James McAdams – Melville’s Pierre and the “Church of the Bohemians”

Melville's Pierre and the "Church of the Bohemians"1)

James McAdams

Published in Connotations Vol. 25.1 (2015/16)


Upon its publication in 1851, Herman Melville’s Pierre was criticized as a disaster, a formless “Kraken” composed by a writer obviously deprived of his skills and sanity. Since then, however, scholars have reconsidered the historical context in which the novel was conceived and composed. As a result, Pierre has been redeemed, now regarded by many to be among Melville’s masterpieces. However, little attention has been paid to the Bohemian themes essential to the novel, Bohemian themes that prefigure any treatment of Bohemia in American literature.

Pierre’s residence in the “Church of the Apostles,” where he moves to write his masterpiece, provides Melville with an opportunity to describe a Bohemian commune, replete with painters, communists, convicts, musicians, and other failed artists, as well as comment on the print culture conventions in mid-century America that impact the development of Bohemianism. Edgar Allen Poe is considered by many scholars to be the first American Bohemian and his influence upon both the character of Pierre and the plot and themes of the novel are numerous. Pierre, therefore, foresees Poe’s Bohemian style as a nascent cultural movement fully developed by the 1860s in the figures of Walt Whitman and the patrons of Pfaff’s Saloon.

These are the glorious paupers, from whom I learn the profoundest mysteries of things.

(Pierre 267)

Like its predecessor, Moby Dick, Pierre (published in 1852) has been characterized as a mixed genre novel or novel of "bi-partite form" (see Crimmins). Indeed, Pierre's themes and narrative style change remarkably from the opening sentimental scenes in the country to the gothic scenes in New York City, many of which were added at a later date. Most importantly, in the Pierre-as-author sections, in which Pierre lives with Isabel (and later Lucy) in the "Church of the Apostles," Melville goes beyond a traditional gothic representation to introduce what I argue are the earliest sustained depictions of bohemian lifestyle in American literature, figured in part by a conflation of Pierre with Edgar Allan Poe, although the extent to which Melville knew of Poe's work or reputation and thus could have intended this correspondence is a matter of some dispute and controversy.

Contemporary reviewers of Pierre almost universally condemned the novel as immoral, anti-Christian, and even as evidence that Melville was suffering from insanity2). Even for those reviewers who failed to dismiss the novel on moral or ethical grounds, it was regarded as a tremendous artistic failure, proof that Melville was unable to write a land-based book without romantic evocations of primitive cannibals [→page 75] or the mysteries of seafaring and cetology. As cited by Jonathan Crimmins:

Early in his introduction to the 1949 Hendricks House edition of Pierre, Henry A. Murray ends three successive paragraphs with three summary assessments: "Pierre is the burning out of Melville's volcano"; "Pierre is Melville's battle with the Kraken"; and "Pierre is the burning out of a depleted puppeteer." (438)

As we can see, these perceptions of Pierre as both a moral and aesthetic failure were perpetuated from its publication up through the Melville Renaissance, until the publication of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition, released with Historical Notes in 1971. Using archival evidence, Herschel Parker succeeded in re-formulating the academic debate regarding Pierre by demonstrating that the Pierre-as-Author sections had been added after the initial contract with Harper had been signed. These sections, in his view, were incompatible with the original version, described by Melville as a "360-page romance," and owed their inclusion to negative experiences Melville endured with the publishing and magazine industry in early 1852 (see Parker). Based on these considerations, Parker, writing mainly of the "Young Literature in America" polemic and Pierre's dealing with his publishers, concludes that:

after reading reviews [of Moby Dick], agreeing to the punitive contract, and then brooding further on both reviews and contract, Melville changed his conception of the work in progress; he would write into the manuscript his embittering frustration at trying to make a living as a novelist in the United States. In this recasting of the ending he surely introduced the satirical books on the American publishing scene […] and very likely decided at this late stage to make his young hero into an author. (32)

Since Parker's discovery, scholars have shifted their focus onto these later inclusions, some concurring with Parker's assessment that the authorial additions ruined the novel, with others interpreting them in more nuanced, often multi-disciplinary ways: Melville struggling with the problem of linguistic representation (see Nina Baym); a successful, [→page 76] proto-post-structural experimental narrative (see Priscilla Wald); a critique of emergent publishing conventions and authorial labor (see John Evelev; and Michael Everton, esp. his chapter on "Melville and the Antebellum Publishing Maelstrom"); and even as the staging of a failed Bildungsroman (see Sacvan Berkovitch).3) While many of these interpretations succeed in portraying the complexity and multivalent properties of the novel, in my opinion there currently exists a lacuna in Pierre's critical bibliography and scholarship—that is, Pierre's figuration as an American Bohemian, a starving artist writing his "comprehensive compacted work" in the garret of an abandoned church whose other tenants offers a varied portrait of a nascent, and previously unexplored, American Bohemia. This trope of "The Bohemian" was, as the name implies, certainly a European convention, one that this paper argues Melville introduced into American literature following his travels throughout France in 1849.

1. Bohemianism before "The Bohemian"

"The Land of Bohemia is a sad country, bounded on the North by Need, on the South by Poverty, on the East by Illusion, and on the west by the Hospital. It is irrigated by two inexhaustible streams: impudence and shame." (Calonne)4)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Bohemian" was first used in English to denote "a gipsy [sic] of society" in 1848, when Thackeray described Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair as "of a wild and roving nature, inherited from her father and mother, who were both Bohemians, by taste and nature" (OED "Bohemian").5) However, before its importation into English, the term had been prevalently employed by French artists and philosophers for decades to denote the emerging lifestyle of the Left Bank, where writers, painters and [→page 77] musicians were adopting new ways of life as a reaction to the change from the patronage to market economy, as well as associated upheavals in social organization, familial structures, and political theory, leading to the continent-wide revolutions of 1848.6)

The most influential depiction of Bohemianism in early French literature occurs in Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème.7) Collected from a series of magazine articles he had written commencing in 1845, the novel was published to tremendous acclaim in 1852, three years after the play La Bohème, co-written by Murger and Theodore Barriere, premiered on French stages with fantastic success.8) So popular was the play that it is distinctly probable that Henry Clapp Jr., "The King of the Bohemians," was in the audience, soaking up la vie Bohème he had come to love in Paris and would soon transplant to New York. He returned there between 1853-1854 and soon thereafter established Pfaff's Saloon and, in 1858, The Saturday Press, for whom one of his major correspondents was Fitz-James O'Brien. The latter's short story "The Bohemian" is frequently regarded as the first American literary expression of Bohemianism.9)

"The Bohemian" was published in 1855 in the July issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Just as Henry Clapp Jr. imported Bohemian lifestyle to America, O'Brien imported the literature of Bohemia in this story, where a self-styled "Bohemian" refers at length to the influence Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème had on his life and art. Furthermore, O'Brien was to continue to exercise a dramatic influence on the Bohemian movement in America through his network of fellow writers, artists, and socialites at Pfaff's Saloon.

If such scholars of the American Renaissance as above have concurred in identifying "The Bohemian" as the origination of American Bohemia literature, why am I suggesting that Pierre, published three years earlier, should be viewed as the primary expression of Bohemian tropes and themes that would flourish over the next two decades? In the following sections I will argue how strongly the city sections of Pierre anticipate the conventions and history of Bohemian literature, from which tradition Melville has been too often excluded.10)[→page 78]

2. "Church of the Apostles": The Boardinghouse for Bohemians

A mysterious professor of the flute was perched in one of the upper stories of the tower; and often, of silent, moonlight nights, his lofty, melodious notes would be warbled forth over the roofs of the ten thousand warehouses around him—as of yore, the bell had pealed over the domestic gables of a long departed generation. (Pierre 270)

When Pierre and Isabel arrive in New York City in Book XIX of Pierre, their initial plans for residence are disappointed, leaving them no choice but to take refuge in the upper story of what the narrator describes as "The Church of the Apostles."11) This building, Melville's loquacious narrator explains, "stood at this period a rather singular and ancient edifice" and at least externally appeared to function as a church (265). However, "the tide of change and progress had rolled clean through its broad-aisles and side-aisles, and swept by far the greater part of the congregation two or three miles up town" (266), and the former church had henceforth been replaced on the lower floors by offices and merchants' stands, while its upper stories were inhabited by "poor, penniless devils [who] strive to make amends for their physical forlornness, by resolutely reveling in the regions of blissful ideals" (267). The novel's description of these "devils" predicts later descriptions of Bohemia:

They are mostly artists of various sorts; painters, or sculptors, or indigent students, or teachers of languages, or poets, or fugitive French politicians, or German philosophers. Their mental tendencies, however heterodox at times, are still very fine and spiritual upon the whole […]. These are the glorious paupers, from whom I learn the profoundest mysteries of things […] the strange nondescript adventurers and artists, and indigent philosophers of all sorts, crowded in as the others left; therefore, in reference to the metaphysical strangeness of these curious inhabitants, and owing in some sort to the circumstance, that several of them were well known Teleological Theorists and Social Reformers, and political propagandists of all manner of heterodoxical tenets. (267-68)

[→page 79] A remarkably similar description of such a boardinghouse appears in Balzac's encyclopedic Le Comedie Humaine, a work John Haycock conjectures Melville may have been introduced to during his visit to Paris in 1849 (see 71). Describing the six-story Hotel Corneille (where Henry Clapp Jr. lived during his years in Paris), Balzac writes that the building was "dingy, mean-looking, and dirty, inside and out," inhabited by

"a noisy crew" of students who lived in rooms a little over seven feet high […] hung with a vile cheap paper sprigged with blue. The floor was painted, and knew nothing of the polish given by the frotteur's brush. By [the] beds there was only a scrap of thin carpet. The chimney opened immediately to the roof, and smoked so abominably that [they] were obliged to provide a stove […].The beds were mere painted wooden cribs like those in schools; on the chimney shelf there were but two brass candlesticks, with or without tallow candles in them, and [their] two pipes with some tobacco in a pouch or strewn abroad. (qtd. in Hahn 90)

These two fictional portrayals are duplicated in an 1870 article in Appleton's Journals, which Joanna Levin writes "provide[d] an index to changing attitudes toward Bohemianism" (125). In Bohemia in America, she cites an article entitled "Good Bohemians" from 1977, authored by Charles Carroll, who, discussing the popularity of a recent translation of Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème, states "the term Bohemianism has come to have a pretty definite meaning. In the broader sense it takes in all restless, unsettled, unthrifty, who live from hand to mouth, with no definite source of income or place in society" (125-26).

In The Antebellum Crisis: America's First Bohemians, Mark Lause connects the emergence of the Bohemian lifestyle in France and America to the recessions both economies suffered in the 1830s, decreasing opportunities for young intellectuals on the job market and leading to the social and political unrest described in the Appleton article. Like the social reformers and artists in "The Church of the Apostles" and the impoverished students in Balzac's Hotel Corneille, French and American Bohemians were attracted to theories of social [→page 80] transformation and experimented with novel living arrangements and communal economies. Lause writes:

Many bohemians shared a special affinity with the most radical "Red Republican" associations of European émigrés in the city, including revolutionary societies fostering new ideas, such as those of Karl Marx and his European rivals [including] Charles Fourier and other socialists. (ix)12)

Yet another Bohemian feature of the Church of the Apostles consists in the shabby attics and garrets on the upper stories. As the narrator describes, the lawyers and other businessmen avoided the upper stories because they were bad for business, and thus these were inhabited by the writers, painters, and philosophers described in the passage at the head of this section. Pierre's residence in the three-chambered, poorly furnished, cold garret signals a certain attitude towards cultural production that was later to become a common trope in Bohemian writings and Bohemian life. "The garret life," observes Michael Kearns, "connotes a different type of class distinction, based not on money but on the pursuit of truth and aesthetic perfection. Melville's most complete description of that life is to be found in Pierre; or the Ambiguities" (34).13) This distinction between money, implying the conventions of the publishing industry at the time, and aesthetic perfection, or the truth at which authentic art aims, is a major factor in the series of tragedies that end the novel, including Pierre's failure to publish his novel, the lawsuit brought against him by his publishers (and the concomitant lack of monetary resources causing poverty and his resulting mental instability), and even the series of lovelorn deaths in the prison dungeon. The narrator, according to Parker expressing Melville's biographical dissatisfaction with the publishing industry, indicts the economic model that prevents true art; he describes Pierre's initial difficulty with the novel, as compared to his juvenilia writings:

Renouncing all his foregone self, Pierre was now engaged in a comprehensive compacted work, to whose speedy completion two tremendous motives unitedly impelled;—the burning desire to deliver what he thought to be new, or at least miserably neglected Truth to the world; and the prospective [→page 81] menace of being absolutely penniless, unless by the sale of the book, he could realize money. (283)

The "Church of the Apostles" Book section depicts a nascent Bohemianism from a number of perspectives. In the description of its inhabitants, Melville recalls Balzac's students at the Hotel Corneille. By noting the political and social reform tendencies associated with these cohorts, he also reflects upon, or anticipates, such socialist-anarchist communes like "Modern Times," which operated on Long Island from 1851-1854. Finally, by portraying Pierre as an author trying to write a masterpiece for which the public was unprepared, starving and freezing in his garret, trembling from visions and passing out in gutters, he creates, I believe, the first literary representation of a Bohemian writer (as distinct from the gothic writers we can see in E. T. A. Hoffmann, Poe, or even early Dostoevsky). Despite this, Pierre is not the first Bohemian writer: there was a real-world model for his character, whose death, we can presume, was fresh in the mind of every contemporary reader of Pierre.

3. Pierre's Bad Romance: The Influence of Poe

Could [Pierre] have carried about with him in his mind the thorough understanding of the book, and yet not be aware that he so understood it? I think that—regarded in one light—the final career of Pierre will seem to show that he did understand it. And here it may be randomly suggested, by way of bagatelle, whether some things that men think they do not know, are not for all that thoroughly comprehended by them; and yet, so to speak, though contained in themselves, are kept a secret from themselves? The idea of Death seems such a thing. (Pierre 294)

Edgar Allan Poe's impact on the development of American Bohemianism is difficult to overstate. Although later authors, such as Bret Harte [→page 82] (who called himself "The Bohemian"), Walt Whitman, and the Pfaff Saloon correspondents, embodied the ideals of Bohemianism more completely, the "Myth of Poe," as it were, especially in the years immediately after his death, was nearly universal in the Northern literary community. Emily Hahn discusses this phenomenon early in Romantic Rebels, where she comments that

after Poe died in 1849 and a new generation grew up reading Murger's book, the fashion among young artists was to speak of him as a typical example of how badly Americans treat genius. Poe, they said, was a martyr, a Bohemian before his time, crushed by stupidity and provincialism just as they themselves were being crushed. Poe was their great man, the first American Bohemian. (11-12; italics added)

Albert Parry opens up his study of Bohemianism in America with a chapter on Poe, the first sentence of which is just as unequivocal and historically confident as the last line of Hahn's quote above: "American Bohemianism," Parry writes, "began with tragedy. It began with Edgar Allan Poe" (3).

While the issue that contemporary writers looked either up or down at Poe as Bohemian is a relatively safe argument, to establish Melville was influenced by him is much more hazardous, making the argument that Poe's myth hovers over the latter sections of the novel, and Pierre's character and attitude in particular, extremely complicated. On the one hand, there is little evidence that Melville ever even read Poe, even though he did receive The Collected Tales and Poems as a Christmas present and purchased a volume as a present for his wife in 1861 (see Sealts 205). On the other hand, Melville was certainly aware of the presence of Poe, who worked in New York City often in the late 1840s. Melville's friend Evert Duyckink published Poe's Collected Tales for Wiley and Putnam (perhaps the very volume Melville had received). While Poe's writing output certainly put him on the radar of many writers of the time, his unstable behavior following Virginia's death in 1847 and his own scandalous death in October of 1849 also helped to make him a famous author, known for dissolute living, [→page 83] Bohemianism, and tales of gothic and terror (even though the vast majority of his published writings consisted of witty sketches, detective fiction, or funny "hoaxes," his reputation turned contemporary attention towards his darker works). The variety of Poe doubles, echoes, and references in the "Pierre-as-Author" sections are numerous and, I believe, deeply revealing of Poe's status as an exemplar of Bohemianism in mid-century America. Indeed, Burton Pollin devotes over three pages to documenting what he argues are over 70 direct references to Poe and Poe's writings in the novel.14) While it is impossible to accord unequivocal agency to Melville's authorial decisions, arguing here and there that he directly references or alludes to Poe, it is difficult to read these sections without thinking that Melville must have been aware of Poe, even if the latter was not a direct influence on him as a writer.

The most significant symbolism going back to Poe, of course, consists in the city sections, where Melville introduces the "Church of Apostles," with its roster of melancholic loners, its dark, cold, terrifying structure, and its fragmented rooms in which Pierre lives in a vaguely incestuous state with Isabel. Michael Davitt Bell reads this topographical movement as important to the maturation and enervation of Pierre, positing, "one might say, then, that in moving from the country to the city Pierre is moving from the calm, submissive romanticism of Wordsworth to the dark, defiant romanticism of Byron" (753-54).15) A variety of factors are complicit in what I have called Pierre's enervation, most obviously the realization of his father's falseness and his mother's disavowal. A third occurrence involves Pierre's status as an author and the narrator's prediction that, in attempting to write a mature book (as opposed to his magazine articles and scrapbook signings),

Pierre […] is now soon to appear in a different guise. He shall now learn, and very bitterly learn, that though the world worships Mediocrity and Common Place, yet hath it fire and sword for all contemporary grandeur; that though it swears that it fiercely assails all Hypocrisy, yet hath it not always an ear for Earnestness. (264; italics added)

[→page 84] Such a conviction was common to many writers of the American antebellum period, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe was no exception. As Baudelaire, who was so influential in crafting Poe's image in France and America, described it thus: "Poe's Bohemian life indicted American civilization, that ‘rabble of buyers and sellers' and ‘bourgeois mediocrity.' Moreover, ‘Americomania' (or bourgeois capitalist society) had become a ‘transatlantic ideal,' one that Bohemia needed to guard against" (qtd. in Levin 53).16)

The movement from the country to the city, from the sentimental to the gothic, is not simply aesthetic but also societal and familial. By the time he has taken up with Isabel in the "Church of the Apostles," Pierre has realized that the aristocratic aura he had grown up within was a lie, and by the time of Lucy's arrival, he realizes that his mother had neglected to bequeath any of what he had assumed was a massive estate to him, leaving it instead to his former friend and cousin Glen. This theme of the aristocratic decline (and correlated incestual themes) recalls the fate of the siblings in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" and, according to Albert Parry, is central to the self-image of Bohemians. As he writes, bridging familial unrest with the economic and political unrest discussed earlier, "the desire to escape from the painful reality of an uncertain social position has been, in all lands and times, one of chief distinguishing reasons for Bohemianism" (Parry 5).

Along with the similarities to "The Fall of the House of Usher," the second most vivid portrayal of Pierre as Poe appears after the former has begun to suffer from exhaustion and self-doubt following from the physical labor of writing his masterpiece. In the section before his vision of Enceladus and the defeated, imprisoned Titans, Pierre goes out for his nightly half-pint of ale, but on this night

a sudden, unwonted, and all-pervading sensation seized him. He knew not where he was; he did not have any ordinary life-feeling at all. He could not see; though instinctively putting his hands to his eyes, he seemed to feel that the lids were still open. Then he was sensible of a combined blindness, and vertigo, and staggering; before his eyes a million green meteors danced; he felt his foot tottering upon the curb, he put out his hands, and knew no more for the time. When he came to himself he found that he was lying crosswise in the gutter, dabbled with mud and slime. (341)

[→page 85] As Michael Davitt Bell observes, the date of Poe's death was October 7, 1849, just four days before Melville sailed to Paris (and perhaps saw La Bohème). Thus, Melville, we may imagine, would have read Rufus Griswold's (or "Ludwig's") famous obituary, which starts

EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.17)

Melville would have learned of the, probably apocryphal, details shortly thereafter; again, while we now suspect that Poe's reputation as a monomaniacal, dissolute drunkard is probably incorrect, at the time, Melville would have read more specific accounts of Poe's death that credited it to drinking and passing out in a gutter, like the passage in the novel.

Bell has also drawn attention to the origin for the character of Vivia in Pierre's unfinished novel. Once again drawing from the "Ludwig" obituary, Bell notes that the reporter describes Poe as in many respects like Francis Vivian [character] in Bulwer's The Craxtons. Based on this resemblance, Bell speculates that Melville's decision to name the hero of Pierre's book Vivia is a direct reference to Poe. Close reading of these passages, of which there are only four, taking up less than a page, shows that at least in some places they do seem to echo Poe's effulgent, romantic diction and syntax. For instance, Pierre describes Vivia as follows: "A deep-down, unutterable mournfulness is in me. Now I drop all humorous or indifferent disguises, and all philosophical pretensions. I own myself a brother of the clod, a child of Primeval Gloom. Hopelessness and despair are over me, as pall on pall" (302). The last clause's repetition is a classic example of Poe's writing. The [→page 86] narrator also uses this section to inform the reader that Pierre's attempt to "write a Kraken book" is doomed to failure:

From these random slips [of paper], it would seem, Pierre is quite conscious of much that is anomalously hard and bitter in his lot, of much that is not black and terrific in his soul. Yet that knowing his fatal condition does not one whit enable him to change or better his condition. Conclusive proof that he has no power over his condition. For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril;—nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown. (303)

For over a century, Henri Murger's 1852 publication Scenes de la vie de Bohème has been granted status as the first literary imagination of the titular subject, especially in America, where it was serialized in The Knickerbocker in 1853. However, in actuality, Pierre, also published in 1852, has far more merit to be nominated as the origination of the Bohemian imagination, at least in America, occurring three years before the appearance of Fitz-James O'Brien's "The Bohemian" and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in 1855. The similarities between Poe and Pierre are, while debatable, worth considering, and, given Poe's reputation as "the first Bohemian" may transform our appreciation of the novel's subject and scope. As noted, both Moby Dick and Pierre employ characteristic diptych forms, but in Pierre, as I have framed my argument, there is a thematic diptych contained within the narrative diptych. While various narrative dichotomies emerge in Pierre—city versus country, gentility versus poverty, young love versus tragic death—the thematic concentration that emerges in the city sections abounds with references and descriptions of a new form of American life characterized by communal living, poverty, and dedication to the arts, philosophy, and subversive political movements.

In this way, we can leave textual analysis and consider the issue of Pierre's Bohemianism from a more cultural and historic standpoint. The "Church of the Apostles" figures a group of bohemians living in a formerly religious environment de-sanctified by American commodification and the changing capitalist model that they cannot succeed in. [→page 87] Likewise, Pierre's failure to publish his novel is, at least in part, blamed on the practices of antebellum print culture and the effect that poverty, as an aspect of familial strife, had on his health and home. Whether motivated by literary or dramatic predecessors, like Balzac or La Bohème, Melville, in Pierre, creates a powerful portrayal of the Bohemian lifestyle, situated within the economic and social tumult of mid-19th-century America that would become dominant in American life and art over the next decade, and continues to this day.

Lehigh University
Bethlehem, PA

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