Pierre: or, The Ambiguities Background

Pierre: or, The Ambiguities Background

Somewhere there is a thesaurus with an entry on unappreciated that includes the synonym Herman Melville. One might well forward the proposition that what Vincent Van Gogh was to the world of art, Herman Melville is the world of fiction. At least his masterpiece and, arguably, the one true Great American Novel, Moby-Dick was merely dismissed and forgotten in the demonstration of the inability of genius to be recognized by the confederacy of dunces surrounding it. Melville’s far less known novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities was not just overlooked and misunderstood; it denounced and condemned for its apparent lack of any recognizable quality.

One of the reasons behind the fairly universal consensus that Melville’s seventh novel was lacking any positive attributes was the incapacity for those who judge these sorts of things to quickly categorize its content as a means facilitating the easiest—and least reliable—means of judging value: comparison to others of a kind. Without the benefit of a host of novels to which it could be rapidly evaluated, the critics were forced to approach the novel on its own terms and judge it as a singular entity. Failing this ability, history has left the legacy of immediate judgment of Melville’s novel in the darkness of such irresponsible, meaningless charges as being everything from a collection of nonsense to an example of trash to a spectacular failure on all points.

Among those who at least made an attempt to based their critique upon a comparison and contrast of generic standards, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities was determined to be—among other things—a gothic novel, a ghost story, a parody of domestic romances and even a prototype for what would come to be known much later as psycho-sexual thrillers. Published in 1852, by 1853 Melville’s novel had essentially been relegated to the dusty archives lined with his increasing string of failures. Even worse, the critical reaction to the book began calling into question the very state of Melville’s sanity as evidenced from this spectacularly overzealous critique that readers found when they opened their copy of New York Day Book on September 8, 1852:

“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.”

Everything changed in 1930 when writer E. L. Grant Watson picked up a copy of Pierre: or, The Ambiguities and, upon discovering the maligned novel was a work of extraordinary depth and artistry, set about placing it alongside Moby-Dick and the other Melville novels lambasted when published that are recognized today as among the finest examples of writing any American has ever produced.

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