Read an Excerpt
Bear in mind that while The Piazza Tales has been received as a classic in our time, in Melville’s own day he was correct; the book did not sell well. In a sad exchange of letters, Melville eventually turned down the publisher’s offer to purchase the metal plates used to print the book, in case he wanted them for possible future printings; but, alas, he could not afford them. Having no further use for the plates for The Piazza Tales, Harper had them melted down and sold as scrap metal.
For further perspective on The Piazza Tales, let us commence with Billy Budd, our volume’s first narrative. This is Melville’s last work of fiction, written, along with occasional poems, not with a clear sense of the market but for himself, left unfinished (brought to a sort of completion but clearly not as polished as he intended), and then not published until 1924, thirty-three years after the writer’s death. Here is a mighty tale, compressed in the manner of a Greek tragedy, tersely eloquent, and informed, as we shall see, by a strange comedy and by an even stranger murmurous sound that is close to the spirit of the blues.
Like so much of Melville’s writing, Billy Budd is shadowed by the presence of a powerful and beautiful black figure associated with freedom. In the novel’s second paragraph, the stage is set for the reader to meet the mythically handsome and mystically good sailor Billy (called by some “Baby”) Budd, with an invitation to consider a prior case of perfection in the shape of “a common sailor so intensely black that he must needs have been a native African of the unadulterate blood of Ham—a symmetric figure much above the average height.” Ear-ringed with large gold hoops and dressed in colorful silk, this black sailor, seen in Liverpool, was the uncontested leader of “such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would have well fitted them to be marched up by Anacharsis Cloots before the bar of the first French Assembly as Representatives of the Human Race.” As the charismatic figure in black walked among the other sailors, exchanging pleasantries, his colleagues praised him, paused and stared at him, “they took that sort of pride . . . which the Assyrian priests doubtless showed for their grand sculptured Bull when the faithful prostrated themselves.” This black man is like a figurehead to Melville’s ship of a novella; we glimpse him only as we board. But he shadows the text in the godlike figure of Billy Budd himself.
Billy is a leader not by virtue of official rank, treasury, or pedigree (like many mythic heroes he is uncertain of his family origins or true home) but through his personal excellence alone. Breathtakingly handsome, Billy is admired by his shipmates for his bubbling good cheer, for his love of doing good deeds, and when the situation demanded it, for his terrible swift fists. And like the black sailor in Liverpool—or any sailor on any ship within the scope of the British fleet (which sailed the world)—Billy Budd is subject to English “impressment,” the practice of boarding ships at sea and seizing men for service in the British navy. Thus taken from the ship called, significantly enough, the Rights-of-Man (so christened, we are informed, after Thomas Paine’s pamphlet in defense of the French Revolution), Billy has been “impressed” into service as a British seaman. According to his steady nature and fatalistic outlook, the seized man does not complain. “But, indeed,” as the tale’s narrator informs us, “any demur would have been as idle as the protest of a goldfinch popped into a cage.”