Though Herman Melville is now considered one of the great American authors, in
his own time (1819-1891), he was not so successful. Moby-Dick
is deemed his masterpiece, yet even that failed to receive recognition before his death. The Note to the Dover
edition quotes a critic saying Melville had "violated his public's literary tastes and offended its religious and political sensibilities." Well, yeah. Though Melville
attempted to write short popular fiction to ease his financial burden, even those stories were rife with material that could offend closed minds. These
stories abound with controversy, although reading them in 2016, we can see that he was perfectly correct in his perceptions. The one thing I must say about
Melville that I personally find disgusting is his apparent lack of ability to see the beauty, intelligence, and sacredness of animals. One minute he's
describing them with interest and the next minute he's eating them. Yuk.
Though many of these stories display Melville's typical humor—really more a deep satire, there is a sense of discomfort woven through nearly all of them. They reflect the unfairness of poverty which strikes those who do not deserve it. Three of them are in two contradictory parts which expose the vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Two are silly comedies occurring in the lives of the same family—Mom, Dad, and daughters Julia and Anna. Many contain vivid descriptions of the beauties of nature. Four are from Piazza Tales, and the rest, I believe, are independent stories. (The other two stories from Piazza Tales are Bartleby and Benito Cereno.)
There are fourteen stories in this volume—207 pages in the Dover edition, and most are quite short. Here is a bit about a few of them.
The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles
This one is about the Galapagos Islands, and is by far the longest story of the collection. It is in ten "sketches" about different islands in the group. Other than being offended by his lack of appreciation for and killing of the wonderful and now, fortunately protected, Galapagos tortoises, most of these stories are fascinating. (The Galapagos Islands and their unique flora and fauna are ALL protected now.) Though these island are inhabited by scientists and researchers, and tourism is allowed under watchful conditions, they are basically uninhabited. Some of the islands are more inhabitable than others, and Melville relates interesting historical legends concerning the pirates and ruffians that once used them to their advantage.
This is one of the two-part stories, and it's also one that most likely offended some religious people. Here, a man is prevented from entering a church because he is not of the upper class—he's poor. So he finds a back door to the tower and sneaks in to view the service from high above. To his dismay, he then realizes he has been locked in, so, with no other way out, he rings the tower bells, and is arrested. Later on, he finds himself in London, penniless and outside another "temple," this one a theater. He cannot afford to enter, but a man happens to notice him, and gives him a ticket. Even though he considers this "charity," he is treated much better in this "temple" than the religious one.
Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs
Here, the narrator listens to Poet Blandmour's attempts to convince him that the poor are able to use their simple supplies to create wonderful meals. Later, the narrator has an opportunity to share in one of these meals, though he is barely able to swallow a mouthful. The pork is yellow and crusty, and the pudding is moldy and briny.
Later on, he is in London when the wickedly wealthy nobles and royalty dine, then witness a "wonderful" act of charity, as the poor are allowed to throng in and clean up the crusts and what is left of meat on the bones. Ghastly.
The Lightning-Rod Man
Melville deploys a bit of satire here as a swindling lightning-rod salesman goes around during storms to instill fear in people in order to make them buy his product. Hmmm. I believe that technique is still being used today.
In this one, Melville has created a Poe-like situation that ends in horrendous tragedy. Bannadonna, an architect of the highest esteem is hired to design and build a bell tower in Italy, and he is determined that it will be his masterpiece. No one knows what his secret crowning touch is to be until something goes terribly wrong.
The Apple-Tree Tables or Original Spiritual Manifestations
This is one of the adventures of Mom, Dad, daughters Julia and Anna, and the maid, Biddy, as they move into a house that supposedly has a haunted garret. But Dad finds the key out back, and it isn't really haunted but just full of bugs. However he does find an interesting table with a tripod of cloven hooves for legs, along with a book by Cotton Mather concerning witchcraft. He likes both, so he has the table refinished—(it turns out to be made of apple wood), and sets it in the cedar-parlor. (The daughters are afraid of the table.) On Saturday evening, he stays up late reading the book, drinking his punch as he does on Saturday nights, despite his wife's reprimands. The book is making him more and more fearful, when he begins to hear a ticking sound that appears to be coming from the table. Is it really haunted?
The last story of the collection, Melville paints a hauntingly beautiful, yet sad and lonely portrait of the New England mountains.
It is unfortunate that Melville wasn't recognized in his time for the genius that he was. His books pave the way to a more experimental style of writing, and certainly to social and religious criticism. An easy and interesting collection—recommended.
All material on this site copyright © 2016 by Laughing Crow.
This site designed and written by Laughing Crow.