ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
“Revolutionary Time and the Future of Democracy in Melville’s Pierre”
This essay finds in Herman Melville’s novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) a thread of political allegory whose central concern is whether a potentially permanent democracy can result from revolution. Framed by a discussion of the U.S. Congressional response to the French Revolution of 1848, this reading of Pierre contends that the novel does nothing less than to take the difficulty of knowing when a revolutionary event has lost its vitality and install this uncertainty at the heart of democracy. Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, Pierre does not offer a conservative or counter-revolutionary response to the American or French revolutions. Without directly advocating revolution, Pierre maintains that it is impossible for a revolution to found a revolution-proof state. Moreover, the novel claims that any democratic organization must endlessly destabilize itself by threatening itself with revolution. This reading draws out a number of previously undetected assertions that Melville makes about revolution: that a revolutionary event tears the fabric of history enough to allow something entirely new to emerge; that a revolutionary event occurs in a moment of passivity rather than heroic action; that democracy itself tends to call for revolutions that threaten its own continued existence; and that a desire for equality can drive revolutions at least as forcefully as a demand for freedom can. And centrally, I show that the character of Isabel is far more important to the novel’s political thinking than has been recognized, a point that asks us to reconsider the notion that Melville’s political thought is predominantly homosocial. While Pierre neither celebrates nor condemns revolution, no work in Melville’s time or since, I would argue, offers a more thrilling or thought-provoking account of the time of revolution.