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  • Revolutionary Time and the Future of Democracy in Melville's Pierre
  • Dominic Mastroianni (bio)

In March and April of 1848, members of the United States Congress engaged in an intense debate over a resolution congratulating France on its recent revolution.1 Punctuated by heated arguments about slavery, the debate was colored by the same "preoccupation with permanence and stability" that Hannah Arendt finds "running like a red thread through the [U.S.] constitutional debates."2 For example, Representative Henry W. Hilliard of Alabama worried that the revolution would not result in any "permanent good" for France. Hilliard's argument for deferring congratulations stressed the difficulty of determining the final outcome of a revolutionary event: "The convulsion which exhibits a form so attractive to-day, may yet upturn the foundations of society, and result in the wildest anarchy." While Representative John D. Cummins of Ohio urged against delaying congratulations, he asserted that if France should deviate from the model of the United States by consolidating all legislative power in a central body, it would thereby form "a government whose construction was incompatible with permanency—a government which could not exist."3 For Cummins, the very existence of a government depended on the possibility of its enduring permanently. A real democracy, Cummins suggested, has to be constituted in a way that precludes the possibility of further revolutionary upheavals. Cummins implied that Hilliard's uncertainty concerning the final results of revolutions could be resolved by founding the [End Page 391]

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"Scéne de barricade, Paris, Juin 1848," by Adolphe Hervier. From Album Hervier (L. Joly, 1888).

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-79527.

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right form of government: a government that terminates the force of a revolutionary event.

This essay seeks answers to the questions that Cummins and Hilliard raised in what might seem an unlikely place: Herman Melville's novel of family and artistic drama, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852). I find running through Pierre a thread of political allegory whose central concern is whether a potentially permanent democracy can result from revolution. While recent work on Pierre tends to focus on its stances toward authorship, the late antebellum literary marketplace, and popular genres of fiction, a significant subset of critics discerns in Melville's book a political allegory that interests itself in matters of nation and revolution, whether by assessing the predicament of the postrevolutionary generation in the United States or by commenting on the French revolutions from 1789 through 1848. The latter set of readings, however, does not adequately account for the novel's preoccupation with the time of revolution and thereby dissipates the political force generated in Melville's development of a relation between democracy and the possibility of its historical transformation. Pierre does nothing less than to take the difficulty of knowing when a revolutionary event has lost its vitality and install this uncertainty at the heart of democracy.

Therefore, and contrary to what is sometimes claimed, Pierre does not offer a conservative or counter-revolutionary response to the American or French revolutions.4 Melville's novel is more a conceptualization of the importance of revolutionary time to democracy than an argument for or against revolution or democracy. Without directly advocating revolution, the novel asserts the untenability of the conservative position that a democracy can last forever. Pierre maintains that it is impossible for a revolution to found a revolution-proof state. Moreover, the novel makes the more general claim that any democratic organization must endlessly destabilize itself by threatening itself with revolution. My reading of the political allegorical dimension of Pierre differs from others inasmuch as I draw out previously undetected claims that Melville makes about revolution: that a revolutionary event tears the fabric of history enough to allow something entirely new to emerge; that a [End Page 393] revolutionary event occurs in a moment of passivity rather than heroic action; that democracy itself tends to call for revolutions that threaten its own continued existence; and that a desire for equality can drive revolutions at least as forcefully as a demand for freedom can. And centrally, I show that the character of...


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