Herman Melville’s Pierre and the Allegory of Empire
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The article explores Herman Melville’s use of allegory in the critique of American expansionism in his novel Pierre. Allegorical structures encoded in this text are identified through references to Thomas Cole’s cycle of manifestly allegorical paintings entitled The Course of Empire. Melville’s novel and Cole’s pictures reveal meaningful similarities. The writer and the painter both use spatial and temporal constructions as a way of conveying ideological senses. In this respect, of crucial significance is a transition from the pastoral to the urban setting and imagery to be found in the novel and in the paintings. In accordance with the principle of allegory, Melville and Cole employ specific methods of universalizing human experience, although they create markedly different combinations of universality and historicity. Cole dehistoricizes his paintings, at the same time suggesting important historical analogies, whereas Melville evidently puts stress on historical contingency. Ultimately, they both foreground the deterministic dimension of individual and collective existence, thus raising questions about the problematic nature of human agency in an imperial culture.
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