The Piazza Tales
250 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 Paperback Release Date:16 Sep 2021 ISBN:9781988963341
Introduction by Todd Webb
The Piazza Tales is more approachable and just as compelling as any of Melville’s longer works. In its six short stories, we find, among other fascinating characters, an office worker who refuses to work, a shipload of rebellious slaves, at least one charlatan, several unhinged sailors, some outright madmen, a marooned woman, and a secretive, self-destructive inventor. In addition, as pretentious as it might sound, there are life lessons to be learned, and solace to be had, in the two undoubted masterpieces of the book: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.” The first will be relevant as long as paperwork endures, while the second is a commentary on race relations that is as vital today as it was when it was written in the mid-1850s.
Like the people for and about whom Melville originally wrote, we live in an era of growing division between the wealthy and the poor, and of increasing tension between races, punctuated by sometimes violent protest. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” Melville seems to have been both recording the strains and stresses of his own society and prophesying many of our current troubles. In the other stories, through a variety of characters and in several different settings, Melville explores what happens when dreams collide with reality or when sharp players try to take advantage of the idealistic beliefs of others.
Despite being a celebrated author, Melville is surprisingly little read. It is said that his books are too long, too challenging, or too strange. None of that is true, of course, but for anyone curious about Melville’s fictional worlds, hopefully this introduction has demonstrated that The Piazza Tales is the best place to start. It provides a sense of both the highs and lows of his artistry.