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Melville PIERRE, ISRAEL POTTER, THE PIAZZA TALES, THE CONFIDENCE MAN, UNCOLLECTED PROSE, BILLY BUDD

October 06, 1985|John Sutherland | Sutherland teaches literature at Caltech. and

Melville PIERRE, ISRAEL POTTER, THE PIAZZA TALES, THE CONFIDENCE MAN, UNCOLLECTED PROSE, BILLY BUDD, edited by Harrison Hayford (The Library of America: $27.50; 1,478 pp.)

This handsome volume gives us a third of Melville's fiction. It is finely printed on acid-free paper, stoutly bound in cloth and modestly priced (by courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation). The texts are impeccably accurate. (Particularly, one may note, the title page where a freakish misspelling of "Melville" apparently led to the first impression being withdrawn). The collection is accompanied by unobtrusive but expert annotation. It, and the "Library of America" series to which it belongs (now some twenty strong) are a major achievement of modern textual scholarship.

About 20 years ago, the question was raised of what to do with the nation's literary classics. Writers like Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, London, circulated in editions that were corrupt and usually cheap and nasty in appearance. The United States has nothing equivalent to the Academie Francaise, officially entrusted with the welfare of the national language and literature. It fell to the MLA (the professional association of college teachers) to set up a long term collaborative project. This had two end products. First, "definitive" editions with exhaustive apparatus, aimed at specialists and libraries. Secondly, "working" editions for the general reader indifferent to the fine distinctions between genetic, literal and synoptic texts or hyphenation tables. The Library of America supplies working editions.

This is the third of the Melville volumes. It covers writings from 1852 onward, when the author's brief popularity with the American reading public faded, as his work became more metaphysical and drew less on his early sea adventures. Melville's career itself has something of the romantic novel about it, darkening into later-life tragedy. He was born into a prosperous and patrician New York family. But Melville's father was ruined, and the young Herman was obliged to leave school at 15. At 20, he escaped to sea--the experience that was to be his "Harvard and Yale." Out of this came a string of vivid nautical tales. In the late 1840s, he fell in with Hawthorne, and embarked on a more ambitious phase of his writing career. "Moby Dick," his masterpiece, is the transitional work combining the strengths of first-hand knowledge of the sea and literary complexity. It was followed in 1852 by "Pierre; or the Ambiguities," the first selection here.

Contemporary readers found "Pierre" difficult and absurd. The hero, a limp idealist, is tormented by the conflicting demands of two women and two ethical systems. He resolves his problems most impractically by incest, murder and a final double suicide in the death cell. When "Pierre" was submitted to its English publisher (who had lost heavily on Melville's previous fiction) he accepted it only if it were altered by "a judicious literary friend" (of the publisher's), so as to make it "understood by the great mass of readers." That was a crass suggestion. But I suspect that even today, the great mass of readers have some difficulties with "Pierre's" ambiguities.

"Israel Potter" (1855) is more accessible. It is the story of beggar who lives an insignificant life on the sidelines of the great revolutionary upheavals of the late 18th Century, witnessing but not understanding the transformations of his world. Oblique perspectives fascinated Melville. The other major novel offered here is "The Confidence Man," published in 1857. A ship-of-fools fable,, set on a steamer plying from St. Louis to the auction blocks of New Orleans, it dissects the "confidence" (that is, delusions and deception) on which American capitalism is founded. It is another difficult novel, written at a period when Melville had evidently despaired of being read by more than a handful. For the last 30 years of his life, he lapsed into virtual silence.

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