Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reflections on Melville's Short Fiction

The "Melville, Pennsylvania" Project

Here we are at middle distance, more or less, in the Melville, Pennsylvania project, and appropriately enough it seems to be a point of transition. Although I do have one more novel to read – 1847’s Omoo, a copy of which I only came across after the project started – for the most part Melville’s novels are behind me now, and I have moved on to other genres of his writing.

In the second chapter, if you will, of his career, Melville dabbled in shorter works of fiction and poetry. The poetry I am only now beginning to wade into, which is a daunting prospect for me on a number of levels. But I have now read most if not all of his surviving shorter fiction works, and it is his writing in this format upon which I now offer some rather subjective and probably under-cooked thoughts.

I usually find ways to cite Melville’s own words in my reflections, so readers can assess the strength of his writing “from the horse’s mouth." In this situation, for me, there seem to be too many good examples, and from wildly divergent tales; it seems more effective to nudge readers in the direction of these shorter works in general, rather than cite lines or passages. Not all of his stories are readily available in any store, but many of them are collected in various editions with his most famous short work, called Billy Budd, Sailor (which merits a separate reflection here in the future). For the record, I will list here the name of the stories I intend to discuss, at least in broad terms:

“Bartleby, the Scrivener”
“Cock-a-doodle-doo!”
“The Encantadas”
“The Two Temples”
“The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”
“The Bell-Tower”
“Benito Cereno”
“The ‘Gees”
“I and My Chimney”
“The Piazza”

One thing the reader may notice about the above list is that, for a major American writer, it’s not very long. Melville wrote only a limited amount of short pieces, and with a few minor exceptions, he wrote them in one particular period of his career – from around 1852, after the novel Pierre came out and failed roundly, up until around 1857 or so, when he published The Confidence-Man. After that, he made a trip to Europe and the holy land, and came back a changed man and a different writer. Thereupon he entered into a phase where he worked primarily on poetry, and then a kind of prose-poetry mixture, right up through the post-humously published novella Billy Budd.

It may be a little surprising for me to say that I believe Melville’s short stories – considering there aren’t very many – are among his finest works. The most broadly understood notion concerning his short pieces is that he wrote them for financial reasons, for quick paychecks, following the tremendous drubbing both commercially and critically he suffered with the publication of Pierre. And by most accounts it seemed to have been a smart move, because at the time stories of this nature paid pretty well. Melville wrote them for only two magazines, Putnam’s and Harper’s. The arrangement appears to have been mutually beneficial.

Probably the most famous of Herman Melville’s shorter stories is “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”, and it’s also one of the strangest, although you can make a fairly solid argument that they’re all pretty enigmatic. As the subtitle indicates, the story is set in the financial district of New York City. It concerns a law office that hires the titular character, who appears out of nowhere off the street, to join their small staff as a “scrivener”, or a copyist – in the days before Xerox machines, of course, someone had to produce copies of all legal documentation by hand.

Everything starts off well, with the new employee copying documents at a mighty clip, but soon Bartleby begins to show alarming signs of some kind of mental disturbance. He never leaves the office – ever – and after a while, he starts refusing any task his employer assigns him to, offering the now-famous rejoinder “I would prefer not to” whenever he’s asked to do something.

As the story continues, Melville skillfully creates tension and a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere. However, in a technique that must have frustrated readers at the time (and today too), he deliberately fails to supply satisfactory answers to the questions the story suggests. Bartleby seems to come further unhinged as the story extends itself, and ends up, notably, in the same prison in Manhattan that Melville’s Pierre Glendenning finds himself in in the conclusion of that novel – aptly known as “the Tombs”. “Bartleby” is creepy, atmospheric, evocative of a lost time, and challenging to the reader’s imagination all at once. I think those qualities are virtues, and the story is beautifully written as most of Melville’s work is. But for readers who enjoy having loose ends resolved, novels such as Redburn or even Moby-Dick would be a more satisfactory choice.

“Bartleby” is also one of Melville’s longest “short” works, nearly a novella. The other almost novella-length short piece (aside from Billy Budd) is “Benito Cereno”, which hearkens back in some ways to Melville’s sea adventures, and is considered another of his best short stories. This entertaining and mysterious tale is set on the high seas, specifically off the South American coast – yet the two ships involved in the tale never sail anywhere during the story itself.

Here, an American whaling vessel sails into port on the coast of Chile and makes contact with a second ship that seems unusually battered and broken. The American captain boards the ship to offer assistance, only to find that most of the passengers are black slaves, and the Captain, a Spaniard, appears sullen and uncooperative towards the American skipper’s efforts to help. While these overtures continue, the whaling captain notices strange behaviors among the remaining occupants of the ship, and begins to suspect that more is afoot than meets the eye. He’s correct. There has been a violent slave revolt, and the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, is really a prisoner. The story ends with a series of depositions as the ensuing events are pieced together, investigation-style, after the fact.

“Benito Cereno” capitalizes on many of Melville’s best qualities, and should be celebrated more than I have heard it so. It’s a cracking adventure, almost like a pirate story, but it’s also a mystery, and a rumination on death and violence. The prose is majestic yet fast-paced. If the story is backwards racially in some places, Melville seemed to approach racial matters with a duality common to liberal-minded white people of that time: he abhorred the concept of slavery, was an abolitionist on principle, and yet didn’t seem to fully embrace descendents of Africa as equal to himself or his own race, judging by his own use of language. Some stereotypical observations and descriptions in this story would justly offend the modern palate. These should be expected if not endorsed.

Beyond these more famous of Melville’s tales, the remainder of the small but impressive catalogue offers plenty of surprises for those who expect more sea-tales or tropical yarns. “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”, a story that couldn’t possibly fit anywhere into today’s literary landscape, is a robust, almost mythological tale of a preternaturally majestic rooster, whose very call seems to summon the gods from Olympus. “The Lightning-Rod Man”, one of my personal favorites of the group, contains early manifestations of themes Melville would explore in greater depth in the novel The Confidence-Man, inasmuch as it depicts someone trying to snow another person into some of their money. In this story, set on a tropical island resembling the South Pacific, a stranger attempts to hock lightning rods as a form of primitive homeowner’s insurance to a customer who isn’t buying.

Melville’s appetite for innovation, both with genre and with narrative structure, were also on display during this pivotal period. His remarkable story “The Bell-Tower” contains by far the earliest manifestation in literature that I know of what we might commonly refer to today as a robot – a mysterious tale concerning the erection of a Biblically-proportioned stone tower and what is revealed to be an artificially constructed metal creature that can animate itself on top of the monolith. (Keep in mind, this is 1853 we’re talking about.) In “The Two Temples” and “The Paradise of Bachelors…”, Melville experiments with structure in a format he called “diptych”, where the stories describe two similar events with the same characters but in different environments. Instead of being opposites, the two segments of these stories are more like panels laid alongside each other. Finally, in stories like “The Encantadas”, containing a number of small anecdotes concerning life on an exotic group of Pacific islands, Melville further refined a prose-poetry hybrid style of writing, which he had not only used once before, in the 1848 novel Mardi, but that also characterized some of his last works, including John Marr and Other Sailors and Billy Budd.

On a personal note, as an aspiring fiction writer, the short story is gaining ground as an ideal vehicle for further refining my own prose style as well as increasing my range and versatility. Although I have never felt entirely comfortable in the form, and always have imagined myself a novelist in gestation, the challenge of the short story format has exhibited an almost irresistible appeal. Novels, as much as I love them, have recently seemed beyond the reach of my stamina and perhaps my intellectual resources; while poems, as much as I admire them, require a far greater command of language and a more refined sense of observation than I have. Stories have challenged me greatly in my 20 years of creative writing, and even though I have yet to succeed in publishing my own, my uppermost intention is to continue up that hill.

All this is a long way to get around to stating that I find Melville’s short pieces fascinating and inspiring, and I would recommend them to readers who may be interested in experiencing some of his work but daunted by something as mammoth as, say, Moby-Dick. Read “Bartleby the Scrivener” or “Benito Cereno”, and you will acquire a sense of Melville’s great mastery of descriptive prose as well as his bottomless capacity for wonder at the natural world and the human animal. But you will also get cracking good stories, filled with insights and inquiries, the kind that transcend their own time and place, and bring together generations from across the vast landscape of literature.