(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)
Herman Melville (1819-91) brought as much genius to the smaller-scale literary forms as he did to the full-blown novel: his poems and the short stories and novellas collected in this volume reveal a deftness and a delicacy of touch that is in some ways even more impressive than the massive, tectonic passions of Moby-Dick. In a story like "Bartleby, the Scrivener" -- one of the very few perfect representatives of the form in the English language -- he displayed an unflinching precision and insight and empathy in his depiction of the drastically alienated inner life of the title character. In "Benito Cereno," he addressed the great racial dilemmas of the nineteenth century with a profound, almost surreal imaginative clarity. And in Billy, Budd, Sailor, the masterpiece of his last years, he fused the knowledge and craft gained from a lifetime's magnificent work into a pure, stark, flawlessly composed tale of innocence betrayed and destroyed. Melville is justly honored for the epic sweep of his mind, but his lyricism, his skill in rendering the minute, the particular, the local, was equally sublime.
About Herman Melville
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. When his father died, he was forced to leave school and find work. After passing through some minor clerical jobs, the eighteen-year-old young man shipped out to sea, first on a short cargo trip, then, at twenty-one, on a three-year South Sea whaling venture. From the experiences accumulated on this voyage would come the material for his early books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), as well as for such masterpieces as Moby-Dick (1851), Pierre (1852), The Piazza Tales (1856) and Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories (posthumous, 1924).
Though the first two novels—popular romantic adventures—sold well, Melville's more serious writing failed to attract a large audience, perhaps because it attacked the current philosophy of transcendentalism and its espoused "self-reliance." (As he made clear in the savagely comic The Confidence Man (1857), Melville thought very little of Emersonian philosophy. He spent his later years working as a customs inspector on the New York docks, writing only poems comprising Battle-Pieces (1866). He died in 1891, leaving Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories unpublished.
"We are, perhaps, after a century of literary wastelands, able to read not only a personal predicament but a general truth in Melville's blasted islands, bedevilled slave ships, misshapen houses, falling towers, ticking tables, ghastly factories, sickly cottages, and blank brick city walls. The appetite for truth is what gives Melville's narratives their persistent interest and, even under the spell of discouragement, their untoward verbal energy ... Like Billy Budd, Melville when a sailor on a man-of-war was a top-man, at home on the highest yards, enjoying the widest view ... Melville instinctively aspired to the grandest scale, and even in his shorter works offers vast inklings and the resonance of cosmic concerns.