Something about nineteenth-century America made great novelists shoot for immense public success by eliminating what it was about their writing that made them great. The most obvious and egregious example is Herman Melville’s follow-up to Moby-Dick, 1852’s little-loved Pierre: Or, the Ambiguities. The official story is that Melville had set out to write a sweet and light domestic novel–he referred to it, in a letter to Sofia Hawthorne, as “a bowl of milk”–then got the negative reviews for Moby-Dick, at which point Pierre became a dark Calvinist beast of a novel: ugly, misanthropic, and terribly plotted.

There is reason to doubt the official story. John Updike explains:

[T]he reviews [of Moby-Dick] weren’t all that bad. Not as bad, certainly, as those which had greeted Mardi two years before. . . . Even those with strong reservations about Moby-Dick spoke respectfully of the author’s talent, and a number of early enthusiasts for this willful and extravagant work were among the reviewers. It is true, Melville did not receive what might have been psychologically useful at this time–a fully generous public salute from a high-minded peer, such as he had given Hawthorne, or as Emerson was to give Whitman (in a private letter that became public) upon receipt of Leaves of Grass. . . . Melville’s critical and popular position after the publication of Moby-Dick was still high; he was commonly written of as a genius, and, in a London New Year’s survey of new presences in American literature, ranked with Hawthorne and the now forgotten Richard Burleigh Kimball and Sylvester Judd. There is nothing in his situation like the obscurity in which, at his age, Hawthorne and Whitman labored, or for that matter in which Joyce, Proust, and Kafka secreted their modern classics.

So much for that excuse, then. But that means we still have to figure out why Pierre took such a dark and disturbing turn. For a clue, I suggest we turn to Stephen Crane’s second follow-up to The Red Badge of Courage, the nearly forgotten The Third Violet. Crane apparently began writing this novel a mere two months after the release of Red Badge, justly one of the most-celebrated books in American literary history. The acclaim was nearly universal and immediate–the novel went through two printings in less than five months, and reviewers fell over themselves praising it on both sides of the Atlantic.

Not so The Third Violet, which flopped like a beached whale in the bookstores and which American critics, anyway, detested. British critics were substantially more positive, but I am not enough of a scholar of late-19th-century England to know why–perhaps realism and naturalism had not gripped Britain as strongly as they had America. The hatred is understandable. The Third Violet is a radical shift from The Red Badge of Courage, which anticipates Hemingway in its understated brutality and misanthropy. (Hemingway would later call Red Badge the finest war novel ever written.)

The Third Violet, on the other hand, at least flirts with every conceivable trope of romantic and domestic novels. Two young people, one (of course) an artist from a poor background, the other an heiress, meet on vacation and fall in love. Fate intervenes to keep them apart, and both return to their wildly disparate lives in New York City, until Fate intervenes once more to bring them together. It could be Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre–less favorably, it could be The Minister’s Wooing or The Wide, Wide World. Katherine Heigl and Ryan Reynolds would star in the movie adaption, which your mother would see in the theater and recommend to you for three months.

The novel is as bad as the movie adaptation makes it sound. Its first half, the vacation scenes, work all right if you pretend the author is someone other than Stephen Crane, but things go south very quickly once everyone hauls it back to Manhattan. The Third Violet isn’t as fantastically bad as Pierre–but it’s much less interesting as well. As Cameron Crowe points out in Elizabethtown, a trainwreck in its own right, “There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fee-ass-scoe, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folk tale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because. It. Didn’t. Happen. To. Them.” (Full disclosure: While I saw that movie, I’m taking the general idea of failures vs. fiascos from Nathan Rabin’s excellent “My Year of Flops” series over at The AV Club–now available in book form!) Pierre is a fiasco. The Third Violet is merely a failure. I can’t imagine teaching it except in a class that taught everything Crane ever wrote, or perhaps one that sought to determine the real difference between realism and romanticism.

But there’s the rub. Paul Sorrentino argues (quite convincingly, I think) that The Third Violet is one of the very best places to go to find the tension between literary romanticism and literary realism–the former was mostly dead critically but remained popular among the masses for…well, to this day, and the latter was well into its ascent amongst “serious writers.” The Third Violet reflects this conflict–but not where Sorrentino thinks it does. His mistake is in identifying Crane with the main character, a painter named William Hawker; in fact, Crane’s biography echoes more strongly with the novel’s chief author character, Hollanden.

Hollanden is a distinctively American character type: the artiste who has completely sold out but is aware of it and thus maintains his charm for the reader. As he says to a group of fawning vacationing women,

Well—you must understand—I started my career—my career, you understand—with a determination to be a prophet and, although I have ended in being an acrobat, a trained bear of the magazines, and a juggler of comic paragraphs, there was once carven upon my lips a smile which made many people detest me, for it hung before them like a banshee whenever they tried to be satisfied with themselves.

The naturalist author is meant to be a prophet; he is meant to convict society of its sins. But instead he becomes a clown, doing tricks for them. Surely Crane feared that’s what was happening to him as he wrote The Third Violet, which is so different in tone from Maggie and The Red Badge of Courage.

It’s important to note, by the way, that Hollanden’s self-description echoes Crane’s interview with the godfather of American realism, William Dean Howells: “Ah, this writing merely to amuse people—why, it seems to me altogether vulgar. A man may as well blacken his face and go out and dance on the street for pennies. The author is a sort of trained bear, if you accept certain standards.” The naturalist self-critique here is quite clearly intentional and significant.

The question thus stands: If Crane was so aware of the loathesomeness of the Third Violet project–it would be like Martin Scorsese directing a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel–why didn’t he complicate the plot? The novel has a standard romantic ending. The two leads get together and live happily ever after. The answer seems to be that Crane was interested in a more subtle problematizing of the romance genre, thus Hollanden’s bitter self-critique.

Thus also the frequent demonstrations of the difficulties of being the friend or lover of a naturalist artist. At one point, the female lead (and Hawker’s love interest), Miss Fanhall, says to Hollanden, “And yet you—really Hollie, there is something unnatural in you. You are so stupidly keen in looking at people that you do not possess common loyalty to your friends. It is because you are a writer, I suppose.” Indeed, it’s not easy to have a relationship with someone who sees himself as a prophet, much less a fallen one. Hawker seems to agree; he says to Miss Fanhall, “You know what a bear I am sometimes. Hollanden says it is a fixed scowl from trying to see uproarious pinks, yellows and blues.” To tell things as they really are, one apparently must see people mostly in terms of their composition.

It could be, then, that The Third Violet is Crane’s attempt to integrate with the rest of society–his attempt to move beyond ugly but prophetic naturalism and to make nice with the rest of the world. He recognizes that this attempt is selling out to the magazines and the best-seller list, but part of him obviously thinks it worth the danger. That he sold out without the result achieving either artistic or commercial success must have pushed him permanently back into the naturalist mode.

But as I said, The Third Violet is a failure, a bad novel in a rather uninteresting way. Pierre is a much worse novel in a much more interesting way. There’s an odd twist midway through the novel, which begins as a domestic fantasy and ends in death and destruction: the titular Pierre suddenly becomes a professional writer, albeit a failure. Critics have traditionally seen the point at which this subplot is introduced as the point at which Melville began to read the reviews of Moby-Dick. But if Updike is right and those reviews weren’t all that bad, we need another explanation.

Enter The Third Violet. What if, as I want to suggest, the ugly turn in Pierre has less to do with the world outside of Melville’s house than the world inside his own head? What if Melville genuinely wanted to write the sort of novel Sophia Hawthorne would have liked to read, a sunny domestic caper but part of himself wouldn’t let him? What if the Calvinist God Melville hated and feared had placed in his soul the ability only to write of the dark and angry underbelly of human existence?

My suggestion–and I’m going to have to leave it at a mere suggestion, which is why I’m glad this is a blog entry and not an academic paper–is that Melville began Pierre as a domestic fantasy but that part of him wouldn’t let himself complete it that way. The dark turn in the novel, along with the strange and ineffective authorial subplot, comes from the same place in Melville as Hollanden’s self-critique comes from in Stephen Crane. Something about these authors won’t let them write outside their milieus.

The real question is: Would we have been better off if they hadn’t tried?

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