Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The most inept Melville - organizing The Piazza Tales

I wonder if I have anything else to say about The Piazza Tales (1856)?

Herman Melville followed the failure of Moby-Dick (1851) and cry for help of Pierre (1852) – act of revenge – whatever it was – with the first of his dramatic career shifts – or second, since the move from seafaring to author was the first – by abandoning the novel for the short story.  “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) was actually his first short story.  A strong start.

Melville published in prestigious magazines like Putnam’s and Harper’s, but looking at the table of contents of Great Short Works of Herman Melville, which contains his complete short works, the problem is evident.  Compared to earlier magazine writers like Poe and Hawthorne, or later ones like James and Twain, Melville could not write enough material to make much of a living.  So it was one more flop novel and then silence and a job in a customs house.  After that, poetry of high originality and ambition; eventually, a return to fiction with the great and sadly posthumous Billy Budd.

In the meantime, though, Melville had collected five of his stories – his favorites? his best reviewed? – as The Piazza Tales, adding a preface that explained the title.  “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno,” “The Encantadas” – which is not at all a short story, but some kind of blend of fiction and travel writing, which of course describes plenty of Melville – these are the famous ones, much studied, analyzed to the bare bones.

Then there are three short allegories of creativity, I guess, “The Piazza,” which introduces the volume, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” and “The Bell Tower.”

That last one is the only dud.  Look, bibliographing nicole agrees with me, good.  Melville “putting on some other writer’s clothes,” as she describes it, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” passed through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Italian tales.  The editor of Great Short Works, Warner Berthoff, calls it “the most inept” of the bunch, and the writing “arthritically clumsy.”  He “wish[es] it might be proved that somebody else was the real author” (223).  This from a fan!  Not that I have a defense.  “The Bell Tower” does feature a clockwork robot, making it a kind of proto-science fiction.  Hoffmann, Poe, Melville, Ambrose Bierce – I do enjoy an old timey murderous clockwork robot story.

Of course the robot is murderous.  Why bother otherwise?  I was going to at least give a quotation describing the robot, but as I page around, eh, “most inept.”

“Benito Cereno” has no shortage of good lines (I am referring to bibliographing again) – unusual descriptions, creepy atmosphere.  It is about a slave ship that has run into trouble.  The story uses some thriller devices, “don’t go in the basement” kind of stuff that likely seems less original now than it once did.  Critical interest lies in two areas, one social, Melville’s most direct look at black slavery, one conceptual, since significant parts of the story are taken directly from real documents.  Both of these really depend on references outside the text to be interesting – the second one is, of course, invisible.

Maybe I will try to write about “The Encantadas.”  It is hardly as iconic as “Bartleby,” but to me it is the most Melvillean part of The Piazza Tales.  Worth a try.


  1. Good, a c19th murderous robot story. (I must admit, I read The Piazza Tales once and don't remember it).

    If anyone has any more pre-Capek robot stories, aside from this, the Bierce, and maybe anything to do with the Golem, I'd appreciate it. I have an idea for an essay on the subject one day when I grow up into a serious literary critic.

  2. I don't remember Hoffmann's "Automata" at all, but I am pretty sure there is a robot in it.

    A book I have considered reading is Tomorrow's Eve (1886) by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, in which the Eve in the title is a robot of some kind. She apparently is able to speak by means of an Edison phonograph, which is hilarious. Edison is the main character! Crazy.

  3. From 1891 there's "The Brazen Android" by William Douglas O'Connor. An automaton head.

    "Benito Cereno" didn't strike me as great writing, but maybe I'll have another look.

  4. The two quotes bibliographing has are primo. The second one doesn't get good until the end.

    I don't even know if they're good. They're weird. They're Melville.

    The other points I mentioned in favor of "Benito Cereno" do not depend on good writing in any way, so are evidence of nothing.

    "The Brazen Android"! What nonsense! Writers are lunatics!

  5. I'm reminded that in the ancient world there was a brazen android on Crete, who threw rocks at passing ships.