“A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, Ambiguities, between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.”
To close readers of the day’s newspapers and critical journals, this hardly came as news. Earlier in the year, the Southern Quarterly Review had quoted some of Ahab’s more fulsome speeches as though they represented their author’s state of mind: “His ravings, and the ravings of some of the tributary characters, and the ravings of Mr. Melville himself, meant for eloquent declamation, are such as would justify a writ de lunatico against all the parties.” When Pierre; or, The Ambiguities came out in 1852, the Boston Post described the novel as “perhaps, the craziest fiction extant,” and said it might have originated in “a lunatic hospital rather than from the quiet retreats of Berkshire.”
That Pierre is a Gothic mess, pleasurably readable only by the Melville faithful, is inarguable. I once attended a reading of the novel at Arrowhead, the house in Pittsfield, Mass., where Melville wrote most of Moby-Dick. The readers were the “Language Poet” Clark Coolidge and Melville’s great-grandson and author of Genoa (1965), Paul Metcalf (1917-1999). Both treated the book as a campy goof, reveling in its prolixity. Paul’s mother, Eleanor Melville Metcalf (1882-1964), found the manuscript of Billy Budd and other papers in a tin bread box in her attic and shared it with early Melville scholars and biographers. Paul accepted the family lore that Melville was crazy, hinting at alcoholism, depression and wife beating. He seemed amused by the mythology and untroubled by potential scandal.
None of this means a thing. In at least three books -- Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man (1857) and Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), and scattered elsewhere, especially in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno,” and the other short fiction, Melville was surpassingly sane. None was ever saner defending his own sanity than Melville in a November 1851 letter to Hawthorne, to whom he had dedicated the just-published Moby-Dick: “My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning.”