Authors really have a hard time avoiding the fact their stories nearly always mirror their most closely guarded personal concerns. But the writers who care deepest about the messages they're sending are usually the hardest hit. "Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories"--a Penguin Classic pairing of both well-known and comparatively obscure short stories by America's ultimate "writer's writer"--details the immense artistry, messianic eccentricity and wounded vanity of a deeply troubled man who toiled--unsung, ridiculed--long before his time ever could have come.
This particular collection, refracted as it is by a heartfelt introduction by contemporary American author Frederick Busch, highlights both author and character in alienated reserve in the well-known "Bartleby, Scrivener"; exhibits the writer's knowing infatuation with the great satires of Swift and allegories of Milton in "The Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids" and "The Encantadas"; his obsession with the interplay of virtue and pragmatism in "Billy Budd, Sailor"; and reveals even prophetic intonations in a story about race, "Benito Cereno." Some seem little more than amusing studies, but even the least in this collection testifies to Melville's eternal ability to astonish and take your breath clean out of your body. Indeed, Melville's shorter work reveals just how far he was from the day's critical appraisal of him as an unsuccessful writer of mere adventures that simply didn't fit the bill.
"I would prefer not to," Bartleby, a lawyer's scrivener who ostensibly is hired to copy--by hand--the long-winded motions, quotidian depositions and byzantine judgments that pass through a New York corporate law office, tells his employer when he's needed to fill his role as a drafthorse of a copyist. While he's otherwise a model employee--nearly perfect handwriting, implacably accurate, always on time, never blotches the page, devoid of the scurrilous habits of his two oddball coworkers--Bartleby nevertheless stands out like a mythical portrait of Thoreau, cast upon the 19th Century urban business world, a conscientious objector, civil disobedient, a taciturn young man who, for unknown reasons, has chosen to literally step out of this world without leaving the office. Regardless of his employer's kindhearted attempts to convince Bartleby to "get with the program," Bartleby's unspoken show of both defiance and questionable sanity should tell us that, even then, individual sovereignty was being held hostage at the office.
This archetypically American conflict between ideals of freedom and practicalities of work--one more fully covered by the likes of Europeans such as Kafka, Sartre and Beckett, perhaps due to American considerations of "market forces"--is pallid in comparison to an epic tale of piracy and mutiny told in "Benito Cereno." An encounter in the South Seas between an American clipper and a wayward, sail-shorn Spanish slave galley--ostensibly a story of rescue--in the end turns into a timeless assessment of pan-Atlantic political and cultural affairs, and of the hypocricy of a young democracy's dependence on the slave trade. The ancient Mediterranian powers--Spain and the Catholic Church (itself a subject of widespread controversy in Melville's America...)--serving as puppets for those in the Third World who are determined to choose death before they lose their liberty in the service of commercial interests...well, imagine that! Did Melville ever feel himself a slave to the interests of literary commerce? Could he have been speculating on the ultimate fate of one of those Old World entanglements the nation midway through its first century obsessed over?
Like many American transcendentalists of the day, literary executors who found the world upon a doorstep, Melville's writing often takes a turn to the avant-garde as he stretches his themes--and the constraints of realism--to embrace much broader themes, many of them pitting Enlightenment bred values with Christian-borne systems from the decaying Old World of European monarchism. Nowhere in this collection is this more evident than in the gentle delight, "The Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids"--a short dyptich that pairs (and obliquely seems to betray some of the secrets of) a masonic men's club with the unmentioned women in their orbit. According to Melville, it's high time the democracy criticizes--rather than continue to play along with--the suffocating heirarcy in which man's role is to have a breezy go at enjoying obscure rituals rich with wine--while women supply the paper upon which to write.
Although Melville, like most great writers, was a real stickler when it came to asking his world to live up to its own standards and ideals, readers can get whatever they put into relating to his stories. "Billy Budd," for example, is one of America's finest adventure tales. You can leave it at that, too. Beyond that, Melville asks if it is even possible to believe that the virtues of character can protect a man from those whose main conceit stems from an underhanded contempt of those very virtues. Even though this era's preoccupation with the barest of bones of very real values that underpinned Melville's times is usually uncultivated and malinformed, the ridiculous paces through which we take our own cultural values do not in any way detract from two important messages about Melville's life and times to remember: first, Melville seems to remember for us far more effectively--and more subtly, too--than many of today's more high-profile commentators; and second, Melville was, more than anything, a victim of the failure of those very values. Had those values been real--even in the mid-19th Century--Melville would doubtless have been recognized as the genius we rever today.