Melville - Billy Bud and the Piazza Tales

2024-01-04 @Literature

It’s always something else with this wizard of 19th-century American lit known predominantly for Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s Billy Bud and other stories (the others being the Piazza Tales) joins material ranging from as little as eight-page shorts to ninety-page novellas.

It took me about seven weeks to get through this collection. And though at ‘merely’ 300 pages, feels epic. That’s slower than my reading of French reading of Madame Bovary, making it a fantastic bang for the buck.

However already slow and introspective my reading tendency, Melville’s prose, along with Moby Dick read several years prior, tends to diminish my pace to a level second only to James Joyce. Yeah, slower than Edgar Poe, owing perhaps to my extensive experience with this latter author.

Speaking of Poe, I’ll make numerous comparisons between the two, possibly the only two I’ve read across the American 19th-century prose.

Character and Quality

Though the sea domain makes for the author’s specialty, he expands into other genres as this work demonstrates. And though a far smaller range than Poe’s (who mastered something like a fifteen-twenty genre territory, including the sea adventure), I’ll say: the best of Melville rivals the best of Poe. (I’d not read anything of Hawthorne, which would arguably make a better comparison as I’m led to understand.)

Melville caters to the moral theme. Throughout most stories otherwise abundant in indirect or unreliable narration, key passages expound moral principles, often numerous: sometimes explicit, sometimes limited to a subtle hint.

Metaphor and allusion, astounding. Marine nomenclature, galore, as far as narratives of the genre - that is, most. And like Moby Dick, this makes for an educational angle, a signature of Melville and partly accounting for the slow pace imposed.

Most contemporary audience won’t be familiar with ship and sea particulars. I remember pointing out the same in Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which, however, I’d read on a continuous breath. Nor had anything of Conrad’s (another sea adventure author) demanded that much of me. Really, it’s only Melville that compels this imaginative effort.

Of the sketches

Certain works of this collection are ‘sketches’, that is, those overwhelmingly incumbent on vivid descriptions and paintings, making for a deliberately slow development. Examples: Piazza, The Encantadas and (per my diagnosis) Benito Cereno.

It is in this language domain that Melville notably ramps up the descriptive motor. Across Poe’s sketches of a similar character stands out The Domain of Arnheim.

On to the stories, keeping my comments maximally terse and spoiler free.

Billy Bud

The last novel posthumously published. (Beyond the early works and the Piazza Tales below, I’m to understand that Melville’s popularity and finances struggled for the lifetime remainder.)

A sea novella of strong archetypes and moral dilemmas. Mainly a three-character study to whose mind we’ve very limited access but through high level narration and limited dialogue, which leads their colours to exhibit more spontaneously.

Set in the post-French revolution backdrop of sea mutinies, apprehension and heightened measures. The historical period introduced in detail: a huge bonus. Much naval lingo.

Tons of metaphor, biblical allusion, symbols, poetic segments. Presence of meta narrative (diversions).


The intro story to the cycle and one of my favourites. Initially I conceptualized some character element as the catalyst for these remaining stories (ie something akin to Pushkin’s Belkin cycle), but nothing of the sort. They all stand independently.

A severe portion of this tale is a beautifully detailed nature sketch, demanding that concentration and terminology bookkeeping to adequately conceptualize.

Extravagant literary elements; much Arcadian reference; heavily imaginative reverie; romanticism. At some point it becomes quiet surreal. Numerous interesting inferences to be made.

Bartelby (the scrivener)

Scrivener … There’s a bygone craft.

Anyway, one of the few non-sea tales - in fact quiet distant from the sea adventure in every sense - in the claustrophobic, muralled setting of a Wall Street law office!

Heavy psychology mixed with saturnine humour, something I’d immediately associated with Poe as well as Dostoevsky. A mystery element to it. Creepy, melancholic. Again, numerous precepts to extract, some near explicit, some veiled.

Benito Cereno

What a slow read. Despite the narrative unwinding near continuously, real time, somehow struggled to consume more than a few pages of evocative visuals per day. A tale of a detective character in the sea arena; a near theatrical exercise of unreliable narration: a mystery of sorts, opaque - nothing is as it appears.

The captain makes for the protagonist we continuously accompany across this arena as he utters spoken and pondered commentary. Had this dialogue felt a bit more jerky, I’d say it evokes a Sukurov film.

Melville used a chapter of a sea chronicle as inspiration: specifically, Amasa Delano’s sea chronicle. He then expanded from own experience and imagination, the same dynamic Shakespeare adhered to in a vast majority of plays. That is, this long tale/novella felt theatrical from numerous angles.

I will say, this being a tale concerning African slaves, their portrayal may draw eyebrows in a too contemporary of an audience. History is important to keep in mind. And a sense of humour. For in many respects, it makes for a funny, albeit melancholic development.


The Lightning-Rod Man

An ultra short, comical encounter with a figure best left for the story. Hints of the supernatural. A testament to the theology - chicanery dichotomy.

Though entirely at variance in moral lessons, I felt another character semblance to numerous Poe satires.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

Epic. My favourite of the lot.

Ten extravagant sketches. Spenser’s Faerie Queene verse making most epigrams. Loved this touch.

Incredible images, terminology, allusions. Some of the best poetic prose.

The setting: the barren Galápago island archipelago some way off Ecuador, which Melville, appealing to imaginative poetic device, paints as something Plutonian.

Again, a conflation of own experiences with that picked up by other accounts.

I identified an A-B-A, almost symphonic aspect to the progression: initially, some high level introduction. Melville then hones in, unveiling numerous facets to these islands: nature of all biological, physical and moral diversity. Towards the end, he once again backtracks into the ether, synthesizing certain conclusions.

Some elements to encounter: tortoises, flora, fauna, the avian; hermits, monarchs, renegades, dogs. The rock-island sketch is a jewel in itself.

The Bell Tower

Background: Renaissance Italy. An aspiring Machinist climbs the ladder of ambition leading into Promethean territory.

Reminiscence to some of those Edgar Poe tales with a scientific basis and a mystery element; heavily incumbent on moral. Well, this last element I ascribe largely to Melville.


Solid, imaginative prose. Well worth the time. High reread potential.

Questions, comments? Connect.