Melville's Prophecy of America in 'Pierre'

by Paul Maher

27 May 2010


Herman Melville decided to follow-up the confounding labyrinth of a novel, Moby Dick with a true mind fuck of a work, the novel Pierre; or the Ambiguities (1852). He wanted to take risks, even with a sick wife and a new baby and negative reviews piling up for his whale novel. Unfazed, he locked himself in a room for hours at a time, barely eating, eager to mine the delicate strata of his creative psyche within the character of the young precocious Pierre. This “Kraken” of a novel was meant to surpass Moby Dick through its sheer linguistic versatility (which it does) whilst at the same time endear him anew to critics and general readers. It did not. Dismissed by disgusted critics, ignored by his readers who only wanted to read novels about sailors and Polynesian topless hotties, the work ultimately did him in, permanently damaging his writing career (already faltering like a snake-bit cow) from his whale novel.

In Pierre, Melville vitally connected the America’s disintegration by capitalist greed, prophesying its ultimate negative impact on the dynamics of the American family. The family unit weakened, the community fails begetting a cesspool of economic/spiritual/ physical decay. Melville keenly addresses the offensive grandstanding of our nation’s leaders, of “political institutions” who “in other lands seem above all things intensely artificial”. It is America that seems to “possess the divine virtue of natural law; for the most mighty of nature’s laws is this, that out of Death she brings Life”. Yet, for Melville, there lies hope in the individual staying strong among the defeated: “if in America the vast mass of families be as the blades of grass, yet some few there are that stand as the oak; which, instead of decaying, annually puts forth new branches.” Right on Herman…

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