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His first six books had all been first-person narratives derived from his seafaring days.“The Paradise of Bachelors” is the title of one of his short pieces and seems to represent his ideal of the good life; men adrift or at ease in a company, eating and talking and struggling against fate together, constitute his recurrent and sufficient subject.Sometimes she hears a low cough, and sometimes the scrape of his crook-handled cane. “Redburn” and “White-Jacket,” quickly written to recoup the disaster of “Mardi,” were, he confided to his father-in-law and the chief underwriter of his household, the wealthy Massachusetts judge Lemuel Shaw, “two , which I have done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood. But what did best-sellerdom mean in mid-nineteenth-century America?
He worked in a room of a New York household that included his mother, four unmarried sisters, a married brother with his pregnant wife, and two children, plus domestic help. the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree;—& to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves.
We first hear of his new book in a letter of May 1, 1850, to another literary sailor, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.: About the “whaling voyage”—I am half way in the work. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.
It is doubtful if elsewhere in the history of literature two books as good and bad as “Moby-Dick” and “Pierre” have been written back to back. Eliot said of some plays by the Elizabethan John Marston, “give the effect of work done by a man who was so exasperated by having to write in a form which he despised that he deliberately wrote worse than he could have written, in order to relieve his feelings.”The plot is this: Pierre, a young country gentleman happily ensconced in rural wealth and in lyrical engagement to a suitable local gentlewoman called Lucy, upon discovering that his dead father in likelihood was also the father of an illegitimate daughter named Isabel reacts by renouncing his fiancée, his wealth, and his mother’s affection and carrying his sister off in the semblance of a wife to the big city, where, the gentle fiancée with equal quixoticism following him, all three eventually perish.
The action of “Pierre” is hysterical, the style is frenzied and volatile, the characters are jerked to and fro by some unexplained rage of the author’s. Whereas in “Moby-Dick” the figure of Ahab takes all the madness upon himself, here it belongs to the author; where the basic chase action of the earlier book carries us through all the elaborations, digressions, and explosions of authorial wit, in “Pierre” the white whale never surfaces but slides as an unsighted horror beneath the clashing, improbable waves.
In the midsummer of that year, while a friend, Evert Duyckinck, was informing his brother that “Melville has a new book mostly done—a romantic, fanciful & literal & most enjoyable presentment of the Whale Fishery—something quite new,” Melville almost all at once visited his cousin Robert’s farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; was given a copy of Hawthorne’s “Mosses from an Old Manse;” decided to bring his wife and young son from New York to Pittsfield for a summer vacation; met Hawthorne at a picnic on Monument Mountain; wrote an enraptured anonymous appreciation of Hawthorne for the Duyckinck brothers’ journal and decided to buy the farm, six miles from Hawthorne’s new home near Lenox, that Melville called Arrowhead, and where he and his family were to live for the next thirteen years.
That first year, he was stimulated and emboldened by the proximity of the older author, of whom he had written in his review, “I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. The author writes with the gusto of true genius, and it must be a torpid spirit indeed that is not enlivened with the raciness of his humor and the redolence of his imagination.” thought “Moby-Dick” “not lacking much of being a great work,” and offered criticism that even the most reverential modern Melvillean might admit to be sound: that the seamen don’t talk like seamen, and that the central character of Captain Ahab has been “grievously spoiled, nay altogether ruined, by a vile overdubbing with a coat of book-learning and mysticism.” reported that “the result is a very racy, spirited, curious and entertaining book, which affords quite an amount of information, while it enlists the curiosity, excites the sympathies, and often charms the fancy.” asserted that “Moby-Dick” “in point of richness and variety of incident, originality of conception, and splendor of description, surpasses any of the former productions of this highly successful author.” Enough, perhaps, has been quoted to show that even those with strong reservations about “Moby-Dick” spoke respectfully of the author’s talent, and that a number of early enthusiasts for this willful and extravagant work were among the reviewers.
In the mythology of American letters, the popular and critical failure of “Moby-Dick,” and Melville’s subsequent withdrawal into wounded silence, is a central image, ranking with Henry James’ self-exile to England and Mark Twain’s final phase as a white-suited pet of the rich, and with Fitzgerald’s alcoholic crackup and early death and Hemingway’s spendthrift exercises in celebrity.
Something is wrong, these images tell us, with being a writer in America; one of Melville’s biographers, Newton Arvin, calls his subject’s treatment by the public “the heaviest count in our literary annals against the American mind.” Inspection of Melville’s books after “Moby-Dick” and of the biographical particulars framing his famous silence yields, however, a few surprises.
Pierre, we are tardily told, is something of a writer; eloping to New York with not only Isabel but another country waif, Delly Ulver, and then acquiring as one more dependent the wronged but faithful Lucy (much as Melville’s Berkshire household was composed of a multiplication of women), Pierre hopes to support them all by writing a book. Here we have a book describing its own composition, and that of all the hurried and bulky books before, which yet have secured the writer no sure immortality, and no lasting income.
The description of his labors is horrendous and heartfelt: He will not be called to; he will not be stirred. or does the Pale Haggardness unbuild the lungs and the life in him? In “Pierre,” to judge by his comments in the letters just quoted, Melville imagined he was concocting “a regular romance,” “calculated for popularity.” When the book upon which poor Pierre so painfully labors is rejected by the publisher, it is with the note “Sir:—You are a swindler. he had better leave ‘Pierre or The Ambiguities’ unbought on the shelves of the bookseller.” Author and hero alike are unable to turn their pens to the necessary task, sinking instead into “blasphemous rhapsody.” “Pierre” both in style and in action verges on parody—a quality that some recent critics have sought to make a virtue but modern readers are apt to find as disorienting as did the novel’s few contemporary reviewers.