Pierre; or, The ambiguities

by Herman Melville

Other authorsHarrison Hayford (Editor), Hershel Parker (Editor), Thomas G Tanselle (Editor)
Hardcover, 1971





Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1971.


Forgoing the narratives of the sea that prevailed in his earlier works, Melville's later fiction contains some of the finest and many of his keenest and bleakest observations of life, not on the high seas, but at home in America. With the publication of this Library of America volume, the third of three volumes, all Melville's fiction has now been restored to print for the first time. Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, published in 1852 (the year after Moby-Dick), moves between the idyllic Berkshire countryside and the nightmare landscape of early New York City. Its hero, a young American patrician trying to redeem the secret sins of his father, elopes to the city, discovers Bohemian life, attempts a literary epic, and struggles his way through incest, murder, and madness. Long a controversial work, it is Melville's darkest satire of American life and letters and one of his most powerful books. A pivotal work, both for Melville's career and for American literature, Pierre was followed by Israel Potter, the story of a veteran of the Revolution, victim of a thousand mischances, and a long-suffering exile in England. Along the way are memorable episodes of war and intrigue, with personal portraits of Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and George III. In the exploits of this touchingly optimistic soldier, Melville offers a scathing image of the collapse of revolutionary hopes. The Piazza Tales demonstrates Melville's dazzling mastery of many styles, including "The Encantadas," about nature's two faces--enchanting and horrific; the famous "Bartleby the Scrivener," about a Wall Street copyist who "would prefer not to"; and the enigmatic "Benito Cereno," about a credulous Yankee sea captain who stumbles into an intricately plotted mutiny aboard a disabled slave ship. The Confidence-Man, Melville's last published novel, is in many ways a forerunner of modernist American fiction. An extended meditation on faith, hope, and charity as these are manifested on board a Mississippi riverboat one April Fools' Day, it presents a menagerie of Americans buying and selling, borrowing and lending, believing and mistrusting, as they are carried toward the auction blocks of New Orleans. Many pieces never before collected are also included: the "Authentic Anecdotes of Old Zack" (burlesque sketches of Zachary Taylor's Mexican campaign), "Fragments from a Writing-Desk" (Melville's earliest surviving prose), reviews of Hawthorne, Parkman, and Cooper, and all the tales Melville published in magazines during the 1850s. Finally, there is the posthumously published masterpiece Billy Budd, Sailor, the haunting story of a beautiful, innocent sailor who is pressed into naval service, slandered, provoked to murder, and sacrificed to military justice. While encouraging questions for which there are no answers, it invites us to meditate on the conflicts central to all Melville's work: between freedom and fate, innocence and civilized corruption. LIBRARY OF AMERICA is an independent nonprofit cultural organization founded in 1979 to preserve our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping permanently in print, America's best and most significant writing. The Library of America series includes more than 300 volumes to date, authoritative editions that average 1,000 pages in length, feature cloth covers, sewn bindings, and ribbon markers, and are printed on premium acid-free paper that will last for centuries.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
How do you parody lurid melodrama? By going even more over the top, and seemingly nobody told Melville that sarcasm and hyperbole are a volatile and sometimes toxic mix. Taken in isolation, some of the tortuous metaphorizing--love's mouth is chambered like a bugle, and entails covering one another in peach juice, and also sinking mine shafts into your lover's eyes, and that's all on the same page--is inspired, but altogether it's cloying and ludicrous, and that would be fine if this was pure parody like The Rape of the Lock or something, but Melville has a serious, sad story to tell under here.

It's about a young, ever-so-slightly-bladish American aristocrat named Pierre Glendinning, whose life is but a dream, rapidly turning nightmarish after he meets his illegitimate sister (dark-complexioned) and leaves his WASPy fiancee (fair, naturally) and goes away to live with the sister and a disgraced village girl in an existence too squalid to ever become bohemian, with much talk about familial duty in the face of cruel and hypocritical social mores, an imperfectly sublimated sexual undercurrent (which Melville has great fun with, talking about how different this all would have been if the sister hadn't been hot), and, eventually, the arrival of the fiancee too. And of course it all ends in tears, and Melville's polemic against the emptiness of conventional religious belief and harmfulness of contemporary religious values is undermined by the telescoped timeframe on which everybody works themselves up to fever pitch (lots of dropping dead of sheer despair in this). And there's the usual metaphysical dithering, made worse somehow when taken out of the open air of the Pequod and sealed up in a boarding-house. By the end, though,Melville has loosened up a lot and some of his sardonic quips are genuinely funny in an off-the-cuff way, refreshing after the foregoing ponderosity: the thing about "two ceaseless steeds for a man to ride" (you laugh mockingly, merrily, but without the condescension that comes through in so many of Melville's prior japes at Pierre's expense); the leering sailor (a rare example of Melville's nautical Tourette's coming off successfully in non-nautical context).

A partial success, wheat amongst chaff.
… (more)
LibraryThing member markbstephenson
For my money this is every bit as good as Moby Dick, especially once the protagonists arrive in New York City. There's action, some very clever humour, HM's trademark oracular and rhapsodic outbursts, and a touching tragic ending. It is true that Melville's female characters aren't as thoroughly portrayed as , say, Samuel Richardson's or Henry James' but I still cared about Mary Glendinning, Lucy Tartan, and Isabel the mystical guitarist and femme fatale. And with so much candid sharing of HM's own creative aims and processes! This reminded me of Gissing's New Grub Street - minus the politics of publishing and enmities of editors.… (more)
LibraryThing member GaryPatella
Melville decided to write a parody on the literature of his day. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work.

Pierre, the protagonist, makes very ludicrous decisions and arrives at extremely ridiculous conclusions. This makes any type of empathy for Pierre nearly impossible. I know that Melville may have been poking fun at the ridiculous scenarios of other melodramas, but goes WAY too far.

The dialogue is atrocious. The best way I know how to describe the dialogue is to use a comparison with which not everyone will be familiar. But it is the best I've got. You know the dialogue in the Star Wars Prequels? Compared with the dialogue in Pierre, that dialogue is sheer genius.

Enough of the negatives, now I shall mention some positive aspects.

Melville does give some very insightful thoughts at various points. Some of the streams of consciousness become very philosophical. Those parts I rather enjoyed.

When the characters are simply described by their actions without directly speaking to one another (i.e. when there is no dialogue), it is possible to get a bit absorbed into the story.

The ending is quite unpredictable. Although Melville does end it in a bit of a deus ex machina fashion, it does come as a bit of a shock. Furthermore, after reading the final sentence, I did have to take pause for a bit to reflect on everything. This is something that does not happen when I read a book that is completely superficial. So the book must've contained some depth.
… (more)
LibraryThing member libraryhermit
Prose style like no other author (that I have heard of yet Of course, there are a host of nineteenth-century American authors whom I have not read yet, so I am certain that there would be some of them that would be remeniscent of Melville, or vice versa. At first I want to say that the sentences are cumbersome, but that would be false, as there are no superfluous words. It is very disciplined prose and nothing is wasted.
The story is a bit strange, but what is there under the sun that we think we have never heard of yet, that can exist somewhere, somehow, in someone's imigination, or in reality, or both. (Both are really the same thing after all, reality and imagination, that is.)
… (more)


Page: 0.243 seconds