I have been fighting with Herman Melville, off and on, since the spring. He’s won, of course.
One of my Classics Club titles, I started The Piazza Tales as part of a “spin” back in April. The Tales are a collection of short stories and novellas, only a few hundred pages in total length, and didn’t seem too intimidating at first glance. But I wasn’t through the first story before it was readily apparent to me that I’m very out-of-practice at reading 19th century American lit. Or maybe more specifically, American Romanticism. (Come to think of it, I’ve previously struggled with Romanticism in literature…) Melville proved far more of a challenge than I had expected, reminding me how much I still have to learn and to struggle with in my reading of well-regarded texts.
It’s been a while since I read some of these—my reading spread from April until just two weeks ago—so I’m largely relying on my notes for this post.
And beauty is like piety–you cannot run and read it; tranquility and constancy, with, now-a-days, an easy chair, are needed.
I wasn’t more than a page in when I was bowled over by the amount of allusions Melville packed into this short little sketch. I call it a “sketch” as that seems more apt than “story.” (True also for “The Encantadas.”) There is little in way of plot—the narrator sees a glimmering on the mountain, searches it out, and is disappointed in what he finds. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. (An indication here, how much I have grown to rely on plot.) It seems one of those mopey sorts of stories that feel obligated to remind us that what we imagine things to be is always more magical than what they are. Darn reality.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener”
I’d some indication before starting this what to expect—Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” seems to pop up regularly in the bookish internet. But it is an odd story, narrated by the lawyer who has hired Bartleby as a scrivener, and is increasingly perplexed by Bartleby’s unusual and stubborn behavior. I have in my notes the phrase “non-confrontation to an extreme” in reference to the lawyer, but Bartleby himself seems to be an extreme. I only read it once, but I think it one I should revisit.
In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery.
Although this novella seemed to start slowly, it soon turned into a suspense story, perhaps even a 19th century thriller. The level of suspense depends on the reader’s ability to recognize what the American captain Amasa Delano does not—that he is being deceived, and perhaps not by whom he is most likely to suspect. Apparently, “Benito Cereno” is based on a real story, but whether the historical Delano was as easily deceived as Melville’s, I do not know. The Benito Cereno of the title is the captain of a Spanish ship, carrying cargo of slaves from one port to another, and his tale of woe is extreme. Though the American captain does not feel entirely at ease ever, he is so good natured that he is unwilling to entertain suspicions for long, always shoving them aside in favor of other, seemingly more “rational” explanations. The reader is propelled forward, not for uncertainly as to what has happened, but rather for the urgency of knowing what will happen.
Reading “Benito Cerano” from a 2015 perspective, one does sometimes squirm at the portrayal of the slaves. We see them through Delano’s eyes, and he sees what we might call stereotypes, racist portrayals. But Melville gives them a leader of great intelligence, able to outwit the naïve Delano. Perhaps Melville’s 19th century readers were as uncomfortable as we are, but he never says precisely what he intends. It is left open for interpretation.
“The Lightning-Rod Man”
I don’t know quite what to make of this one. A lightning-rod salesman—a pushy one at that—shows up in the middle of a storm. It seems it might be an allegory? But if so, I don’t know for what. It is really quite beyond me.
“The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles”
I suppose these ten sketches must be fiction, but they seem non-fiction narratives. Sketches of what the “Encantadas,” which I understand to be the Galapagos, were like. Reading them, I often forgot that they weren’t essays. (I think!) I was slightly worried to read “The Encantadas”, as I was afraid Melville’s descriptive phrases (such as in “The Piazza”) might get the better of me, but they ended up as among my favorite of the tales.
- Sketch First: The Isles at Large: Describes the general character of the Isles.
- Sketch Second: Two Sides to a Tortoise: Describes the Isles’ gargantuan and ancient namesake residents. And that they became soup. (It is amazing to consider the difference between 1850 when eating such creatures was commonplace and today when we gasp in horror that we might so endanger an ancient beast.)
- Sketch Third: Rock Redondo: Describes the view from the water of the rock tower and all the various waterfowl thereon.
- Sketch Fourth: A Pisgah View from the Rock: Describes the islands visible from the rock, and those un-visible but with a relation to it.
- Sketch Fifth: The Frigate, and Ship Flyaway: Tells of the ship Essex and its relationship to the isles.
- Sketch Sixth: Barrington Isle and the Buccaneers: Describes the use of Barrington Isle as a buccaneers’ (pirates’) resting/restocking place
- Sketch Seventh: Charles’ Isle and the Dog-King: Tells of a Creole who made himself king and the revolt of his citizens.
- Sketch Eighth: Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow: The story of Hunilla, found alone on the island (with her dogs) after her husband and brother both died in a fishing accident.
- Sketch Ninth: Hood’s Isle and the Hermit Oberlus: Tells of a hermit, Oberlus, of the criminal rather than religious nature, and some of his ill deeds
- Sketch Tenth: Runaways, Castaways, Solitaries, Grave-stones, etc.: A round-up of the sorts of “humanity” found on the isles. It reminds me that, in that era before easy communication, how often must families have said goodbye to their men, not knowing if they would ever see them again, or even know their fate.
I read this before I read “The Encantadas,” actually, as, in searching out interpretation of “The Lightning-rod Man” online (unsuccessfully), I read the opinion that this is the weakest of all the “Piazza Tales.” That might be true—it certainly seemed less like the others, less “Melville,” I suppose. But it is not unreadable, just with little enough to say about it. It is a bit of a Gothic horror tale, actually, telling of a great artist who overreaches in his aims.
Although on finishing these stories, I think that I have started to learn how to “read” Melville, and that subsequent visits will be smoother, I feel as if I would have been better to have a guide to lead me through these. Whether in the form of annotations or background material, or even a lecturer. So much of my reading is easy on me; I do not have to work at it. Melville challenges that and reminds me that the greatest rewards come with the greatest work.
* All but “The Piazza” originally published in Putnam’s Monthly between 1853-56.