpen’s daughter Judith. She falls in love with him, attracted by his physical resemblances to her adored brother Henry, who must, in the end, kill Bon, though he, too, loves him, to prevent the marriage. Meantime, Bon has all along been prepared to release Judith, or so it is conjectured by some of the narrators of the story, if only the father will offer even a privately delivered gesture of recognition. The novel ends, as does Pierre, with a pile-up of bodies and with Sutpen’s Hundred – on an estate situated on property like Saddle Meadows, taken from its original Indian owners and with a house built by slave labour – in ruins.
Pierre’s incestuous venture is given no such resonance, and remains from beginning to end dissociated from the social-historical components that surround it. Whether one is reading the standard or Parker’s revised version, the novel proves to be incoherent in its conception. Of course incest in life need not be joined to any social or historical motivating cause, but we are not reading life. We are reading a novel, and one that requires us, besides, to think at every point about novels as a genre. When, for example, Pierre is persuaded after the first of two chapter-long interviews with Isabel, that she is the sister who has been denied him, Melville gives prominence less to the hero’s disenchantments with his father than, of all things, with the novel form. That’s the culprit. It’s the novel, the English novel it would seem, that has deceived our hero, Once again, the structures of his feeling are revealed through metaphors having to do with literary structures:
In [Isabel’s] life there was an unravelled plot; and he felt that unravelled it would eternally remain to him. No slightest hope or dream had he, that what was dark and mournful in her would ever be cleared up in some coming atmosphere of light and mirth. Like all youths, Pierre had conned his novel-lessons; had read more novels than most persons of his years; but their false, inverted attempts at systematising eternally unsystematisable elements; their audacious, intermeddling impotency, in trying to unravel, and spread out, and classify, the more thin than gossamer threads which make up the complex web of life; these things over Pierre had no power now ... while the countless tribes of common novels laboriously spin vails of mystery, only to complacently clear them up at last; and while the countless tribe of common dramas do but repeat the same; yet the profounder emanations of the human mind, in tended to illustrate all that can be humanly known of human life; these never unravel their own intricacics, and have no proper endings; but in imperfect, unanticipated, and disappointing sequels (as mutilated stumps), hurry to abrupt intemiereings with the eternal tides of time and fate. So Pierre renounced all thought of ever having Isabel’s dark-lantern illuminated to him.
This confession of Melville’s own artistic despair comes in Book VII, not even halfway towards the presumably inserted Book XVII, which introduces Pierre as himself an unsuccessful, practising novelist. Examples like this make it evident that Parker has failed to read attentively enough his own preferred version, much less the standard one, even though he has been an editor of both. Against the shared opinion of just about every other commentator on this novel, he asserts that ‘Melville conceived and wrote the original Pierre in a mood of intense exaltation.’ As if Melville’s awareness that he was incapable of writing a popularly successful novel and, if he had been, would have scorned the results, was a realisation that came to him only when his publisher refused to pay what he wanted for this one or when some reviewers attacked the one before it, Moby-Dick. Already implicit in this passage from Book VII is the confession made by Pierre in one of the supposedly added chapters: that his own, alternative and Melvillian novelistic experiments cheat him of the truth every bit as much as any conventional practices. He there complains of ‘the universal lurking insincerity of even the greatest and purest written thoughts. Like knavish cards, the leaves of all great books were covertly packed.’ And he then adds: ‘He was but packing one set the more; and that a very poor jaded set and pack indeed.’
From beginning to end, in every crevice, and in whatever version, Pierre is an allegory of Melville’s thwarted career as a novelist. It is a totally self-absorbed performance wherein failure is attributed to the nature of literature itself and to language as a necessary betrayer. The claim in all this to a lonely cultural heroism on the part of the writer was to become familiar to readers of 20th-century Modernist literature. It is a claim, fortunately, that seems by now nearly to have worn out its welcome.