Herman Melville is today one of the giants of American 19th century literature. The monumental novel Moby Dick aside, short stories like Billy Budd and Bartleby the Scrivener are common fare for anyone who has scraped the surface of American letters.
Yet for all his durability across the century or so since he walked lower Manhattan‘s streets, Melville‘s career was full of frustration. Not only did his reputation have its ups and downs during his lifetime, but a number of his other works have not achieved much recognition.
That’s the case for a lesser known novel by Melville, known as Pierre, or the Ambiguities. The book certainly belongs to the post-Moby Dick penchant for Melville to produce bleak visions of life in America. "Pierre," "Israel Potter," and "The Confidence-Man" are all thought of as harshly satirical dissections of moral breakdown and social hypocrisy.
While they do anticipate modernist fiction with their black humor and formal experimentation, these works have been difficult for people to swallow.
Shocking and scandalous in its day, Pierre is certainly one of them. follows the life of Pierre Glendinning, Jr., a young man betrothed to a beautiful young lady his domineering mother approves of. But Pierre meets the mysterious Isabel Banford -- who may or may not be his half sister by an adulterous affair his father possibly had with a refugee from the French Revolution. He promptly runs away with her, only to be joined by the first lady in question -- who still wishes to share her life with him.
Pierre was delivered to the publishers by Melville in early 1852, just as some of the most devastating reviews of Moby Dick were coming out and his publishers, seeing the contents of the book, tried to avoid publishing it by offering him a tiny royalty for it only. Melville, humiliated but defiant, took the offer.
The public reaction against the scandalous incestuous suggestions in the book was intense.
Critic Maya Mirsky notes that Pierre, or the Ambiguities, written the year after Moby-Dick, is ‘a wreck.’ “It seems that Melville basically tried to write a romantic novel, and succeeded in creating a strange composition with the principle themes of incest and how hard it is to be a writer—a daunting combination,” notes Mirsky.
Richard Brodhead of the New York Times calls it a “harrowing rendition of the cult of private visionary calling, leading not just to violent trashing of the conventional social world but to a meltdown or disorientation of the moral world.”
Other critics, while somewhat more generous, give little more than a qualified nod to the book. William Braswell, author of Melville’s Satirical Empirein 1936 called high satire and found in its ‘unusual style, exaggerated characterizations and shockingly unconventional theme’ a perversely wry response by the author to his personal circumstances.
Today the book is almost forgotten -- and since critics tend to look down on its critical attitude towards city life, filled as it is with thieves, prostitutes, hubbub and desolation, Pierre does give us a singular picture of street life in New York City in 1852, when it was published.
It depicts, for example, the lower old-fashioned part of the city, in a narrow street—almost a lane—once filled with demure-looking dwellings, but now chiefly with immense lofty warehouses of foreign importers; and not far from the corner where the lane intersected with a very considerable but contracted thoroughfare for merchants and their clerks, and their car men and porters…
“There, in the middle of the day many bales and boxes would be trundled along the stores in front of the Apostles'; and along its critically narrow sidewalk, the merchants would now and then hurry to meet their checks ere the banks should close: yet the street, being mostly devoted to mere warehousing purposes, and not used as a general thoroughfare, it was at all times a rather secluded and silent place. But from an hour or two before sundown to ten or eleven o'clock the next morning, it was remarkably silent and depopulated…and on Sunday, to walk through it, was like walking through an avenue of sphinxes.”
Also of interest to anyone who walks downtown these days is the presence of a building on Nassau Street that figures in the book.
It is The Church of the Apostles," where Pierre finds chambers for himself and his household, and located on the right hand side of Nassau Street, just south of Fulton.
It is the former South Baptist Church, built in 1803 of "grayish stone, rudely cut and masoned into walls of surprising thickness and strength." Deconsecrated in 1848, the building was put to commercial use.
In the book, Melville fills the bottom floor with some expensive law offices, while in the top quarters Melville stuffs "painters, poets or fugitive French politicians, or teachers of languages, or German philosophers." These people "gradually filled up the vacant chambers on high" as storks in Holland "light on the eaves, and in the attics of lofty old buildings in most large sea-port towns."
It is, on its face, a positive portrait of what may have been America’s first bohemian community, filled with bread-and-cheese adventurers, ambiguously professional nondescripts in very genteel but shabby black, and unaccountable foreign-looking fellows in genteel blue spectacles; who, previously issuing from unknown parts of the world… Here they sit and talk like magpies; or descending in quest of improbable dinners, are to be seen drawn up along the curb in front of the eating-houses, like lean rows of broken-hearted pelicans on a beach… But these poor, penniless devils still strive to make ample amends for their physical forlornness, by resolutely reveling in the region of blissful ideals.”
“These are the glorious paupers, from whom I learn the profoundest mysteries of things; since their very existence in the midst of such a terrible precariousness of the commonest means of support, affords a problem on which many speculative nut-crackers have been vainly employed. Yet let me here offer up three locks of my hair, to the memory of all such glorious paupers who have lived and died in this world. Surely, and truly I honor them.”
Today there is little in the way of a tangible reminder of the association between the old building and the struggle of Herman Melville to fashion a literary career in mid-19th century America. Yet we may take comfort in his attempt to present for us a portrait of proto-bohemian society, which would find fruition in a few years in places like Pfaff’s, where Walt Whitman and friends gathered -- and in successions of ‘alternative’ hangouts for artists, politicians and malcontents right to the present day.