In what my English professor described as the kindest review of Melville’s Pierre she could find from the time of its release, the following passage is found:
“Thought staggers through each page like one poisoned. Language is drunken and reeling. Style in antipodical, and marches on its head. Then the moral is bad. Conceal it how you will, a revolting picture presents itself. A wretched, cowardly boy for a hero, who from some feeling of mad romance, together with a mass of inexplicable reasons which, probably, the author alone fathoms, chooses to live in poverty which his illegitimate sister, whom he passes off to the world as his wife, instead of being respectably married to a legitimate cousin. Everybody is vicious in some way or other.” (Fitz-James O’Brien, 1853).
In a modern-day Amazon review, similar distaste is found:
“This is a romance to turn you celibate. Melville’s worst.” (“Henry with an I,” Amazon, 2016).
In short, I disagree with the negativity – and I will explain why. To me, these reviews are missing the point. In fact, I’d argue that the things they dislike about Melville are the very things that make it great. Before I explain, I’ll include two caveats to my review: first, I am a sucker for a coming of age novel, and a bit of a Pierre-like over-thinker myself – so I may be biased. Second, I read this novel in a college literature course, with a professor pointing out to me the deeper meanings and important themes as I went, which may have helped.
Having said that, I think Melville accomplished exactly what he wanted to with the novel. Reading it in the right lens, I found it to be enjoyable and relatable, and with a profound larger point that these criticisms ignore.
O’Brien is not wrong when he says that the thought is staggered, the moral is bad, the hero makes inexplicable life choices. But to me, that’s the whole point. Melville, through Pierre’s thoughts, comments throughout the novel on the lack of reality in the publishing world. But in truth, reality is messy, coming of age is staggered, filled with difficult moral decisions and reeling thoughts, and the right choices aren’t always the ones that are made. In reality, everybody is vicious in one way or another – and that’s part of what Pierre, and I think everyone, experiences as they grow up. With Pierre, Melville brings that reality to life – which should be relatable, I think, to anyone who has grown up in any time period. It certainly felt relatable to me.
“Henry with an I” is not wrong either. If the point of Pierre was to be a romance, it would be bad enough to “turn you celibate” (so to speak). The romance story itself, though, is, I think, really just a framework to take the reader through Pierre’s tumultuous journey through growing up and entering the publishing world – the actual details of the romance are less relevant.
To read Pierre well then, the bottom line is to focus on the right things. Reading it with others might help, if not in an English class setting like me, in a book club or at least along with one other person – that way, it’s easier to digest and divulge what’s important. If done right, I truly believe Pierre can be wonderful. Maybe hard to get through at points, but worth it in the end for the wholly real depiction of the human existence that Melville has created.