Herman Melville crazy?

Without the question mark, that title headlined a newspaper article shortly after the publication of Pierre, Melville’s 1852 follow-up to Moby-Dick. Can it be that bad? We’ve dealt with messiness before, and certainly there’s plenty of insanity in Moby-Dick, but I have to agree that Pierre kicks things up a notch.

The title character, Pierre Glendinning, is a grand and magnanimous young man, a member of young America’s landed aristocracy in upstate New York, who right from the start exhibits a bizarre relationship with his mother. Pierre calls the still-attractive widow “sister Mary,” and she returns with “brother Pierre,” making sure “never to appear in the presence of her son in any dishabille that was not eminently becoming” and having him help tie ribbons around her neck, sealed with a kiss. The confusing intimacy of family relations is continued in Pierre’s reflections on his wishes for a real sister, whose affections would be similar to those of a wife.

Then, Pierre does find a real sister—half sister—maybe. He wants desperately to acknowledge her but knows his mother would never welcome the dark and mysterious Isabel into her home, never admit the possibility of Pierre’s father’s indiscretion. Pierre’s attempt to solve the dilemma of helping Isabel and not hurting his mother is insane; he throws aside his fiancée, the sweet, fair, angelic (and mother-approved) Lucy, and pretends to have secretly married Isabel, making her a Glendinning without marring his father’s memory. Mrs. Glendinning’s response is hardly unpredictable: furious, she disowns Pierre and eventually dies, seemingly of pure enraged pride.

In case that wasn’t enough, the spurned Lucy decides, after a period of pining, to go and live with Pierre and Isabel, pretending to be Pierre’s cousin.

A bit of a departure from harpooning whales and befriending cannibals. So what sort of animal is Pierre? You’ll note that it is Melville’s only book-length work to take place entirely on land, and even it can’t quite resist the ocean by the very end. There is evidence Melville may have meant the novel as a bit of rural romance. Much of the novel occurs within private homes, giving it certain elements of the domestic fiction popular at the time.

But Melville couldn’t write a popular romance; he had to write exactly as he pleased, and that meant a flight into the Gothic. Pierre is full of mystery and gloom, with a full-blown Romantic hero going mad. It’s also a step beyond the style of Moby-Dick, stuffed with high-flown prose and dialogue stylized beyond any pretense at realism. Here is a short speech from Pierre to Isabel, at least as Shakespearian as anything heard from Ahab:

“Call me brother no more! How knowest thou I am thy brother? Did thy mother tell thee? Did my father say so to me?—I am Pierre, and thou Isabel, wide brother and sister in the common humanity,—no more. For the rest, let the gods look after their own combustibles. If they have put powder-casks in me—let them look to it! let them look to it! Ah! now I catch glimpses, and seem to half-see, somehow, that the uttermost ideal of moral perfection in man is wide of the mark. The demigods trample on trash, and Virtue and Vice are trash! Isabel, I will write such things—I will gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!—I will write it, I will write it!”

This isn’t exactly representative, since Pierre isn’t this mad throughout the whole novel. But it’s not too far off, either. While I certainly enjoyed it, and beyond “mere” Appreciationism, and will be writing about it for the rest of the week, no, this is not a novel most people should read.

5 comments to Herman Melville crazy?

  • I wish newspapers still did this.

    “Joyce Carol Oates Is Out of Her Gourd”, for example.

    Pierre looks much more difficult, just on a “do I want to take a break now” measure, than Mody-Dick. No, I mean, than Mardi, since Moby-Dick is thrilling – I just finished “Cetology.” The Pudding-Headed Whale, you don’t say.

  • It’s funny you should use Oates as your example, because after reading this post on “advanced genius theory” I keep musing about Melville in these terms (especially as I start to read some of Battle Pieces…), and she’s mentioned there. It’s not how I’d instinctively categorize her myself, but I’ve only actually read two of her books (and liked both).

    You’re right about Pierre‘s difficulty, though. I kept thinking, “This is so short, so why is it taking me so long?” In terms of minutes per page, it’s definitely my slowest Melville so far. And mostly not at all thrilling. So are you reading Moby-Dick again for reals? I saw it in your sidebar but wasn’t sure if I should start congratulating myself for being an inspiration, ha!

  • So interesting. I saw the same post, and found it fairly intriguing. Melville seems like a great example. You might want to go further with the idea.

    Of course AR is rereading Moby Dick. It’s a perfect little warmup for Clarel.

    When do you guys get to Hawthorne, while looking back at Melville? Hawthorne has Melville all over the Blithedale Romance, but I haven’t checked back in on Melville in so long that I don’t know where Hawthorne might be found as you’re reading through it. Can’t remember.

  • i picked Oates for two reasons. 1. It sounded funny. 2. She actually writes a lot about violence and mental illness, so I guess it was easy to imagine a reviewer attributing a character’s views to the author.

    Still, mostly #1. “Alice Munro: Has She Finally Cracked?”

    I’m reading Moby-Dick because of that advice I gave to Incurable Logophile – just read the first three chapters, etc. Well, that’s what I did, and look what happened. Although, frankly, I was pulled in right away by “The pale Usher – threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.”

    I just ran into Melville via Hawthorne, although I did not write anything about it, in The English Notebooks. Melville stops in Liverpool to visit Hawthorne while on his way to Palestine, the trip which, 20 years later, turns into Clarel! Hawthorne, not wracked by religious and artistic crises, is happy to see his friend but doubtful about his state of mind.

  • zhiv—I’m definitely going to spend some more time thinking about it after I’ve wended the rest of my way through Melville. And Hawthorne…well, I was supposed to have done him already, or at least at the same time, but of course it didn’t work out that way. I’m going to make an extremely serious effort at Hawthorne this winter, after a few other projects I have planned for the interim. I’m looking forward to it.

    AR—I thought that’s what happened. I get pulled right in myself, usually right from “Loomings.”

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