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Post-Pierre Psychological Reconstruction

The ancient ruins Melville had seen protruding from Roman soil and preserved in the city’s museums and surrounding villas, as well as reimagined in Piranesi’s reconstructive etchings, had psychological as well as archaeological meaning for Melville as a collector of prints and writer of words. The archaeological solidity and strength of the Marcus Aurelius arch that Piranesi had imaginatively excavated from the ruins of Rome and recreated in ink on paper in his 1762 etching corresponds to the psychological solidity and strength that begin to dissolve in Book 4 of Pierre, the partially autobiographical novel that Melville published in ink on paper in 1852. Young Pierre Glendinning, like Melville himself, had lost his father at age eleven or twelve. Pierre’s fictional father, like Melville’s biographical one, had “died of a fever” during which he “wandered vaguely in his mind.” Until Book 4 of the novel (“Retrospective”), young Pierre had erected a “shrine of marble in his heart, and memory, and inmost life,” a “perfect marble form of his departed father.” This shrine was “without blemish, unclouded, snow-white, and serene; Pierre’s fond personification of perfect human goodness and virtue” (NN P 70, 67-68).

By Book 10 of the novel (“The Unprecedented Final Resolution of Pierre”), psychological need and coincidental interactions had conspired in such a way that Pierre, in order to “hold his father’s fair fame inviolate,” resolves to pretend to marry Isabel, a newly arrived young woman he intuits to be his father’s abandoned illegitimate daughter, in spite of the harm that will bring to Lucy, the young woman he had pledged to marry, and the wrath it will bring from his mother, who immediately disinherits him. By the end of Book 12, “cast-out Pierre hath no paternity, and no past.” Having burnt a portrait of his father that the testimony of an aunt implicated in Isabel’s past, he and Isabel take a carriage from his previous life of seeming security at Saddle Meadows to an uncertain fate in New York City, where Lucy will improbably join them, and where Pierre will hope to support all three as a writer (172, 199). The ominous, destabilizing psychological pressures under which Pierre abandons Saddle Meadows for a new life at the end of Book 12 are not unlike the graphic tensions Piranesi created within plate 7 of his original series of Imaginary Prisons etchings, The Drawbridge (fig. 1; Robison, cat. 33, first edition).

Piranesi The Drawbridge no. 7 Carceri 1861 public domain.jpg

Fig. 1. Piranesi, The Drawbridge, etching, No. 7 in first edition of Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), 1749-60. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Book 26 of Pierre ends in the triple suicide of Pierre, Isabel, and Lucy in New York City. Young Pierre’s literary ambitions had quickly collapsed into absolute ruin; so, as collateral damage, had Melville’s six-year run as a popular author. In Book 25, as Pierre was plunging deeper into doom, he was afflicted by a crippling, involuntary daydream in which he is overwhelmed by the gruesome sight of the rugged rock formation on the Mount of the Titans he had often explored when living in Saddle Meadows. Pierre had always seen this formation as “the American Encedalus” because its truncated form half emerging from the mountain in unspeakable, igneous anguish reminded him of the mythical figure who was the son of “the incestuous Heaven and Earth,” trapped forever between the two. He now sees this creation of Nature as being superior even to the famed sculpture of Encedalus by Marsy in “the enchanted gardens of Versailles,” for “Marsy gave arms to the eternally defenseless, but Nature, more truthful, performed an amputation, and left the impotent Titan without one serviceable ball-and-socket above the thigh.” In Pierre’s involuntary vision, this “moss-turbaned armless giant . . . turned his vast trunk into a battering ram, and hurled his own arched-out ribs again and again against the invulnerable steep” (NN P 345-47).

At the very moment Pierre “cried out” the name Encedalus “in his sleep . . . the phantom faced him; and Pierre saw Encedalus was no more; but on the Titan’s armless trunk, his own duplicate face and features magnifiedly gleamed upon him with discomfiture and woe.” Unable to shake this “Inferno of his Titanic vision,” Pierre vows to face head on his fate. This he does in the next, and closing chapter, in which he and Lucy and Isabel, after visiting the gallery in which they see the “tolerable copy” of the “Cenci of Guido,” take their own lives (351).

From such ruin as Melville inflicted on his young, autobiographical protagonist in 1852, and by extension inflicted on his own authorial career (a headline in the Boston Post declared Melville “Mad”), how can the life principle be restored or reimagined or recreated? How can this excavation into the fault lines of the human psyche be put to positive use? Where can Melville himself, as a writer of fiction who has also repudiated his former New York literary mentor in the pages of Pierre, and who is still living near the environs of Saddle Meadows with members of his nuclear family certain to have been discomforted by his fictional portrayal of the Glendinning family, go from here? In short, how can he reconstruct a viable future out of the ruin into which his literary life had suddenly plunged and into which his familial life was seemingly headed.

The first answer in Melville’s literary life (1853-56) was to publish mostly anonymous magazine fiction about marginal figures in America and around the world. Bartleby as an abandoned scrivener in Wall Street. Babo as an enslaved African beheaded in Lima. Hunilla as a Cholo widow marooned on a Galapagos Island. Israel Potter as an American prisoner of war consigned to poverty in London. Unnamed young women tethered to a paper-making machine in New England. Marianna left alone in a rotting mountain cottage as her family moved on.

The next attempted answer in Melville’s literary life, after returning from the restorative journey to the Mediterranean, was to spend three decreasingly successful years lecturing on the American lyceum circuit while also unsuccessfully trying to publish a volume of poetry based on his Mediterranean travels (1857-60).

Melville’s close attention to America’s Civil War (1861-65) resulted in his fine book of poetry, Battle Pieces (1866), which, however, did not give him the economic boost or the literary audience that would have sustained a career as a writer. By the time he moved his family to New York City in 1863 and began to work full-time as an inspector at its Customs House in December 1866, it was clear that any future he might have as a writer would be more avocational than professional.

From this personal and literary impasse in the mid-1860s, Herman Melville during the next twenty-five years recreated himself as the epic poet who published Clarel in 1876, the lyrical poet who published John Marr and Timoleon fifteen years later, and the author who was working on extensive poetic manuscripts as well as the one for Billy Budd, Sailor at the time of his death in 1891. Melville conducted all this avocational literary activity while also building a print collection which, like his library of books, was remarkable for its cultural breadth as well as its specialized depth.

Melville’s youthful genius as a novelist began to be widely appreciated after the revival in the 1920s that had turned him into a major American writer by the mid-1950s. There was no subsequent revival for Melville as a poet or print collector because neither activity had received any measure of fame in his lifetime. Unlike his youthful fiction, these activities had had no pedestal from which to fall, no popular success from which to fail. Nor had the early twentieth-century biographers done much to fill the breach.

Beyond the work of isolated scholars, Melville’s immense talent as narrative, epic, pictorial poet began to be widely appreciated only after the publication of the Northwestern Newberry edition of Clarel in 1991, this followed by the NN editions of the Published Poems in 2009 and Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Uncompleted Writings in 2017. Because nearly all these initiatives had been deeply enriched by Melville’s Mediterranean journal of 1856-57, which he often used as a source book, publication the NN edition of the Journals in 1989 has also played a major role the excavation of the rich produce of Melville’s rejuvenated heart, mind, and imagination in his New York home on East 26th Street during the twenty years in which he worked six days a week at the Customs House before the legacy his wife Elizabeth received in 1885 allowed her to slip $25 a month in his pocket for the purchase of books and pictures.

By the time the NN editions of the Journals and Clarel were published in 1989 and 1991, Merton Sealts had brought out the revised and expanded 1988 edition of Melville’s Reading that he had first published in 1966, that book having drawn upon the sequence of “Check-Lists” of Melville’s reading that Sealts had published in the Harvard Library Bulletin beginning in 1948. Those early checklists had provided the foundation for Walker Cowen’s Melville’s Marginalia, the 1965 doctoral thesis at Harvard that in this century has been updated, expanded, and made much more accessible in Steven Olsen-Smith’s ongoing Melville Marginalia Online.

All of the above scholarly work that has established authentic texts for the published and unpublished poems, the journals, and Billy Budd, Sailor—themselves generously enriched with Historical Notes, Illustrations, and Related Documents—has greatly enhanced our awareness of, and access to, the “renaissance” (or new birth) of Melville’s own heart and mind that began on the first day he arrived in Rome in March 1857 and continued to evolve and express itself in the poetry and prose he was to write until his death in September 1891. In Melville’s Marginalia Online we can trace much of that progress page by page and book by book in Melville’s own hand.

All this recent research into the poetry and prose that Melville wrote late in life, and the books that supported him in doing so, has deeply enriched our creation of this site primarily devoted to displaying, documenting and interpreting the prints that he was acquiring in tandem with the books he was collecting and the poetry and prose he was writing. Just as our MPCO project has been enriched by all the above initiatives, so do we hope that our site will lead to a new understanding of the essential role that Melville’s print collection had played in reconstructing the literary life of the young American novelist whose brilliant debut had come to such an abrupt end in 1852. That thirty-three-year-old author was eventually succeeded by the fifty-one-year-old collector who testified to the lasting pleasures of “books, pictures, and the face of nature” in the marks he made on two successive pages in the copy of William Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art he acquired in 1870 (MMO 263, 040.6-7 and 041.21-28).

Melville’s first marks came in the second sentence of the essay, where he drew three vertical lines alongside Hazlitt’s declaration that “there are three pleasures in life that are pure and lasting, and all are derived from inanimate objects—books, pictures, and the face of nature” ( On the next page Melville drew two vertical lines along this declaration about those same three pleasures: “For these alone we may count upon as friends for life! While we are true to ourselves, they will not be faithless to us” (