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The Piazza Tales
by Herman Melville
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From Library Journal
The latest in Northwestern's ongoing series of authoritative editions of Melville's works, this volume includes "Bartleby, the Scrivner," "The Bell Tower," and four other short stories.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Published in 1856, The Piazza Tales were written upon the public indignation over his novel Pierre, which had forced Melville to retire to the piazza of his house in Lenox, Massachusetts. The six tales included here are among Melville's most notable writings. They include the famed tale "Bartleby" a story of slavery, "Benito Cereno," "The Encantadas," "The Lightning-Rod Man," "The Bell-Tower," and the title story, "The Piazza."
Although Herman Melville published ten books during his lifetime, and left unpublished a masterwork, Billy Budd, he died in relative obscurity in 1891.
First published in 1856, five years after the appearance of Moby Dick, The Piazza Tales comprises six of Herman Melville's finest short stories. Included are two sea tales that encompass the essence of Melville's art: "Benito Cereno", an exhilarating account of mutiny and rescue aboard a disabled slave ship, which is a parable of man's struggle against the forces of evil, and "The Encantadas", ten allegorical sketches of the Galapagos Islands, which reveal nature to be both enchanting and horrifying. Two pieces explore themes of isolation and defeat found in Melville's great novels: "Bartelby, the Scrivener", a prophetically modern story of alienation and loss on nineteenth-century Wall Street, and "The Bell Tower", a Faustian tale about a Renaissance architect who brings about his own violent destruction. The other two works reveal Melville's mastery of very different writing styles: "The Lightning-Rod Man", a satire showcasing his talent for Dickensian comedy, and "The Piazza", the title story of the collection, which anticipates the author's later absorption with poetry.
From the Back Cover
"Melville's lyricism, which reminds us of Shakespeare's, makes use of the four elements. He mingles the Bible with the sea, the music of the waves with that of the spheres, the poetry of the days with the grandeur of the Atlantic. He is inexhaustible, like the winds that blow for thousands of miles across empty oceans and that, when they reach the coast, still have strength enough to flatten whole villages." --Albert Camus
About the Author
Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City; his father was a prosperous importer, his mother the daughter of Peter Gansevoort, a military hero of the American Revolution. When he was eleven his father failed in business, then died a little over a year later. The newly impoverished family relocated to Albany, where Melville worked successively as a bank clerk, farmer, and bookkeeper before trying his hand as a teacher in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. All these early ventures were unsuccessful, and in 1839 he signed on as a crew member on the trading ship St. Lawrence, and sailed from New York to Liverpool and back. Upon his return he resumed teaching, but two years later went to sea again aboard the whaling ship Acushnet.
When the Acushnet was in the Marquesas, Melville and a companion jumped ship and spent a month in the Taipi valley on Nuku Hiva. Brought back to Tahiti by an Australian whaler, Melville was taken ashore as a mutineer but escaped. For a time he worked in Honolulu, before enlisting in 1843 in the U.S. Navy; he sailed to Boston on the frigate United States and was discharged upon arrival. Once back home with his family, he began working on a somewhat embroidered account of his Nuku Hiva adventures: Typee (1846) became an instant success and was followed by Omoo, a similarly fictionalized recasting of his Tahitian misadventures. In 1847 Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the Massachusetts Chief Justice. They moved to Manhattan, and Melville wrote Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850). In 1850 he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose writing he had already praised in an anonymous review; his relatively brief but intense association with Hawthorne was to be a pivotal event for him.
On a farm he had purchased near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Melville wrote Moby Dick, which was published in 1851 to little success or acclaim. His subsequent works--Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), Israel Potter (1855), The Piazza Tales (1856), and The Confidence-Man (1857)--were marked by a frequently tortuous and obscure style that did little to restore the popularity Melville had enjoyed with his first books. His family regarded his mental health as precarious, and in 1856 he embarked alone on a trip to Europe and the Holy Land, financed by his father-in-law. In Liverpool he briefly visited Hawthorne, but the journey as a whole did not have the desired restorative effect. Back in America Melville tried his luck as a lecturer, without great success, and made a vain effort to secure a consular post.
During the Civil War Melville wrote a series of poems later published as Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War in 1866. That year, he received an appointment as deputy inspector of customs at the port of New York, a job he was to hold for the next twenty years. In 1867 his son Malcolm died from a gunshot wound that was probably self-inflicted. During his years as customs inspector, Melville's literary energies were focused on a poem of epic length, Clarel, based on his impressions of the Holy Land and consumed with a spirit of religious doubt; it was published, at his uncle's expense, in 1876, but made little impression on the public. After his retirement he published some small volumes of poetry in extremely limited private editions, but the chief work of his later years was the novella Billy Budd, which remained unpublished until 1924. Melville died on September 28, 1891.
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