Aug 02 2009

Elizabeth Dill’s Pierre Article

by at 2:01 pm

Dill, Elizabeth. “That Damned Mob of Scribbling Siblings: The American Romance as Anti-novel in The Power of Sympathy and Pierre.”

Elizabeth Dill argues that the sharp distinction between the sensational (sex/seduction) novel and the sentimental (family) novel in American literature is a faulty one. The incest romance, Dill argues, mixes genres by mingling sex with family. Dill brings The Power of Sympathy and Pierre as examples of the incest romance. That is the article in a nutshell. Now I’ll bring some important passages just to make it more clear.

It might be said that 1850s sentimentalism was the demure response to literary sensationalism that effectively unsexed the American woman. Admittedly, it may seem that the business of the sentimental novel is to rescue abandoned adolescent girls from the risky and lascivious life that was the downfall of their eighteenth-century sisters (Dill 707).

The false rift between the sensational and the sentimental overlooks the dark side of sentimentality: incestuous desires, murders, and seductions abound in sentimental literature, frequently sidewiping the neat trajectory of tearful happy endings that a gross overgeneralization of this genre would imply. Likewise, sensational texts like Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland (1798) and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) acquaint us with plenty of besought orphans and angelic children. The sensationalism of literature published after the Revolution, featuring seduction as a sort of gateway crime leading to suicide, bastardy, insanity, and murder cannot therefore be so easily divorced from those vanilla kinship dramas of the nineteenth century (Dill 707).

The incest romance proposes a haltingly forthright union between the sensational (sex) and the sentimental (family), a union that draws on the interrelatedness and ensuing volatility of these two genres (Dill 707).

Pursuit for equality really means a call for sameness, which is where the incest romance comes in:

The Power of Sympathy and Pierre are incest romances that explore the overlap between sensational and sentimental literature in order to expose the kind of heartfelt democracy the new nation at once seeks and fears. The pursuit of equality mutates into a call for sameness and finds an apt metaphor in incest, with orphans and aristocrats marrying only to discover that what brought them together was what Brown’s subtitle calls “the triumph of nature,” the draw of like to like. We thus witness in these two books the closing distance between equality and sameness (Dill 713).

Pierre and aristocracy:

Both tales openly track their protagonists’ desires as the catalyst that democratizes them; Harrington and Pierre are described in radical terms that reveal the need for rebellion in American society against the family as the institution that safeguards class hierarchy, and the call to erode social distinctions comes from the impoverished siresn to whom they are related. In Pierre, the narrator poses a question in the very first chapter that sets up this disassembly of the family as a national project: “With no chartered aristocracy,” he asks, “how can any family in American imposingly perpetuate itself?” (P, 8). Then the narrator indulges in an odd treatise about what sets American apart from the “monarchical world” of peerage and inheritance in Europe. For several paragraphs, he waxes egalitarian as he describes the false aristocracy of England’s “Peerage Book” and even suggests that royal blood is but a “manufactured nobility” (P, 10). During a lenghty explication of the American family, he says:

Certainly that common saying among us, which declares, that be a family conspicuous as it may, a single half-century shall see it abased; the maxim undoubtedly holds true with the commonality. In our cities families rise and burst like bubbles in a vat. For indeed the democratic element operates as a subtile [sic] acid among us; forever producing new things by corroding the old. (P, 8-)

Ideas on Pierre:

While the first American novel [The Power of Sympathy]is thus driven by ambiguity, its nineteenth-century “sequel” Pierre offers some generic upsets of its own. Promising Sophia Hawthorne a placid domestic talke, Melville privately billed Pierre as a guaranteed whaleless romance. “I shall not again send you a bowl of salt water,” he wrote to her. “The next chalice I shall commend, will be a rural bowl of milk.” Critics have rightly noted the astonishing nature of this claim to mild-mannered domesticity, given that the novel ends with a murder followed by a triple suicide. One can hardly think of a less apt description for the ends met by Pierre, Isabel, and Pierre’s former fiancee, Lucy, when they kill themselves in the “granite hell” of Pierre’s prison cell, where he awaits execution after killing his own cousin with “mathematicla intent.” “‘Tis speechless sweet to murder thee!” Pierre cries out in a rage against his last living blood relative, as he pulls out two pistols and starts shooting (P,361, 359)” (Dill 723).

Some bowl of milk. Yet the novel’s rift between sensational and sentimental language is sustained through even this bloody end. Pierre’s gloomy cell beocmes a startling scene of domesticity, where the cold and dank prison seems to weep as “the stone cheeks of the walls were trickling” (P, 360). The prison guard refers to himself as the “house-wife” of the place, and Pierre refers to death itself as a “midwife” (P, 361, 360)” (Dill 723).

Sentimental American landscape versus the America Gothic:

With her gothic black tendrils, her hauntingly fragile appearance, and her first speech act in the novel a piercing scream, Isabel would seem to be a frozen gothic stereotype in a sentimental landscape. She arrives at Saddle Meadows, where Pierre had been living out of an excessively idyllic domestic fantasy, and she does not fit into the sentimal schema (Dill 723).[My NOTE: hmmm, I would argue against this….the American landscape IS gothic….Isabel fits in quite well, actually…as her body synches with the electrical storms outside.]

Pierre and genre:

Like The Power of Sympathy, Pierre is forcefully unsure of its genre: in addition to a sensational tale of seduction, incest, suicide, and murder, it is also partly a domestic idyllic, a philosophical pamphlet, a didactic essay, and a political tract on the corrosive American class system, with several laspes into epistolarity and authorial intrusion. The incongruities are enhanced by the overtaxed sentimentalism of the novel’s first chapters, paralleled by Pierre’s own schmaltzy poetry and his later failure to become a serious writer (Dill 726).

Overview of Pierre criticism (how convienent!):

A survey of critical study on Pierre shows that just about all its readers feel pressed to address this genre question in one way or other. According to this mob of scriblling critics, Pierre is everything from autobiography to satire. Hershel Parker famously characterized Pierre as Melville’s autobiographical rampage revealing his personal failures as a publishable writer. More recently, critics have attempted to defend Pierre by redefining Melville’s purpose in writing it. Sacvan Bercovitch writes that it is a “rich and intricate piece of rhetoric, perhaps more intricate than necessary,” that represents “Melville’s American apocalypse.” David Reynolds reads it as a pop-culture jumble, and many critics have grappled with the sentimental presence in Pierre: Anne Dalke calls it “an attack on the female sentimental mode.” Samuel Otter writes that it is “a sentimental text taken to the nth degree,” and John Seeyle calls it an antisentimental embrace of “outcasts and renegades” fit less for domesticity than urban ruin. Beverly Hume sees Pierre as an attempt to “kill (at least metaphorically) sentimentalism.” For Michael Paul Rogin it is a “bourgeois family nigthmare” in which Melville’s “self-parodying language calls attention…to the text as a construction.” It is a “revisionist domesticity…based on fraternity rather than marriage,” according to Wyn Kelley. Or as Jennifer DiLalla Toner rather colorfully puts it, Pierre is an attempt to undo the genre of life writing with a book that deliberately fails to fit in with his other, saltier works, a “critique of American life writing” as “the bastard child” of the Melville canon. Nancy Fredericks adds, “Whether Melville means for us to take…anything he writes in Pierre, or the Ambiguities at face vaulue is an important question for every reader of the book to consider.” A personal favorite remains Day-Book‘s 1852 review of Pierre, headlining “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY” (Dill 726).

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