September 8, 2013

Melville Crazy (Or, Pierre: idol of the critics)

The headline screamed from the page, "Herman Melville Crazy." Published in the New York Day Book on September 8, 1852, the article was a mock news story inspired by the author's latest book, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities. The book had been published only about two months earlier (Melville apparently had originally considered publishing it anonymously). The article notes:

A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, 'Ambiguities," between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink

Other reviews were no more laudatory. Another review called it "the late miserable abortion of Melville." Another called it repulsive, unnatural and indecent." The negative critical response to the book and its abysmal sales (continuing the trend established by his previous failure Moby-Dick) severely harmed Melville's literary career. His wife, incidentally, later claimed the book had little to do with the author becoming more reclusive and more embittered about his literary reputation. Nevertheless, his publisher Harper and Brothers rejected his next manuscript (now lost) and, as the above review requested, Melville kept away from pen and ink for a time. He took to lecturing, for example, and eventually took a long-term job at a custom house in New York.

In fact, the irony is substantial when looking at the content of Pierre. As he was writing the manuscript in January 1852, Melville decided to make the title character an author. Coming from an illustrious family (much like Melville himself), Pierre Glendinning, Jr. encounters a woman named Isabel who claims to be his illegitimate half-sister. He hopes to find a way to give her a portion of his father's inheritance but is kicked out of the family when he pretends he has married the woman. He turns to writing to support himself, Isabel, and a female companion named Delly. The woman to whom Pierre had previously been engaged (and who almost married his cousin) comes back into his life, and now he attempts to support three women with his pen. He finds, however, that despite his early success his more recent life experiences leave him unable to meet the demands of the literary marketplace and his book is rejected by the publisher.

The book is complicated and edged with much darkness, particularly in the fatal conclusion. As for Pierre, he became successful as a writer in his youth because of his sentimentality, his gentility, respectability, and romanticism; critics noted he was free from the crude, the vulgar, and excessive vigor — in short, he wrote the safe effusions that a general public would enjoy. From chapter XVI: "Young America in Literature":

A mind less naturally strong than Pierre's might well have been hurried into vast self-complacency, by such eulogy as this, especially as there could be no possible doubt, that the primitive verdict pronounced by the editors was irreversible, except in the highly improbable event of the near approach of the Millennium, which might establish a different dynasty of taste, and possibly eject the editors. It is true, that in view of the general practical vagueness of these panegyrics, and the circumstance that, in essence, they were all somehow of the prudently indecisive sort; and, considering that they were panegyrics, and nothing but panegyrics, without any thing analytical about them; an elderly friend of a literary turn, had made bold to say to our hero—" Pierre, this is very high praise, I grant, and you are a surprisingly young author to receive it; but I do not see any criticisms as yet."

"Criticisms?" cried Pierre, in amazement; "why, sir, they are all criticisms! I am the idol of the critics!"

"Ah!" sighed the elderly friend, as if suddenly reminded that that was true after all—"Ah!" and went on with his inoffensive, non-committal cigar.


  1. Lord, what was it about Melville that evoked such intolerable language from the critics?

    I guess his genius....


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