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Maurice Sendak and Melville redux: Pierre vs. Pierre

May 11, 2012

(This is a follow-up to an earlier post.)

It is commonly thought that Moby Dick is Melville’s greatest novel.  A few contrarians might give that honor to The Confidence-Man (which is certainly the best novel ever set on April Fool’s Day.)  But, I am so contrary that I disagree with both the accepted wisdom and the contrarians.  I reserve the honor of greatest Melville novel for Pierre, or, The Ambiguities, a work of tremendous humor and subtlety.

Now this post is about the two major competing editions of Pierre – both of which were prepared by Herschel Parker (University of Deleware) – Parker’s Northwestern-Newberry edition of Pierre, and Parker’s Kraken Edition of Pierre.  Parker has a theory that Pierre was changed in the middle of its writing because Melville was furious about the negative reviews of Moby Dick.  The theory goes that Melville inserted gratuitous satiric material attacking the literary establishment into Pierre.  In producing the “Kraken edition,” Parker  removed about a sixth of the book – indicating excerptions by mere asterisks.  But to make up for the excerptions, Parker persuaded Sendak to contribute some marvelous illustrations to the book.  Parker explained his reasoning in this 2008 “Goodreads” thread:

The Kraken PIERRE was not not meant as an abridgment and it was not meant as a standard reading text. On one level it was simply a nonce text for Sendak to illustrate. On another level, it was a (highly controversial!) attempt to help people think about what it was that Melville took to New York City about 1 January 1852 and accepted a really devastating contract for a few days later. That is, it was an attempt to see what Melville described as his Kraken book, when he told Hawthorne he had heard of Krakens, bigger than whales. It took years for me to lay out the chronology of work on PIERRE. We were way off in what we thought we knew in the 1970s, even. But it is documented now that Melville finished PIERRE at the very end of 1851 and took it to the Harpers and it is documented that by the start of the third week of January he had greatly enlarged it, after it was grudgingly accepted. Everyone has always known the obvious–that the Pierre as author chapters were an afterthought. We had NOT known when the expansion started and had not known just why. Anyhow, the Kraken edition was meant to allow us to read something quite close to what HM thought was a great book, or what he finished after having thought early in its composition that it was a great book, or going to be a great book. The Kraken edition was just meant to help people to think freshly about a complicated situation. It did drive some people into rages! I guess they thought it was meant to replace what they had always read. Not at all–though if you want to think about Melville you would want to know what he finished, as close as you could get to that, before knowing what in his suicidal rage he added to it, knowing that 20 cents on the dollar instead of 50 cents on the dollar meant that his career might be all but over. And it was a great chance to work with Sendak, who turned 80 last month.

The story of Sendak’s involvement is told by John Bryant (Hofstra University) in his review:

[…] The Kraken project grew out [of Maurice Sendak’s] need to get these pictures out. Their genesis can be traced to the 1991 Melville Centennial Conference in Pittsfield. Previously, Sendak had contemplated illustrating Melville but was convinced that he could not satisfactorily transform Melville’s already intensely graphic language into apt visualizations. However, when a conference participant suggested Pierre as a subject, a light turned on in the night kitchen. Here was a Melville text so excessive that it could sustain equally over-the-top illustrations, which through their own excesses would obviate visual verisimilitude and yet achieve their own Melvillean aesthetic. No longer reticent, Sendak began to draw. But the following four years brought great losses. A cherished brother, a close friend, and a mentor all died. Moreover, the AIDS epidemic and America’s panicked retreat from liberalism inspired Sendak’s most political work, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, and pushed the artist into a stronger commitment to sexuality in his work. Until now, Sendak’s orientation had not been hidden so much as warily positioned vis-à-vis homophobic America. But in illustrating Pierre, Sendak found that rendering Melville’s battened down sexual content allowed him to articulate the torment and exuberance of himself.

The exuberance corresponds to the novel’s early effusions on love and ideality. Here, Sendak’s illustrations progress beyond the childhood of Really Rosie, Where the Wild Things Are, and Sendak’s own nihilistic jeu d’esprit entitled Pierre (he actually composed this little classic with Melville in mind), as well as the eerie pre-adolescence of Outside Over There. Sendak’s Pierre is a full-blown adolescent: muscular, ecstatic, desperate, devoted, and lonely; he is the man-child invincible. So tight is his blue Superman outfit, red cape and all, that it is skin itself, concealing nothing.

[I have removed a section where Bryant discusses sexual aspects of Sendak’s illustrations rather explicitly.]

Nowhere else in the history of Melville illustration do we find such openings into the latent sexuality of Melville’s prose. Pierre’s exuberance dissolves mid-novel when he discovers that his deceased father had sired an illegitimate daughter, Isabel, to whom Pierre is suddenly incestuously drawn. Leaving behind his mother, his family, a fiancée, and his country inheritance, Pierre escapes with his half-sister to the city, where he becomes Isabel’s lover and a writer of serious fiction. Sendak himself is attracted to Isabel’s luxuriant cascading hair, and in one rosy brown nude embrace with Pierre the hair discloses her backside masculine and muscular, as Pierre sensually whispers dark secrets in her ear. Soon enough a hollow lad, Pierre is later depicted towering in despair over harsh urban buildings. His face is drawn, indeed redrawn, a portrait of Sendak himself in lankier days. The colorful cape and tights have turned ashen; the poses are more balletic than melodramatic […]. Sendak’s final drawing reveals a male nude seated on stone, crushed by clouds of stone, and tightly constrained by the plate’s claustrophobic frame: it is Pierre in his prison cell, and the stones of being bear him down. Upreaching arms hold off the crushing clouds but cover his mouth; only his eyes-knowing and bewildered-reveal the fearful silence of the artist’s voicelessness. Sendak does not illustrate Melvillean silence; he gets inside it.

A great artist illustrating a great writer is an event in and of itself, but in this case the event is not just the visualization of a text; it is an artist finding revealing explaining himself in response to a writer who was finding revealing explaining himself. Linked as these illustrations are to Parker’s text, the Kraken edition is a doubly interpretive venture. Both push the limits of a conventional Pierre[…].

Now here is the funny thing – Sendak apparently did not fully understand Parker’s intended cuts to Pierre. Bryant writes:

The integration of text and image is not entirely seamless; for instance, Sendak’s illustration of the grotesque dream-titan Enceladus has been recaptioned as Pierre in his jail cell because Parker’s text removes all mention of Enceladus.

But these two editions, prepared by the same scholar, are also a meditation on the nature of editing.  For all the criticism that the Kraken edition received for its sometimes arbitrary cuts, do not all critical editions make judgment calls that are similar in nature (if much more conservative in scope)?  For example, in the “authoritative” Northwestern-Newberry edition, why are the editors allowed to change the phrase “wee little bit scrap” appearing in the first edition to “wee scrap” (the editors imply that this was a typographical error.)  Isn’t Parker’s Kraken edition just an extension of the same editorial prerogative here? These same questions can be raised, for example, with different synthesized versions of Shakespearian plays (think about how most editions of Hamlet or King Lear are edited together from different folio and quarto editions) or the still painful controversy over Gabler edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Despite the provocative philosophical and methodological issues raised by Parker, I think that his Kraken edition of Pierre is a failure as an editing experiment – it simply omits too much good writing.  But Sendak’s illustrations – those are worthwhile and intensely personal (although they are somewhat “adult” in nature), and the book is worth getting if only for those illustrations. 

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