Abolition, Compromise and "The Everlasting Elusiveness of Truth" in Melville's 'Pierre.' (Herman Melville)(Fictions of Reform)

By Sweet, Nancy F. | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Abolition, Compromise and "The Everlasting Elusiveness of Truth" in Melville's 'Pierre.' (Herman Melville)(Fictions of Reform)


Sweet, Nancy F., Studies in American Fiction


Although readers of Moby-Dick have often seen reflections on the American political landscape within Herman Melville's masterpiece, they have resisted reading Melville's subsequent novel, Pierre, or The Ambiguities as a similar meditation on the sectional crisis of 1850. Written just one year after Moby-Dick in 1851, Pierre has been mined almost exclusively for its autobiographical content, its psychological infrastructure, and its perceived artistic failures.(1) Consequently, Pierre has seemed for twentieth-century readers to be an overwrought love story tangled within a novel about "literary achievement," a work that, as Henry Murray has argued, served for Melville as something of a "spiritual autobiography."(2) Yet when its perspectives on race and reform are brought into view, Pierre, like Moby-Dick, reveals Melville's ongoing concern with ideas of survival, faith, and adherence to a higher law. The consequences of compromise were still haunting Melville late in 1851.

Pierre tells the story of an idealistic young hero's struggle to reconcile himself with a newly-discovered dark half-sister whose suffering he attributes directly to the sins of his father. What has gone unrecognized in this novel is what Toni Morrison has called the "ghost in the machine," the preoccupation with the presence of a black race in a white world that lies within much nineteenth-century American literature. Morrison suggests that on the subject of race, even canonical writers like Melville

have much more to say than has been realized. Perhaps some

were not so much transcending politics, or escaping blackness,

as they were transforming it into intelligible, accessible, yet

artistic modes of discourse."(3)

From Morrison's perspective, Moby-Dick is not only a critique of the politics surrounding the Fugitive Slave Law and the 1850 Compromise, as Alan Heimert and others have argued; in the Pequod's relentless pursuit of the white whale, she beholds a critique of the underlying "ideology of race" driving much of the politics of slavery in the republic.(4) We can find the same ideology of race in Pierre. Melville uses his love story to address the competing doctrines of idealism and expediency at the center of political discourse among abolitionists and Northern politicians. Moreover and beyond the politics of these ideologies, he explores the influence of a deeply entrenched belief in white superiority on the aspirations of his presumably altruistic hero as that hero grapples with his dark sibling's claim to equality.

Contrary to the hopes of advocates of the Compromise of 1850, the legislation passed that year did not succeed in resolving conflict between anti-slavery activists and those Northerners who preferred compromising with southern slave-holding states over risking the dissolution of the Union.(5) In 1851, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker continued to argue that slavery not only violated the principle for which the nation's founding fathers had struggled in the Revolution, but that to condone slavery anywhere in the Union was for the nation to transgress the "higher law" of God.(6) For these reformers, far more than secular justice was at stake; as Garrison once proclaimed, "I will perish before an inch shall be surrendered, seeing that the liberties of mankind, the happiness and harmony of the universe, and the authority and majesty of Almighty God, are involved in the issue."(7) No compromise could be deemed acceptable in the pursuit of a cause ordained by God.

Among the many who disagreed with the arguments of Garrison was Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who witnessed antislavery sentiment split his own Whig party and then the nation into Northern and Southern factions.(8) Webster did not conceive a legislative end to slavery to be feasible or even permissible under the Constitution. Although he was opposed to the expansion of slavery, his strategy was never to rid the nation of this "great moral, social, and political evil," but to curtail it sufficiently so that it would not dominate the political scene. …

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