This cover of the Melville collection in which I have been reading misleads. I did not get as far as Billy Budd, but dropped out after Bartleby the Scrivener and The Encantadas and The Bell-Tower. With some pride I assert that I can read almost anything, but doesn’t mean that I have to persist. Poor Herman Melville, I just got tired of his company and dropped out.
Some readers complain about Moby Dick. Too long, they say, and too much about whaling. I liked Moby Dick, harpoons and reflections on the nature of reality and all. I was not in a hurry and enjoyed the trip.
I did not enjoy Bartleby. I think I started this one in the past, or at least sniffed at the opening pages. This time I stayed until the end, but did not feel rewarded by the experience. It felt to me that Melville was straining to give some deeper meaning to a very dull character.
The Encantadas were more of the same. These are “the enchanted isles,” also better know to us as the Galapagos. Where Darwin found instruction, Melville found clinkers and tortoises and eccentric characters. These were apparently magazine sketches, perhaps more interesting in their day. Harold Beaver, the editor of this collection, finds more. As he says in his introduction,
Melville had not only been reading Spenser and Darwin, or Milton for that matter, but also Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He is both guide (Prospero, the Enchanter himself) and innocent wonder (Miranda) to whose dreamy sailor’s mind ‘all things of the land wear a fabulous hue’, even Sycorax’s son sharing ‘the dim investiture of wonder”.
Melville’s sketches stumble under the weight of all this literary interpretation.
My final discouragement was The Bell-Tower which I found to be imitative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with an additional touch of Hawthorne. According to Beaver’s introduction, Melville spent his last years perfecting his art and these stories. I think the stories say something sad about this effort: he tried too hard.