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Reading Melville's Pierre; or, The Ambiguities

Brian Higgins

Publication Year: 2007

Herman Melville's Pierre; or. The Ambiguities has a storied place in the history of American publishing. Melville began writing this follow-up to Moby-Dick in October 1851, thinking that it might prove even more significant than its predecessor. The 1852 publication of Pierre was catastrophic, however. Melville lost his English publisher, and American reviewers derided the book and called the author mad. InReading Melville's "Pierre; or, The Ambiguities," noted Melville authorities Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker probe the daunting story behind a deeply flawed but revealing work, one that directly reflects the major crisis of Melville's authorial life. Weighed down by huge debts, Melville took the manuscript of Pierre to his New York publisher, Harper and Brothers, desperately needing the new work to be a financial success. The Harpers balked at publishing such a dangerous psychological novel (incest was a theme) and offered him less than half the royalties they had paid for his previous books. The anguished Melville accepted the contract but subsequently added new passages to his manuscript—passages that disparage the publishing industry and reflect his agony at the looming loss of his career. Higgins and Parker examine what can plausibly be reconstructed of Melville's original version of Pierreand explore the consequences of his belated decision to expand his work, showing in detail how his hastily written and awkwardly inserted additions marred much of what he had brilliantly achieved in the shorter version. They demonstrate that to understand Pierre, and Melville himself at this crisis, one must first understand the compositional history that resulted in the book as published. Setting Pierre in the context of Melville's literary life, Higgins and Parker's study is an illuminating demonstration of biographical and textual scholarship by two of the field's finest practitioners.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

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pp. vii-ix

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, Herman Melville’s seventh book, was catastrophic for him. It lost him his English publisher, and reviewers of the American edition . . .

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1. Toward a Kraken Book

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pp. 1-31

Melville seems to have started writing Pierre; or, The Ambiguities about the time of the birth of his son Stanwix on 22 October 1851, perhaps before, perhaps . . .

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2. “This dream-house of the earth”: Books I and II

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pp. 32-56

Despite the elements of conventional plotting we noted at the end of chapter 1, the first two Books of Pierre introduce constant shifts in style and . . .

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3. “The flowing river in the cave of man”: Books III–V

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pp. 57-80

The first two Books make clear the essential nature of Pierre. An ambitious experiment in psychological fiction, its primary focus will be the complex . . .

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4. “The manly enthusiast cause”: Books VI–XII

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pp. 81-111

In Book VI, “Isabel, and the First Part of the Story of Isabel,” Melville at last satisfies his readers’ as well as Pierre’s desire to know more about the . . .

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5. The Pamphlet and the City: The Kraken Ending

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pp. 112-143

In Book XIII, “They Depart the Meadows,” the shortest Book in the novel, the Saddle Meadows section ends, with an ironic reminder of the opening . . .

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6. Cobbling the Harper Pierre: January–February 1852

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pp. 144-174

New Year’s Eve 1851 or New Year’s Day 1852, or a day or two either way, Melville took the train at Pittsfield for the eight-hour ride to New York City. His primary . . .

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7. Aftermath

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pp. 175-185

Back at Pittsfield, probably from the last week or week and a half of January, Melville toiled on, continuing to enlarge and fit together the manuscript . . .

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8. Faltering Recognition

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pp. 186-212

The hostility of the contemporary reviewers toward Pierre determined the way later readers perceived the book and was echoed in the brief comments . . .

Works Cited

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pp. 213-217


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pp. 219-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780807135686
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807132265

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2007