Herman Melville: The Piazza

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My gut instinct tells me that Herman Melville’s short story “The Piazza” will end up being my favorite short story from my Deal Me In 2014 project.  I chose it when I drew the Ace of Spades this week.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Last year, I read Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick and was swept away by his tale of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of his white whale nemesis.  In the novel, Melville always took me by surprise when he would mention something specifically American – such as  comparing a whale’s stomach to the Kentucky Mammoth Caves.  The international aspect of the story was so compelling that I sometimes forgot I was reading an American author and an American novel.

Herman Melville

Even with no sea adventure, “The Piazza” has a similar effect; however, it’s almost the opposite.  An unnamed narrator (Melville, himself, perhaps)moves to a secluded home on a New England mountainside.  Immediately,  he remedies the problem of a non-existent piazza.  The majority of the story takes place from this new piazza as the narrator views the landscape surrounding his home.  He doesn’t simply describe his surroundings but imagines them through the lens of his well-read and well-traveled mind.  Much of the American characteristics of this geography gets melded together with the South Seas, Shakespeare, Homer and Milton.

At one point, his eye catches a small house on another mountainside.  I loved his musings as he notices it:

…the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail.

When the New England weather ceased being advantageous in viewing the cottage, his thoughts go this way:

…wishfully I gazed off towards the hills; but in vain.  Either troops of shadows, and imperial guard, with slow pace and solemn, defiled along the steeps, or, routed by pursuing light, fled broadcast from east to west – old wars of Lucifer and Michael; or the mountains, though unvexed by these mirrored sham fights in the sky, had an atmosphere otherwise unfavorable…

The narrator eventually leaves his piazza for a small trip that results in an unusual encounter, but this story will continue to amaze me for the manner in which I was whisked into someone’s world simply by the imaginings of his landscape.  Melville is a master.

 

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3 responses to “Herman Melville: The Piazza

  1. Great post, Dale! Makes me want to read this (again?). In 1992 I checked out a book from the library with this story, The Encantadas, Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno in it. I assume I read them all but don’t remember The Piazza. (I re-read Benito six months ago – I KNOW I read that one – and was shocked at how little I remembered.) my memory has improved now that I’m also blogging about most of my reading, but how many old reads are forgotten (or maybe overwritten to make room for new reading memories). Didn’t mean to get all philosophical on you there. Glad you really enjoyed the one. Was it long like the others I remember?

    • Jay,
      My copy has all of those stories plus Billy Budd. The Piazza, I think, is the shortest of the four “shorter” stories – 12 pages. The other three are also on my list. Occasionally, I read a book that I know I read a long time ago and it seems brand new. Or else something familiar pops up that was completely blocked out of my mind. That’s how Johnny Tremain was when I re-read it a few years ago. Your idea about making room for new reading memories is a good one!
      -Dale

  2. Pingback: Deal Me In – Week 24 Wrap Up | Bibliophilopolis

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