Sketches of Melville’s Mind

Herman Melville Short Stories

Written by:  Herman Melville

Published by:  Easton Press

Copyright:  © 1996B 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.

A Question of Balance

The Gods Themselves B Gods Themselves

Written by:  Isaac Asimov

Published by Doubleday

Copyright:  © 1972. (Originally published in the Galaxy Magazine and the World of If magazine in 3 installments.)

Even today, after reading, and re-reading, Asimov for almost 40 years, I still encounter a book by him that I haven’t heard of before, which is not too surprising since he wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 books over his lifetime, and not surprisingly, the new finds always turn out to be very good reads. This book is a great read and one of his most interesting and original sci-fi stories.

In 1957 Asimov published The Naked Sun, his last original, adult sci-fi novel until 15 years later when The Gods Themselves was published in 1972. Asimov had lost his confidence in writing science fiction in the late 1950s, believing that the genre had passed him by, but fate and circumstance stepped in early in 1971, at a New York science fiction convention, to bring him roaring back to his natural calling and eager fans.

Asimov describes his inspiration and determination to write a new sci-fi novel in the introduction of a reprint:  A Dedication of Some Length to The Gods Themselves published by Easton Press in 1986:

…Then, on January 24, 1971 at a science fiction convention held in New York City, I was in the audience listening to Robert Silverberg and Lester del Rey carry on a public duologue on the subject of s.f.  In the course of this, Bob had occasion to refer to some chemical isotope — any chemical isotope — to make some point, and after a moment’s hesitation, said, “Plutonium-186.”

Naturally, when the duologue was over, I accosted Bob, in order to tell him (with considerable glee) that there was no such thing as plutonium-186 and could not be.  Bob did not, however, wilt under this demonstration of his scientific illiteracy but said stolidly, “So what!”

“So this,” said I. “Just to show you what real ingenuity is, I will write a story about Plutonium-186.”…

Having thrown down the gauntlet, Asimov sets out to produce a novel that the sci-fi community agrees is one of the best, and rightly so, original science fiction novels ever written, winning both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for that years best novel; a binary feat reserved for the crème de la crème of the genre’s writers.  Asimov, to add an exclamation point to the awards and his fan’s acclaim, states that this novel is his favorite work of fiction: quite a statement for such a prolific and successful writer.

In the 22nd century everyone is running out of energy, the Earth, red giants, the “Energizer Bunny”, parallel universes: everyone. In The Gods Themselves, a seemingly win-win solution comes from an alien world in a parallel universe; the exchange of mass between their universe and ours, due to the differences in the governing physical laws, creates unlimited and free energy. As usual, altruistic motives do not apply, and the exchange of matter, as it turns out, for the not-so-free energy, will cause the eventual, and uncomfortably soon, destruction of Earth.

The novel is divided into 3 parts; the first part is an Earth perspective with, as Asimov describes, a bluesy “downbeat”, a vision of an alien existence in the second part with another bluesy “downbeat”; and the 2nd part truly does contain some of the most original and imaginative sci-fi narrative ever written, and a third part described from the moon inhabitant’s viewpoint, ending the novel on a jazzy “upbeat”.  “A wonderful read, is The Gods Themselves” claims Yoda, draining the force of its negative energy.

Do Evil — Do Good

Proteus B Proteus

Written by:  Morris West

Originally Published by:  William Morrow & Co.

Copyright:  © 1979

Morris West spins a tale of combating evil within the confines of the Old Testament God: an eye for an eye, a wrong to beget a wrong. Victims of evil can forgive, but a witness to evil must act.  When the legal structures of the western world, the democracies of the free, fail the meek and the weak who shall rally for their cause, raise and carry their banner, storm their Bastille?

John Spada, the righteous, millionaire industrialist, protagonist, and leader of the secret international organization: Proteus; saves the meek, rescues the innocent, teaches morality, one evil deed at a time. Spada and Proteus pick up where governments fail; achieving the freedom of the weak through the commission of criminal and immoral deeds.  Spada wants to free all the prisoners of conscience, the political prisoners held by the depraved and savage governments of the world.  To bring about their freedom murder and the threat of genocide are tools that he and Proteus are willing to use and do.  Inhumanity opposing inhumanity achieves what?  In this book it brings Spada only his death and infamy.

West produces a sophomoric and almost comic plot of moral paradoxes, matching evil deeds with evil deeds, opprobrious acts with no yin to balance the yang.  Ouroboros’ cycles of life and death sans a meaningful life. A novel, opening with a decent plot but poorly executed and a truly abominable ending, but maybe West didn’t have any answers in the struggle against the ever encroaching darkness; just pinpricks of light in the far distance.

Illuminati for Dummies

The Damnation of Theron Ware

Written by: Harold Frederic

Originally pPublished by:  Stone and Kimball

Original Copyright:  © 1896B Theron Ware

Harold Frederic, 1856-1898, photographer, journalist, and author, son of Presbyterians, practicing their religion in the churches of Methodists, growing up among immigrant Catholics in upstate New York, adopted a skeptical view of all religions in adulthood. He lived an idiosyncratic life as an unbuttoned, avant-garde individualist, stating near his untimely end in 1897, “I live wholly to myself because I like to live an unshackled life…”. In 1884 he moved to London, bringing along his wife, Grace, and their 5 children, working as a correspondent of the New York Times. He later set up a second household in London with his mistress, Kate Lyon and had 3 additional children by her. His premature death in 1898 left both families in financial difficulty.

Frederic wrote 10 novels, 23 short stories, 2 volumes of non-fiction, and countless newspaper articles over his short life time, but he did not achieve critical acclaim until the publication of his seventh novel: The Damnation of Theron Ware in 1896.  Two other novels followed, Gloria Mundi and The Market Place, cementing his legacy as an accomplished author, on par with, but better known, contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Stephen Crane. The posthumously published, The Market Place, was a financial success, alleviating his family’s financial duress.

The Damnation of Theron Ware, likely not autobiographical, but certainly expanding on the author’s experiences growing up in Utica, New York, is a story of a young, naive, married Methodist preacher: Theron Ware, who is posted by his bishop, to a small, conservative, poor congregation in a fictional town in the very real and ancient hills and forests of upstate New York.

Through his witnessing of an Irish worker’s fatal injury, he is innocently introduced to a beautiful, intelligent, but wild, Irish-Catholic young woman named Celia. This encounter sets off a series of faith questioning episodes with this woman and her friends: a priest and a cynical and urbane Catholic scientist; accelerating the protestant minister onto the fast, yet short, road to perdition.  His ensuing infatuation with Celia separates him from his wife. His education at the hands of the Catholic trio separates him from his faith and church. His conversion to religion without god and comprehension separates him from the Catholic trio or more precisely, the Catholics separate from him.

His innocence is gone but his education is incomplete. He is damned.  He concludes that his salvation lies in politics.

Elephants, Magicians, and Zombies: Oh My

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein B Fantasies Heinlein

Written by:  Robert A. Heinlein

Published by:  Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright:  © 1999

Robert A. Heinlein, the dean of science fiction writers during his lifetime, the first among equals, the first among the 20th century big three: Asimov, Clark, and Heinlein; began his writing and publishing career with short stories and novellas. He first appeared in print with a 1939 short story titled Life Line, published in the pulp fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction. He published 29 short stories and novellas before publishing his first novel in 1947, Rocket Ship Galileo.  (Heinlein did write a novel in 1939, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs, but it remained unpublished until 2003, 15 years after his death.)

The Fantasies of Robert A. Heinlein is a collection of 8 short stories and novellas written between 1940 and 1959, illustrating why he was selected as the first Grand Master, in 1974, by The Science Fiction Writers of America.  The line between fantasy and sci-fi is a fine one: the majority of these stories have one foot in each realm with the scales tipping towards the fantastic. I had read all these stories individually many years ago, and I enjoyed them then, but they are still fresh and fun to read today, maybe more so, since they are all packaged together, chronologically, allowing the reader to assess Heinlein’s progression as a writer and story-teller through the years. Below are the short stories and novellas contained in this compilation.

Magic, Inc., © 1940, with an alternate title of The Devil Makes the Law. Magic, Inc. makes the rules until Amanda and Archie take charge.

–And He Built a Crooked House, © 1940. You may run out of time when building your house or maybe your house will run into time.  The title to story was a spoof on the English nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

They–, © 1941.  Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean your mentally ill.

Waldo, © 1942, written under the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald. Anson was Heinlein’s middle name. Magic makes the world go around.

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, © 1942. Artistic endeavors usually need some touch up paint.

Our Fair City, © 1948.  It’s hard to dance with a whirlwind when you have crooked feet.

The Man who Traveled in Elephants, © 1957.  A good life, a few good friends, great beginnings. Heinlein considered this his best story.

“–All You Zombies–“, © 1959. Punctuation-wise, word-wise, a strange title; you need to read a few words short of the end to figure it out.  While you are reading, Ella Fitzgerald may be appropriate background music; spring, …time, can really hang you up the most.

Calling Collect?

The Listeners B The Listeners

Written by: James E. Gunn

Published by:  Charles Scribner’s Sons

Copyright:  © 1972

James Gunn presents, successfully and almost convincingly, a fictional account of the emotional, the psychological aspects of searching for intelligent extraterrestrial life: the prerequisite human attributes that a project of this scope requires for a conclusive outcome; mainly the possibility of multiple human lifetimes of tediously seeking something that may not be there.  Gunn postulates the persona needed to continually believe that we are not alone in the vastness of space, someone with the temerity to risk his fruitful years in a quest that will likely fail, his ability to stay the course through countless days and nights of monotonous failure, of a nothingness convulsing his cerebral core to a mush of hopeless sadness.

Gunn illustrates the personalities that it may take to forge ahead with a SETI project of interminable searching, a human that believes he is right in searching the heavens for intelligent life, a human that believes we are not alone in the universe, a humane that believes that all that is needed to succeed is perseverance.

This works in Gunn’s fictional world because the searchers find what they are looking for, an advanced civilization 45 light years from Earth that wishes to impart their collective wisdom to us.  The aliens cryptically convey to us, in their initial message, that they are dying, and as a consequence, pose no threat to our species or planet, allowing humanity to respond with impunity, without risk of triggering an apocalypse.  It’s fiction and everyone does love a happy ending.

The technical side of this novel doesn’t work so well, but sci-fi novels read, coincidently, 45 years after they are published rarely do. Steam turbine powered cars, humongous computers with silly parts, the Arecibo radio telescope with 18 light years of reach capturing 45 light year distant messages, are a few of the distractions, but in the end the visceral concepts are credible suppositions even if the mechanical details of future life lack ingenuity and artistry. A confusing, and possibly superfluous, message presented in the novel is of fictional economic societal solutions, amounting to not much more than welfare, instituted to foster stability and peace, coupled paradoxically, with a prescient passage from a 1968 techno-predictive book, The Year 2000, by Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener concerning an individual’s responsibility to society:

The year 2000 conditions could produce a situation in which illusion, wishful thinking, even obviously irrational behavior could exist to a degree unheard of today. Such irrational and self-indulgent behavior is quite likely in a situation in which an individual is overprotective and has no systematic or objective contact with reality. For example, there are probably many people for whom work is the primary touch with reality. If work is removed, or if important functions are taken from work, the contact these people have with reality will be to some degree impaired.  The results-minor or widespread-may become apparent in forms such as political disruption, disturbed families, and personal tragedies-or in pursuit of some “humanistic” values that many would think of as frivolous or even irrational.

Contributing to this book’s bond with its reader, and cementing its science cred, are non-fictional extracts from the author’s contemporaneous big thinkers on extraterrestrial life, such as Freeman Dyson and Carl Sagan, liberally sprinkled throughout the “even-numbered chapters”.  One of these excerpts, embedded in the “2nd chapter”, a remark from Frank D. Drake from 1960, can serve as the basis for the book’s plot:

Those who feel that the goal justifies the great amount of effort required will continue to carry on this research, sustained by the possibility that sometime in the future, perhaps a hundred years from now, or perhaps next week, the search will be successful…

Theater of Nothing

Waiting for Godot B Waiting Godot

Written by:  Samuel Beckett

First English Language Version Published by:  Grove Press

Copyright:  © 1954

Samuel Beckett, Nobel winner for literature in 1969, wrote, in a feverish 5 year period of creative over-achievement, immediately following the end of WWII, his most consequential plays and novels:  Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier. The Nobel Committee praised his written creations as a new form of novel and drama; dubbed the “Theater of the Absurd” by Martin Esslin in 1962. The Committee explicitaly sited Waiting for Godot and Happy Days, written in 1960, as the definitive works for this new style of writing, exceedingly worthy of tribute and fortune.

Waiting for Godot is a play, in two acts, expressing sorrow and discontent with life’s emptiness, but has no substance beyond the existential context of one’s self providing the essence to fill the void of a barren plot, and not surprisingly, everyone does. Interpretations of existential, Freudian, Christian, sexual, political, all these forms, and more, have found their way into their perception of Beckett’s true allegorical meaning of  Waiting for Godot. Beckett provided little clarification on the play’s meaning except to restate what he had written, maybe as ploy to maintain interest in the play, but likely because he felt that the play said all that could be said, eventually, expressing his frustration with all the misinterpretations of the play, by exclaiming  “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out.”

Waiting for Godot will amuse you and likely, you will discover its true essence.

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