Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part Two. Pierre in Revolt

“If a frontier man be seized by wild Indians, and carried far and deep into the wilderness, and there held a captive, with no slightest probability of eventual deliverance; then the wisest thing for that man is to exclude from his memory by every possible method, the least images of those beloved objects now forever reft from him. For the most delicious they were to him in the now departed possession, so much the more agonizing shall the be in the present recalling” (357)

I included this from Pierre only because of my inability to take Melville’s advice here, and I suffer daily from it.

As I left things at the mid-way point in Herman Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Pierre Glendinning learned of his long-lost half-sister and married her after learning of her past. In the process, he alienated his mother, the woman who has hitherto dominated his life and controlled his future. He also left his fiancé, Lucy. Not insignificantly, at this point Pierre began a series of revolts that would dramatically change the course of his life. If Isabel, his sister, truly reflects the more primal and democratic and free America (leaving Pierre to symbolize the old aristocratic culture), then we can read the novel as the triumph of the democratic over the aristocratic. This may seem to be fighting old battles, but we must remember that the United States did not fully free itself from aristocratic influences with the Revolution. The aristocrat remained in the landed elite, in the slaveholder, and in the various anti-democratic forces not so easily undone.

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The largest revolt Pierre pursues is his entrance into the city. He sees evidence everywhere of the more democratic and diverse climate. In a humorous exchange with a coach driver, he finds that his aristocratic bellowings have little impact on the driver, mocking his dictatorial pretentions with “though to be sure, I don’t know nothing of the city where I was born and bred all my life—no I know nothing at all about it.” (271) But it went beyond the attitude of a single cab driver. Pierre feels he is surrounded by the dregs of society, none of whom respected his name and station. “Day-dozers and sluggards on their lazy boxes in the sunlight, and felinely wakeful and cat-eyed in the dark; most habituated to midnight streets, only trod by sneaking burglars, wantons, and debauchees; often in actual pandering league with the most abhorrent stinks. . . this hideous tribe of ogres.” (271)

He attempts to make his living by writing, maintaining faith in his earlier aptitudes. He did not quite understand how little his talent for poetry would fetch him in the urban American city. The “fine social position and noble patrimony of Pierre” was worth less than nothing on the streets of the city. In an interesting passage, Pierre finds himself contemplating what it will take to survive and the requirement that he learns a trade. His arrogance and overblown self-esteem convinces him that he could learn and adapt to any useful trade. He even makes the mistake that the mind and body are essentially detachable in the workplace. This is a common capitalist ploy, to pretend that they work regimens they impose on workers is less odious than it is. “But not only could Pierre in some sort, do that; he could do the other; and letting his body stay lazily at home, send off his soul to labor, and his soul would come faithfully back and pay his body her wages.” As if to strike home his point Melville adds. “So, some unprofessional gentlemen of the aristocratic South, who happen to own slaves, give those slaves liberty to go and seek work, and every night return with their wages, which constitute those idle gentlemen’s labor.” (304) This just goes to show that a simple relocation is not enough to create a democratic spirit in the individual. In any case, his pondering about manual labor are not that important as he settles in for a life of writing.

New York in the 1850s

New York in the 1850s

Another point of Melville’s, it seems, is the utter violence of such breaks. They are perhaps necessary for liberty, but they do often cause harm. This is seen in the return of Lucy to the story in the final acts. But rather than resist her fate, she seems to accept it, but in the process is pulled along with Pierre into his dramatic transition to urban, democratic life. The result, although not lurid, was perhaps scandalous. A menage-a-tois results, with the three dwelling together in the city. Pierre is unable to produce for the low-brow marketplace of the city. His book is rejected by publishers. He is sued for the advances he received because the pages he was sending the publisher were not seen as suitable for the market. His publishers call him a “swindler.” (I wonder if Melville ever heard those very words?) Driven beyond the bend he murders the new heir to his estate (and Lucy’s new finance), is taken to jail. Lucy dies when unable to come to terms with the reality of his relationship with Isabel (wife and sister).

It is difficult to get beyond the silliness of the plot and even as a Melville admirer I found the book to be a bit of a burden. Of course, the book is a mess and not Melville’s finest. I do think there is something powerful in the story about the changing American scenery. Pierre certainly moved from the aristocracy to where he would need to assert himself by his own merits, but that environment he entered was dominated by capitalist print culture. In a sense, he merely found out that in democratic culture, he is required to service another master: the market. How freedom can exist in the market has never been fully explained to me by the capitalist apologists.

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Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part One. Old America, Young America

“Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he cannot love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sign is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!” (41–42)

It has been almost a year since I started my series on Melville, but I abandoned it after completing my reading of Moby-Dick. One of my goals this year is to roll up all these lose threads and starting looking at authors in complete sets. (We will see about Henry James—fourteen volumes—when we get there.) The third volume of the Library of America collection of Herman Melville includes his final three novels (Pierre, Israel Potter, and The Confidence-Man), the short-story collection The Piazza Tales, various prose writing—including some of his awesome stories and reviews—, and finally the posthumously published Billy Budd. Only the final work represents a return to sea fiction. Notice with me that Melville produced his six works of sea fiction between 1846 and 1851 (ponder that G.R.R. Martin). Pierre came out a year later in 1852. He had another period of rapid production between 1855 and 1857. During the rest of his life—he died in 1891, over twenty years after his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne died—he published only poems and some small pieces. Reviewers and his family thought Melville insane during this period. In order to meet expenses, Melville took a job from 1866 until 1885 as customs inspector for New York, following Hawthorne’s path. But while the position served as a temporary measure for Hawthorne before he produced his great novels, the customs house would be were America’s greatest writer would spend the rest of his days. He made only $10,400 from the sales of his books. How many great works are lost to us because of that job in the custom house?

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Pierre, or the Ambiguities begins with Melville’s praise for the “Majesty” of the Berkshires, followed almost immediately with the genealogical history of the tale’s protagonist Pierre Glendinning, rooted in an aristocratic family. The contrast between the monarchical and aristocratic England with the democratic America is one of the major tensions through the story. While in Hawthorne we see the endurance of family traditions, in Melville’s America these legacies are more distant and seem to have less hold, or at least are overwhelmed by the tide of democracy. In the first chapter is the quite political statement: “In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old.” (13) A few pages later, he makes clear that the American elite migrate to the cities and build houses, while in Europe they would build country estates. Pierre was of the European type¬¬—a country aristocrat—in urbanizing America. What is left of Pierre’s family maintains the symbols of aristocracy, but are truly a family in decline. The past generations are even taller, with more grand careers, and more “majesty.” Moby-Dick thrust us right into the multiple, democratic world of the whaling whip. Pierre starts us someplace more static but moves us into the city, transforming the young Pierre Glendinning in the processes.

As the novel opens he is slated to marry Lucy. Soon enough Pierre learns that he has a half-sister Isabel, announced in the form of a letter. She announces her desire to see him and the deep connection she shares with him. The letter has a profound impact on Pierre who wants to seek out his sister rather than pursue the marriage with Luck. “Well may this head hang on my breast,—it holds too much; well may my heart knock at my ribs,—prisoner impatient of his iron bars. Oh, men are jailers all; jailers of themselves; and in Opinion’s world ignorantly hold their noblest part a captive to their vilest.” (110) With his commitment to seek out his sister, Melville shifts to telling the back story of Isabel. Unlike Pierre, who was raised by a matriarch intensely interested in dynasty and family reputation, Isabel was thrust into the world detached and in the wild. “Pierre, the lips that do now speak to thee, never touched a woman’s breast; I seem not of women born. My first dim life-thoughts cluster round an old, half-ruinous house in some region, for which I now have no chart to seek it out. . . . It was a wild, dark house, planted in the midst of a round, cleared, deeply-sloping space, scooped out in the middle of deep stunted pine woods.” (137)
Isabel seems to be a metaphor for America. In her early years, her only company were “an old man and woman,” both all but silent toward her and only mumble about her to each other. Like Europe looking on the infant America. Isabel began to speak her own polyglot, language (again, like America). Isabel is eventually taken in by a woman, who educates her, especially in music. She still lacked any ties to her heritage, but her father was sending money in support.

In many ways, Pierre and Isabel seem to represent two sides of America. Isabel is longer in the wilderness, primal, free, musical, lacking the need for guidance of adults, liberated. Pierre is younger but closer to the mythical traditions of his family, more obedient to his family, and more civilized, growing up under relatively strict guidance. There is the America that could not entirely break free of European traditions of hierarchy, obedience and power: the side of America that was never quite comfortable with freedom.

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After hearing the story of Isabel, Pierre decides to redeem her place in the family, which is attempts by marrying her. By telling her story, Isabel is able to pull Pierre away from his family and lead him on a path to rebellion.