The Piazza Tales

A page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville

The Piazza Tales:

The short stories collected in The Piazza Tales are available as online texts

Publishing History

First American edition published in May 1856 by Dix, Edwards, & Co., New York. First British edition distributed by Sampson, Low, Son & Co., London.

Unlike Melville's earlier works, The Piazza Tales is not a full-length novel but a collection of six short pieces. One of these, The Piazza, was written by Melville to serve as a title piece to the volume; the other five had previously been published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine.

There was no separate contemporary British edition of the book as Sampson Low simply redistributed copies of the American edition with its firm name printed on the title page.

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The Piazza

When I removed into the country, it was to occupy an old-fashioned farm-house, which had no piazza -- a deficiency the more regretted, because not only did I like piazzas, as somehow combining the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors, and it is so pleasant to inspect your thermometer there, but the country round about was such a picture, that in berry time no boy climbs hill or crosses vale without coming upon easels planted in every nook, and sunburnt painters painting there. A very paradise of painters. The circle of the stars cut by the circle of the mountains. At least, so looks it from the house; though, once upon the mountains, no circle of them can you see. Had the site been chosen five rods off, this charmed ring would not have been.

A winter wood road, matted all along with winter-green. By the side of pebbly waters -- waters the cheerier for their solitude; beneath swaying fir-boughs, petted by no season, but still green in all, on I journeyed -- my horse and I; on, by an old saw-mill, bound down and hushed with vines, that his grating voice no more was heard; on, by a deep flume clove through snowy marble, vernal-tinted, where freshet eddies had, on each side, spun out empty chapels in the living rock; on, where Jacks-in-the pulpit, like their Baptist namesake, preached but to the wilderness; on, where a huge, cross-grain block, fern-bedded, showed where, in forgotten times, man after man had tried to split it, but lost his wedges for his pains -- which wedges yet rusted in their holes; on, where, ages past, in step-like ledges of a cascade, skull-hollow pots had been churned out by ceaseless whirling of a flint-stone -- ever wearing, but itself unworn; on, by wild rapids pouring into a secret pool, but soothed by circling there awhile, issued forth serenely; on, to less broken ground, and by a little ring, where, truly, fairies must have danced, or else some wheel-tire been heated -- for all was bare; still on, and up, and out into a hanging orchard, where maidenly looked down upon me a crescent moon, from morning.

-- Enough. Launching my yawl no more for fairy-land, I stick to the piazza. It is my box-royal; and this amphitheatre, my theatre of San Carlo. Yes, the scenery is magical -- the illusion so complete. And Madam Meadow Lark, my prima donna, plays her grand engagement here; and, drinking in her sunrise note, which, Memnon-like, seems struck from the golden window, how far from me the weary face behind it.
But, every night, when the curtain falls, truth comes in with darkness. No light shows from the mountain. To and fro I walk the piazza deck, haunted by Marianna's face, and many as real a story.

Bartleby, The Scrivener

I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written: -- I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.

Now my original business -- that of a conveyancer and title hunter, and drawer-up of recondite documents of all sorts -- was considerably increased by receiving the master's office. There was now great work for scriveners. Not only must I push the clerks already with me, but I must have additional help. In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now -- pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.

... I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do -- namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, "I would prefer not to."

I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer; that though at intervals he had considerable time to himself, yet I had never seen him reading -- no, not even a newspaper; that for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall....

Being under no disgraceful charge, and quite serene and harmless in all his ways, they had permitted him freely to wander about the prison, and especially in the inclosed grass-platted yards thereof. And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall, while all around, from the narrow slits of the jail windows, I thought I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves.
"I know you," he said, without looking round, -- "and I want nothing to say to you."
"It was not I that brought you here, Bartleby," said I, keenly pained at his implied suspicion. "And to you, this should not be so vile a place. Nothing reproachful attaches to you by being here. And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass."
"I know where I am," he replied, but would say nothing more, and so I left him.

Benito Cereno

In the year 1799, Captain Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, in Massachusetts, commanding a large sealer and general trader, lay at anchor, with a valuable cargo, in the harbor of St. Maria -- a small, desert, uninhabited island toward the southern extremity of the long cost of Chili. There he had touched for water.
On the second day, not long after dawn, while lying in his berth, his mate came below, informing him that a strange sail was coming into the bay. Ships were then not so plenty in those waters as now. He rose, dressed, and went on deck.

Upon a still nigher approach, this appearance was modified, and the true character of the vessel was plain -- a Spanish merchantman of the first class; carrying negro slaves, amongst other valuable freight, from one colonial port to another.

But as if not unwilling to let nature make known her own case among his suffering charge, or else in despair of restraining it for the time, the Spanish captain, a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and rather young man to a stranger's eye, dressed with singular richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and disquietudes, stood passively by, leaning against the main-mast, at one moment casting a dreary, spiritless look upon his excited people, at the next an unhappy glance toward his visitor. By his side stood a black of small stature, in whose rude face, as occasionally, like a shepherd's dog, he mutely turned it up into the Spaniard's, sorrow and affection were equally blended.

In another moment the casks were being hoisted in, when some of the eager negroes accidentally jostled Captain Delano, where he stood by the gangway; so that, unmindful of Don Benito, yielding to the impulse of the moment, with good-natured authority he bade the blacks stand back; to enforce his words making use of a half-mirthful, half-menacing gesture. Instantly the blacks paused, just where they were, each negro and negress suspended in his or her posture, exactly as the word had found them -- for a few seconds continuing so -- while, as between the responsive posts of a telegraph, an unknown syllable ran from man to man among the perched oakum-pickers. While the visitor's attention was fixed by this scene, suddenly the hatchet-polishers half rose, and a rapid cry came from Don Benito.
Thinking that at the signal of the Spaniard he was about to be massacred, Captain Delano would have sprung for his boat, but paused, as the oakum-pickers, dropping down into the crowd with earnest exclamations, forced every white and every negro back, at the same moment, with gestures friendly and familiar, almost jocose, bidding him, in substance, not be a fool. Simultaneously the hatchet-polishers resumed their seats, quietly as so many tailors, and at once, as if nothing had happened, the work of hoisting in the casks was resumed, whites and blacks singing at the tackle.

Seating himself in the stern, Captain Delano, making a last salute, ordered the boat shoved off. The crew had their oars on end. The bowsman pushed the boat a sufficient distance for the oars to be lengthwise dropped. The instant that was done, Don Benito sprang over the bulwarks, falling at the feet of Captain Delano; at the same time, calling towards his ship, but in tones so frenzied, that none in the boat could understand him. But, as if not equally obtuse, three sailors, from three different and distant parts of the ship, splashed into the sea, swimming after their captain, as if intent upon his rescue.
The dismayed officer of the boat eagerly asked what this meant. To which, Captain Delano, turning a disdainful smile upon the unaccountable Spaniard, answered that, for his part, he neither knew nor cared; but it seemed as if Don Benito had taken it into his head to produce the impression among his people that the boat wanted to kidnap him. "Or else -- give way for your lives," he wildly added, starting at a clattering hubbub in the ship, above which rang the tocsin of the hatchet-polishers; and seizing Don Benito by the throat he added, "this plotting pirate means murder!"

The Lightning-Rod Man

What grand irregular thunder, thought I, standing on my hearthstone among the Acroceraunian hills, as the scattered bolts boomed overhead and crashed down among the valleys, every bolt followed by zig-zag irradiations, and swift slants of sharp rain, which audibly rang, like a charge of spear-points, on my low shingled roof. I suppose, though, that the mountains hereabouts break and churn up the thunder, so that it is far more glorious here than on the plain. Hark! -- some one at the door. Who is this that chooses a time of thunder for making calls? And why don't he, man-fashion, use the knocker, instead of making that doleful undertaker's clatter with his fist against the hollow panel? But let him in. Ah, here he comes. "Good day, sir:" an entire stranger. "Pray be seated." What is that strange-looking walking-stick he carries: -- "A fine thunder-storm, sir."

"Sir," said I, bowing politely, "have I the honor of a visit from that illustrious God, Jupiter Tonans?"

"... Those Canadians are fools. Some of them knob the rod at the top, which risks a deadly explosion, instead of imperceptibly carrying down the current into the earth, as this sort of rod does. Mine is the only true rod...."

"Impious wretch!" foamed the stranger, blackening in the face as the rainbow beamed. "I will publish your infidel notions."
"Begone! move quickly! if quickly you can, you that shine forth into sight in moist times like the worm."
The scowl grew blacker on his face; the indigo-circles enlarged round his eyes as the storm rings round the midnight moon. He sprang upon me; his tri-forked thing at my heart.
I seized it; I snapped it; I dashed it; I trod it; and dragging the dark lightning-king out of my door, flung his elbowed, copper sceptre after him.
But spite of my treatment, and spite of my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbors, the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.

The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles; looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration. --Sketch First

In view of the description given, may one be gay upon the Encantadas? Yes: that is, find one the gayety, and he will be gay. And indeed, sackcloth and ashes as they are, the isles are not perhaps unmitigated gloom. For while no spectator can deny their claims to a most solemn and superstitious consideration, no more than my firmest resolutions can decline to behold the spectre-tortoise when emerging from its shadowy recess; yet even the tortoise, dark and melancholy as it is upon the back, still possesses a bright side; its calapee or breastplate being sometimes of a faint yellowish or golden tinge. Moreover, every one knows that tortoises as well as turtle are of such a make, that if you but put them on their backs you thereby expose their bright sides without the possibility of their recovering themselves, and turning into view the other. But after you have done this, and because you have done this, you should not swear that the tortoise has no dark side. Enjoy the bright, keep it turned up perpetually if you can, but be honest and don't deny the black. Neither should he who cannot turn the tortoise from its natural position so as to hide the darker and expose his livelier aspect, like a great October pumpkin in the sun, for that cause declare the creature to be one total inky blot. The tortoise is both black and bright. --Sketch Second

As mariners tossed in tempest on some desolate ledge patch them a boat out of the remnant of their vessel's wreck, and launch it in the self-same waves, see here Hunilla, this lone shipwrecked soul, out of treachery invoking trust. Humanity, thou strong thing, I worship thee, not in the laurelled victor, but in this vanquished one. --Sketch Eighth

The Bell-Tower

In the south of Europe, nigh a once-frescoed capital, now with dank mould cankering its bloom, central in a plain, stands what, at a distance, seems the black mossed stump of some immeasurable pine, fallen, in forgotten days, with Anak and the Titan.
As all along where the pine tree falls, its dissolution leaves a mossy mound -- last-flung shadow of the perished trunk; never lengthening, never lessening; unsubject to the fleet falsities of the sun; shade immutable and true gauge which cometh by prostration -- so westward from what seems the stump, one steadfast spear of lichened ruin veins the plain.
From that tree-top, what birded chimes of silver throats had rung. A stone pine; a metallic aviary in its crown: the Bell-Tower, built by the great mechanician, the unblest foundling, Bannadonna.

So the blind slave obeyed its blinder lord; but, in obedience, slew him. So the creator was killed by the creature. So the bell was too heavy for the tower. So that bell's main weakness was where man's blood had flawed it. And so pride went before the fall.

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Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

For some time the literary world has lost sight of Herman Melville, whose last appearance as an author, in Pierre or the Ambiguities, was rather an unfortunate one, but he "turns up" once more in The Piazza Tales with much of his former freshness and vivacity. Of the series of papers here collected, the preference must be given to the Encantadas, of the Enchanted Islands in which he conducts us again into that "wild, weird clime, out of space, out of time," which is the scene of his earliest and most popular writings. "The Lightning Rod Man" is a very flat recital which we should never have suspected Melville of producing, had it not been put forth under the sanction of his name. --Richmond Southern Literary Messenger, June 1856

The author of Typee and Omoo, is so well known to the public, that something good is expected by it, when his name appears on the title page of a book.... Melville is a kind of wizard; he writes strange and mysterious things that belong to other worlds beyond this tame and everyday place we live in. Those who delight in romance should get the Piazza Tales, who love strange and picturesque sentences, and the thoughtful truth of a writer, who leaves some space for the reader to try his own ingenuity upon, -- some rests and intervals in the literary voyage. --New Bedford Daily Mercury, June 4 1856

This book is in the real Omoo and Typee vein. One reads them with delight and with rejoicing that the author has laid his rhapsoding aside, which savored too much of Swift, Rabelais and other such works, as suggest that they were the fruits of his reading rather than of his imagination. But this book evinces that he has neither "run out" or been overpraised, for the same freshness, geniality and beauty are as flourishing as of old. --Newark Daily Advertiser, June 18 1856

[The stories] show something of the boldness of invention, brilliancy of imagination, and quaintness of expression which usually mark his writings, with not a little of the apparent perversity and self-will, which serve as a foil to their variance excellences. "Bartleby," the scrivener, is the most original story in the volume, and as a curious study of human nature, possesses unquestionable merit. "Benito Cereno," and "The Encantadas," are fresh specimens of Mr. Melville's sea romances, but cannot be regarded as improvements on his former popular productions in that kind. "The Lightning-Rod Man" and "The Bell-Tower," which complete the contents of the volume, are ingenious rhapsodies. --New York Tribune, June 23 1856

Herman Melville's Piazza Tales, taken as a whole, will not augment his high reputation. "Benito Cereno" is melodramatic, not effective. The sketches of the "Encantadas" are the best in the volume. The opening sketch [The Piazza] is full of freshness and beauty. The author of Typee should do something higher and better than Magazine articles. --New York Times, June 27 1856

The Piazza Tales of Herman Melville ... form one of the most delightful books of the season. Marked by a delicate fancy, a bright and most fruitful imagination, a pure and translucent style, and a certain weirdness of conceit, they are not unlike, and seem to us not inferior, to the best things of Hawthorne. [The Piazza] is one of the most graceful specimens of writing we have seen from an American pen. It is a poem -- essentially a poem -- lacking only rhythm and form. The remainder of the volume is occupied by fine stories.... --Springfield, Massachusetts Republican, July 9 1856

That the Americans excel in short tales, the mention of Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, will remind our readers. That Mr. Melville might deserve to be added to the list is also possible; but in these Piazza Tales he gives us merely indications, not fulfilment. Under the idea of being romantic and pictorial in style, he is sometimes barely intelligible.... The author who "flames amazement" in the eyes of his readers by putting forth such grand paragraphs as the [first three paragraphs of The Bell-Tower] must content himself with a very young public. Elder folk, however tolerant of imagery, and alive to the seductions of colour, will be contented with a few such pages and phrases, and lay by the rhapsody and the raving in favour of something more temperate. The legends themselves have a certain wild and ghostly power; but the exaggeration of their teller's manner appears to be on the increase. --London Athenaeum, July 26 1856

This series of stories, though partaking of the marvellous, are written with the author's usual felicity of expression, and minuteness of detail. The tale entitled "Benito Cereno," is most painfully interesting, and in reading it we became nervously anxious for the solution of the mystery it involves. The book will well repay a perusal. --New York Knickerbocker, September 1856

The author of Typee and Omoo requires none of "the tricks of the trade" to secure a favorable audience for a collection of tales upon which he seems to have lavished even more than his usual care.... "The Lightning-Rod Man" ... excited great attention when originally published in Putnam's Monthly.... All of them exhibit that peculiar richness of language, descriptive vitality, and splendidly sombre imagination which are the author's characteristics. Perhaps the admirers of Edgar Poe will see, or think they see, an imitation of his concentrated gloom in the wild, weird tale, called "Bartleby:" in the "Bell-Tower," as well, there is a broad tinge of German mysticism, not free from some resemblance to Poe. As a companion for the sultry summer months, and a country residence, we can fancy no volume more agreeable: the tales are perfect in themselves, and would each form the feast of a long summer's noon. --New York United States Democratic Review, September 1856

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