From Billy Budd and Other Stories
Herman Melville is known the world over as the author of the Great American Novel. At least, that is how he is widely regarded today. In Melville’s lifetime the situation was very different.
Melville had great expectations for his magnum opus, of which he wrote, “A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.” The author, who was born in New York City but by that point had relocated to Massachusetts, poured everything he had into his novel and emerged from the writing exhausted.
And how was he rewarded?
“American and English reviewers had roasted Moby-Dick (1851), and in eighteen months the American edition sold 2,300 copies,” writes Frederick Busch in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Billy Budd and Other Stories. Melville’s follow-up, Pierre in 1852, fared even worse, selling only 2,030 copies and earning the author a paltry $157 in his lifetime. Reviewers, Busch writes, “questioned his sanity as well as his skill.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that Melville’s first published fiction following Pierre was a bitter story about a Wall Street functionary who decides to opt out of the entire capitalist machine, adopting as his mantra the repeated phrase “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby the scrivener was in some ways a stand-in for Melville: disillusioned, purposeless, and content to separate himself from a society that appeared venal and philistine. The story first appeared in Putnam’s magazine in 1853 and in 1856 was included in Melville’s only collection of short fiction, The Piazza Tales.
In addition to “Bartleby,” that volume contains the novella “Benito Cereno,” which critics including Busch consider to contain some of the best writing from Melville’s later career. “The Piazza,” by contrast, is a minor story, though not without interest for general readers and Melville scholars alike. Written as a catch-all introduction to the themes and subjects of the collection, the story can be seen as exemplary of Melville’s depressed mindset and his focus on notions of artists and their reception in a more or less indifferent world.
The plot of “The Piazza” is relatively straightforward. A man retreats in seclusion to a farm house that offers him a view of the surrounding land, but does not include a piazza on which he might sit and contemplate his environment. He has one built and from his new vantage notices a sparkle in the distance that he assumes must be a cottage in what he describes as a kind of “fairy land.” He embarks on an arduous journey to his imagined Shangri-la, where he finds a sad seamstress who lives with her brother and pines for the perfect life she imagines the owner of the little white house in the distance – who is the story’s narrator – must enjoy.
The story, then, is about thwarted dreams, the failure of reality to live up to imagined ideals of perfection or beauty. It is perhaps germane that Melville tells this story with reference to great works of literature, including Shakespeare’s fantasia A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its story of forest transformations and fairies. (The narrator of Melville’s story is reading the Bard’s play in between gazing “wishfully” toward the hills.) Once he alights on his supposed “fairy-land” – “Fairies there, thought I, once more; the queen of fairies at her fairy window; at any rate, some glad mountain girl” – he name checks the primogenitor of fairy queens, Edmund Spenser.
Melville was a highly allusive writer and here he uses references to external figures as a means of ironically commenting on his narrator’s state of mind. The narrator imagines himself sitting out in summer “Canute-like,” referring to the king who was unable to stop the tides from washing over him and thereby proving earthly regents inferior to God. Sitting on his piazza, the narrator claims to be “often reminded of the sea,” an image that, in conjunction with the allusion to King Canute, appears redolent of futility.
Later, on his trek to find the locus of his idealized fairy-land, the narrator makes reference to Don Quixote, the “sagest sage that ever lived.” Though Cervantes’s hero clings to elevated notions of chivalry and courtly behaviour, he is clearly mad and tilts at windmills he imagines to be enemy soldiers. The elevation of the Spanish knight to a plane of great wisdom would appear to set Melville’s narrator up as a character who is subject at least to self-delusion about the world around him, a state that becomes readily apparent when he reaches his destination and encounters the melancholy seamstress Marianna.
What the narrator has assumed must be a magical location turns out to be run down and squalid, at least so far as Marianna is concerned. “The old house is rotting. That makes it so mossy,” she informs the narrator. “In the morning, the sun comes up in this old window, to be sure – boarded up, when first we came; a window I can’t keep clean, do what I may – and half burns, and nearly blinds me at my sewing, besides setting the flies and wasps astir.” Even without its boards, the window remains impervious to cleaning, and the general impression Marianna gives off is one of grimy joylessness and despondency.
Reality fails to live up to the narrator’s romantic idealization, an idealization that is ironically mirrored in Marianna’s belief that the narrator’s house must be an idyll and the narrator perfectly happy in it. No such Platonic state exists, of course, and certainly not in the milieu of Melville’s tale. There is nature to provide succour – the narrator returns to his piazza where he is serenaded by his “prima donna,” a meadow lark – but even this is transient and fleeting: “truth comes in with darkness,” he tells us balefully.
The final movement in Melville’s story, with its images of gloom and melancholy, are in ironic juxtaposition to the sunniness and open spaces that permeate the story’s beginning. The land around is “such a picture,” which the narrator considers a “very paradise of painters.” The land is described in idyllic language and the narrator’s idea of the fairy-land beyond is given ethereal, heightened tones. As he progresses toward his destination, this language slowly begins to change – he admits to being “foot-sore and weary” and the land becomes “craggy” and “half-overgrown with blueberry bushes.” It is as though the very language of the story is undergoing the same process of disillusionment and disappointment as the narrator (to say nothing of the author himself).
To some extent, “The Piazza” interrogates what happens when our stories – the products of our hopeful, overheated imaginations – run aground on the shoals of reality. That this is an experience Melville was well acquainted with is clear. Perhaps his stories constituted an attempt to exorcise the real world from his consciousness as much as to filter those concerns through the prism of art.