The Piazza Tales by Herman Melville

I hadn’t been looking forward to re-reading The Piazza Tales as much as I had Moby-Dick, because the time since my last read was much shorter. That was silly, though, because this has some of my favorite of Melville’s writing (isn’t it almost all my favorite at this point?), and the good was even better this time around. The middling, on the other hand, was still middling—for me at least.

The stories in the collection, aside from “The Piazza” itself, which was written specially for the volume, were all previously published in Putnam’s magazine, where, along with Harper’s, Melville had taken to publishing short fiction after the dreadful failure of Pierre. The stories published in both magazines were much more successful than his later longer works, and The Piazza Tales in its collected form once again garnered favorable reviews. I can understand that many readers might like to take the mature Melville in smaller doses, and besides, these stories are first-rate.

“The Piazza” is my favorite, but I have trouble writing about it. It’s short; you should all read it. I plan to do so many more times and maybe someday I’ll actually have something to say about it. I like “Bartleby, the Scrivener” well enough, mostly because I’m a big fan of its narrator; more on that tomorrow.

“Benito Cereno” benefitted most from a re-read. I had been impressed with it previously, but this time was able to appreciate much more of Melville’s slippery narrative technique, which drifts in and out of free indirect discourse and contributes to the eerie atmosphere of the ship it is set on. I also came to it now with a much fuller knowledge of Melville’s writings on slavery and race, and a better awareness of how important a concern these were to him throughout his oevre.

“The Lightning-Rod Man” also opened up to me a bit further, as I noticed connections between the man visited by the travelling salesman and Moby-Dick‘s Ishmael. And “The Encantadas” felt like a sort of mystical old friend. Again, I got to spend a bit more time watching out for Melville’s technique, and that’s another one I’ll go into more detail on this week.

“The Bell-Tower,” though, this one did not do it for me the first time and did not improve with age. The story of a mechanician in Renaissance Italy who is building the tallest bell-tower in the land, and on top of that will make it also a clock-tower (the two were normally separate), it is a classic Romantic short story. And it is an excellent example of the style. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But it somehow does not feel like Melville, it feels like he is putting on some other writer’s clothes. It makes me think very much of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” with its tower, and its mechanical person.

I’m also reading a few of the stories that were published in Harper’s, so be on the lookout for a stray here and there as well.

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