Philosophically, on the other hand, it's interesting. It's my contention that Melville fashioned Pierre as a direct attack on Ralph Waldo Emerson, certainly the most prominent American intellectual of the time. Emerson, in his early writings especially, was a consummate optimist; he clearly belives that mankind is essentially good and will eventually be close to perfect and that society is moving forward. Melville, to put it gingerly, does not share his sentiment.
I suspect much of this argument boils down to religious upbringing. Emreson was a Unitarian--ever the most liberal of the Protestant denominations--and so man can trust himself; he is not exactly fallen--more like confused--and Christ becomes the great Example rather than the Savior. Emerson's essays bleed with Unitarian thought, diluted though it is with Eastern Pantheism. Melville, on the other hand, was raised Presbyterian, that dour, dark, and fatalistic Calvinist sect that sees man as totally depraved and unable to help himself. This is not to say, mind you, that Melville was all that great of a Calvinist, particularly in terms of total depravity. He subscribes to the notion of the noble savage in Typee and Moby-Dick (always the least racist of the 19th-century authors, his most evil characters are always white), and Billy Budd is remarkably free from the taint of sin. But he believes in evil in a way that Emerson does not seem to--witness the sinister joy in the way the sailors disembowel whales or Claggart's horrifying obsession with Billy.
Emerson and Melville's argument may also have to do with a hermeneutic disagreement. Both men admired Plato, and I'm sure neither of them missed the discussions of depravity in Protagoras and Meno. Socrates does not believe that man has an evil streak; he does not knowingly or willingly do wrong:
Simonides was not so ignorant as to say that he praised all who did no evil voluntarily, as if there were any who did evil voluntarily. For myself I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetuates any evil or base action. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary. (Protagoras 345d, e)Meno modifies his disbelief, however:
Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil; those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good. (77d, e)Socrates says that man does not willingly desire evil. (I'd love to hear a conversation between him and Dostoevsky, whose Underground man desires both evil and unhappiness just because he can.) Instead, man desires the good but sometimes cannot differentiate between the two. I suspect both Emerson and Melville agree with this diagnosis; their difference lies in their opinions on man's capacity for differentiation.
In "Self-Reliance," Emerson famously expands Socrates' most famous maxim so it reads "Trust thyself":
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind . . . What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? My friend suggested,--"But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.Emerson's pan(en)theism later contradicts this--if we all share an Oversoul, then doing as you please is ultimately following mankind as a whole--but no matter: "Follow your bliss" is a common enough theme in Emerson's work, and it is to this theme that I think Melville responds.
And so Pierre opens in medias res of the conflict between Emerson and Melville, with a glorious Emersonian paean to transcendent Nature:
There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world. Not a flower stirs; the trees forget to wave; the grass itself seems to have ceased to grow; and all Nature, as if suddenly become conscious of her own profound mystery, and feeling no refuge from it but silence, sinks into this wonderful and indescribable repose.This sets up Pierre as an Emersonian hero, pure and innocent and ready to commune with God and Nature. But the plot of the book subverts Emerson. Pierre's idyllic country life is shattered when he discovers that his saintly father sired an illegitimate daughter. For some bizarre reason, he decides the best course of action is to leave his angelic fiancee mere days before their wedding, pretend to have married his sister, and move to Greenwich Village. Disaster, as you might expect, ensues.
It's important here that Pierre clearly believes he's doing the right thing; all the pain he will suffer "seemed to him part of the unavoidable vast price of his enthusiastic virtue," and he even codes his actions as a search for God. He follows Emerson's advice here; he does what his heart tells him to do without worrying whether his heart belongs to God or to the devil. But his actions bring ignominy both to him and his family--I won't give away any specific details, but suffice it to say that everyone's life is ruined. He's picked the dumbest of all possible options, and what's more, he knows this on an intellectual level:
But this last distrust [of himself] was not of the heart; for heaven itself, so he felt, had sanctified that with its blessing; but it was the distrust of his intellect, which in undisciplinedly espousing the manly enthusiast cause of his heart, seemed to cast a reproach upon that cause itself.Pierre (and his inspiration, Emerson) privileges emotion over reason, the heart over the head; he shares Socrates' apparent optimism regarding human nature but ignores Matthew Arnold's famous warning to "Firstly, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness." And Melville punishes him dearly for it.
But, philosophically interesting as it may be, Pierre is a mess of a novel. It reminds me of a severe version of my problem with Walker Percy's fiction: he's a great philosopher with no talent for telling a story. Except that Melville could once tell a story, and he would be able to again. I'm not sure what kills Pierre as a novel--whether it's the negative reviews of Moby-Dick or whether it's the heaviness of the subject and the vitriol with which Melville approaches it--but I'm filing it under imperfect nonclassics.