Sketches of Melville’s Mind

Herman Melville Short Stories by Herman Melville, published by Easton Press, © 1996.B Melville Short Stories

Herman Melville lived for 72 years and 59 days, all in the 1800s, beginning and ending in New York City, but in-between, traveling the worlds oceans and terrains; experiencing, and surviving, some of the greatest land and sea adventures ever told. Many of these affairs surviving as autobiographical elements within in his fictional writings.

As an illustration, the tale of Moby-Dick follows from his real-life quests, on various sea-boats, usually as a deck hand, including the 1820 sinking of the whaler, Essex, going down in the Pacific Ocean; all due to the foul mood and intransigence of a opprobrious sperm whale. Immediately pivoting from the fortuity of surviving the fantastical attack of a mad, but likely, provoked, cetacean; the equally extraordinary tale of the shipwrecked and hapless sailors continues; surviving on the open sea, aboard the whaler’s life-boats, combating storms, thirst, illness, starvation and cannibalism. The totality of the experience should have shattered the sanity of the cursed swabs, but didn’t–maybe. (Melville was subjected to a battery of inconclusive psychiatric  tests in the early 1850s: his friends and family believing that his behavior was not normal.) Pi knows this adventure.  Eventually the few remaining survivors are rescued off the coast of South America, leading Melville to eventually write the knowingly, not-so-absurd tale, of a sea-captain seeking revenge on a whale.

Easton Press’s collection of Melville’s short stories is a seemingly, eclectic compilation of sketches and traditional prose; exhibiting his talent and genus for writing descriptive narratives and telling stories; weaving themes of morality and politics into everything he created. He wrote 17 short stories in his lifetime, 13 of which are collected here. The 13 stories were published between 1853 and 1856, with the exception of The Two Temples, which was published posthumously in 1924.  These short stories were written during the period when Melville’s star, as a writer of fiction, had dimmed to a feeble ember, and which did not flare up again until after his death, some 30 years later in the 1920s.  Melville’s writing, to the uninitiated, can leave one exhausted and bewildered with his detailed narratives, and subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, symbolism and irony. Successfully reading Melville requires a summary of the story beforehand, and an understanding of the themes buried in his tales.  Surely a paradoxical statement, but one that will magnify your enjoyment, and comprehension of his works.  With that in mind, I offer up below, a brief review of the short stories in this collection; listed in their order of appearance in the book.

Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,  originally published in 1853 in Putman’s Monthly Magazine. Ignored mostly by the public at the time of publication, it is now recognized as one of the greatest of all time, American short stories; hilarious and poignant, a tale interpreted to mean just about anything the critics and the readers want it to mean. Bartleby will surely make you a fan of Melville.

Bartleby is a scrivener, a copier of legal documents, who is hired by unnamed lawyer and proceeds to do extraordinary and prodigious amounts of work for his master until he “prefers not to”, at which point Bartleby begins his descent into a void, a nullity of existence.

The Encantadas, originally published in 1854 in Putman’s Monthly Magazine. The Encantadas or The Enchanted Isles is a collection of 10 narrative “sketches” describing life, habitat, and terrain of the Galapagos Islands, mostly from a downbeat, life as a tragedy, viewpoint. The “sketches” were a critical success, likely due to the similarity of the descriptive prose with his earlier, successful novels; though that success did not translate into financial prosperity.

Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! or The Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano, originally published in 1853 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  A little read, and little understood story about a man in the depths of depression uplifted by the crowing of a cock. Interpreted variously as a criticism of transcendentalism, a critique in the belief that man is naturally good; or alternately, as a satire on the Puritan sexual mores of the early 19th century.  These critiques are way too deep into the essence of symbols when the story appears to be just a simple expression of hope.  The story ends with an inscription on a tombstone placed over the grave of the cock and its owner’s family, erected by the narrator of the story:

O death, where is thy sting                                                               O grave, where is thy victory

These are not sophomoric expressions of sexuality or words of wickedness or thoughts of hopelessness. Is it not likely that the author intends them to mean that death is not to be feared? That you do not lose the fight, your fight, upon entering a grave? That death is just another beginning, a continuation of the journey.

The Two Temples, originally published in 1924 in the book Billy Budd and Other Prose Pieces.  This story was written in the 1850s but Harper’s wouldn’t publish it  because of its potential to upset the religious sensitivities of the time.  This tale is all about contrasts and beliefs. Contrasts within the practice of the Christian faith, where the meek shall inherit the Earth and the proud and mighty shall perish; the low is high and the high is low. Contrasts of religion versus the arts; religion’s aversion to the low, the arts acceptance of everyone. Beliefs that the wolf and the lamb should lay down together. Beliefs that charity is not an at-arm’s-length transaction but a clasp and a hug of your fellow, suffering brother.

Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs, originally published in 1854 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Another tale in two parts describing the perceptions of the rich about the poor’s needs and wants. The stories detail an American rich man’s pompous, and false, perspective on the quality of a poor family’s meals while cooking with the meager ingredients of their pantry,  and an urban Londoner guide’s, smug, and erroneous, thoughts on feeding the poor with the wealthy’s leftovers. A tale defining false charity and false charity is no charity.  A tale of understanding by walking in foreign shoes.

The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids, originally published in 1855 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Again a tale in two parts comparing the lives of educated, rich bachelors in London with the menial work of young maids in a New England paper mill. The narrator, the same for both stories, describes the care-free life of unmarried Englishmen, unencumbered by the responsibilities of wives or children.  The flip side is of young, unmarried women living a meaningless existence making paper from the unwanted clothing of the rich.  The maids assist the bachelors in maintaining their uncomplicated and comfortable lives while the bachelors contribute to the maids’ living hell, Tartarus, by casting their unfashionable used clothes to the them.

The Lightning-Rod Man, originally published in 1854 by Putman’s Monthly Magazine.

What grand irregular thunder, thought I, standing on my hearthstone among the Acroceraunian hills, as the scattered bolts boomed overhead and crashed down among the valleys, every bolt followed by zigzag irradiations, and swift slants of sharp rain, which audibly rang, like a charge of spear-points, on my low shingled roof. I suppose, though, that the mountains hereabouts break and churn up thunder, so that it is far more glorious here than on the plain.

Thus begins the straightforward tale of a lightning rod salesman showing up on the narrator’s step during a terrific electrical storm, peddling his copper rods while the thunder crashes around the mountain home. The narrator, skeptical of the salesman’s claims, parries the latter’s sales pitch of the horrific outcomes of unprotected lightning strikes with scientific fact and maybe, just a tad of false courage; arguments that produce a vast schism between the two, each believing that the devil exists in the others skin.

The Happy Failure:  A Story of the River Hudson, originally published in 1855 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. A very short story about ambition, a man trying to leave his mark in the world, and failing against a greater ambition; the river’s need to reach its destination.  Fighting the good fight against a superior opponent and rejoicing in the effort of trying, not the conclusion. If you are not the giant, be a happy Lilliputian.

The Fiddler, originally published, anonymously, in 1854 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. A story along similar lines as The Happy Failure, a man’s dreams of greatness are dashed against the unkind, the uncaring, the immovable monolith of opinion, leading to a much-needed re-evaluation of ones life and purpose.  If you write bad poems try playing the fiddle instead. Melville abandoned prose in the late 1850s, became a lecturer, a custom inspector, and wrote bad poetry.

Jimmy Rose, originally published in 1855 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  A tale that has been told many times and in many ways; success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. A Londoner, rich and witty, is the toast of town, especially when he is paying, but misfortune strikes, he loses his fortune, and his friends abandon him. Through old age, bereft of friends and money, he retains his cheer and his dignity to the end. Some find this story as an indictment of society’s downward trajectory; an allegorical spin on the decline of morals and religious beliefs. On a simpler level it’s an autobiographical sketch of Melville’s loss of readership, and popularity as an author, with the concomitant loss of financial security, in the 1850s.

The Bell-Tower, originally published in 1855 by Putman’s Monthly Magazine. Bannadonna, an artist creates a bell tower that all of Italy can be proud of, massive and tall, but, unfortunately, not strong enough to support the ill-conceived, even more massive, bell. A story of pride, passion and ambition summed up in the final 3 sentences of the tale:

So the bell was too heavy for the tower. So the bell’s main weakness was where man’s blood had flawed it.  And so pride went before fall.

I and My Chimney, originally published in 1856 by Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.  Melville’s narrator loves his very large chimney and he loves his even bigger house that encircles the chimney.  The narrator’s wife hates the chimney wants to tear it down or at least make it smaller. The narrator loves tradition as he loves his chimney, conservative to his core; a preservationist hoping for continuity of the whole.

In the 1850s, the U.S. was gearing up to tear itself apart, to enter into the largest bloodbath this country has ever known.  Melville expresses his wishes, through the narrator; preserve the chimney, preserve the federal union; preserve the house, preserve the United States. Melville is prescient in his symbolism, publishing this story 2 years prior to Lincoln’s House Divided speech, which he delivered as a campaign speech in Springfield, Illinois. The similarities of story and speech culminate in the best known passage of Lincoln’s address:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

The Apple-Tree Table or Original Spiritual Manifestations, originally published in 1856 by Putman’s Monthly Magazine. Melville layers at least 2 themes into this quaint little tale of ghosts and bugs, all wrapped up in a little apple-tree table, rescued from a dark, dusty attic. The narrator places the cloven-footed apple-table in a prominent location of the family’s parlor and over a few days all hear a distinct tick-tick-tick coming from the petite piece of furniture; a spectral cackling, instilling a creeping fear into the man and his daughter, but not his wife. The mystery of the tick-tick resolves itself as two long, dormant bugs chomp their way to freedom from the wooden confines of the table.

Theme one of the tale, is a composition on gender reversal. The narrator exchanges his masculinity for a more feminine style along with endowing his wife with the more traditional male roles of the husband.  The man wishes to decorate, the woman could care less. The narrator fears the table; the woman looks for a logical explanation. Men and women are not what society says they are, but what they are.

Theme two involves the awakening of the soul.  Shining light, infusing fresh air, into the dark, musty corners of ones mind, creating an atmosphere for spiritual revival; a renewal of cheer and faith, an escape from the cloven, hoofed body of seclusion and depression.

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