The Monster in the Milk Bowl

Richard Poirier

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.

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