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Billy Budd and The Piazza Tales

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Largely neglected in his own lifetime, Herman Melville mastered not only the great American novel but also the short story and novella forms. In Billy Budd and The Piazza Tales, Melville reveals an uncanny awareness of the inscrutable nature of reality.

Published posthumously in 1924, Billy Budd is a masterpiece second only to Melville’s Moby-Dick. This complex short novel tells the story of “the handsome sailor” Billy who, provoked by a false charge, accidentally kills the satanic master-at-arms. Unable to defend himself due to a stammer, he is hanged, going willingly to his fate. Although typically ambiguous, Billy Budd is seen by many as a testament to Melville’s ultimate reconciliation with the incongruities and injustices of life.

The Piazza Tales (1856) comprises six short stories, including the perpetually popular “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby,” a tale of a scrivener who repeatedly distills his mordant criticism of the workplace into the deceptively simple phrase “I would prefer not to.”

Billy Budd
The piazza --
Bartleby --
Benito Cereno --
The lightning-rod man --
The encantadas --
The bell-tower --

384 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1924

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About the author

Herman Melville

1,777 books3,728 followers
There is more than one author with this name

Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. His first two books gained much attention, though they were not bestsellers, and his popularity declined precipitously only a few years later. By the time of his death he had been almost completely forgotten, but his longest novel, Moby Dick — largely considered a failure during his lifetime, and most responsible for Melville's fall from favor with the reading public — was rediscovered in the 20th century as one of the chief literary masterpieces of both American and world literature.

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Displaying 1 - 23 of 23 reviews
Profile Image for veazey.
28 reviews
November 27, 2022
(this log is for the first short story from the collection: The Piazza)

"A sultry hour, and I wore a light hat, of yellow sinnet, with white duck trowsers--both relics of my tropic sea-going. Clogged in the muffling ferns, I softly stumbled, staining the knees a sea-green"

I woke up at 3:45 this morning and have been doe-eyed since. Sat at the chair with a cherry yogurt and dove into this fine story, all the while Major licking my hand and incessantly whining. Very sweet structure, reminds me of folk tales I've been reading all semester <33

Grass is always greener, but the grass can be green on both sides! We can appreciate what's ours, yearn for something greater, and respect all that's in-between. <3 good morning America.
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews637 followers
August 3, 2017
The Accessible Melville, poet of the inaccessible

This volume in the Barnes and Noble Classics series contains the novellas "Billy Budd" and "Benito Cereno," the only slightly shorter "The Encantadas" and the stories "Bartelby the Scrivener," "The Piazza," "The Lightning-Rod Man," and "The Bell-Tower." The last six named were published together in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. Billy Budd, his last prose work, was left in a jumble of manuscripts when Melville died in 1891, and not published until 1924. This volume, though, contains what is generally accepted to be the authoritative text published by Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Seals in 1962. While the same combination of texts—essentially the most important of Melville's shorter prose—is available in other editions, this one has the advantage of cheapness and a host of interesting supporting materials. The introduction by Robert G. O'Meally (best read after the stories it discusses) is subtitled "A Blues for Herman Melville" and offers an unusual approach from the African-American perspective. While this is obviously relevant to "Benito Cereno," which takes place on a slave ship, O'Meally casts surprisingly provocative light on "Billy Budd" and even "Bartelby" too. The one slight annoyance I had with this volume is that the notes, apparently by two different editors, are divided between footnotes and endnotes; the latter are often quite helpful, but I found the former more irritating than informative.

Perhaps it is arrogant of me to call notes irritating that explain, for instance, nautical terms like quarterdeck and gunwale, though almost all the words glossed will be familiar to readers of maritime history of any kind. It is more that Melville braids his narrative from several strands at once: the present action, the historical context, and allusions to a vast range of world literature, the Bible, and classical myth. An educated writer, he was writing for similarly educated readers, and those able to catch even half of his allusions will experience a text of enormous resonance. Probably there are few such readers today. But dropping down to a note that says "See the Bible, Genesis 18:1-6" does not turn you into such a reader; it merely interrupts the reading experience with a pinch of knowledge. Far better to bask in the passage that gave rise to it, in this case a description from "Benito Cereno" of "nature taking her innocent repose in the evening, the screened sun in the quiet camp of the west shining out like the mild light from Abraham's tent."

+ + + + + +

I bought this book in order to answer a query about Benjamin Britten's operaBilly Budd, whose libretto was adapted from Melville by none other than EM Forster, working with the director Eric Crozier. Familiar as I am with most of the other Britten operas, this was one I had not studied, nor did I know the Melville original; the score is now open on my piano, and I've finished the book. I mention this because of the light it casts on how Melville writes. Most opera adaptations take all of their action and as much as possible of their language from the source text. But Melville is neither primarily a writer of action nor of dialogue. Forster and Crozier keep the key events, of course—Billy's confrontation with the evil master-at-arms Claggart, his court-martial under Captain Vere, and its tragic consequences—but a surprising amount of the action they devise, especially in the first act, has no direct equivalent in the novella at all. And with one significant exception, little more than occasional phrases find their way into Britten's sung text.

The exception is the ballad, "Billy in the Darbies," which Melville actually wrote first, adding the novella as preface to explain it. It is a beautiful piece of writing, and Britten sets it almost verbatim in his penultimate scene. But it is a more mature, more expressive voice than anything we see from Billy in prose. Melville subtitles his novella "an inside narrative," but his meaning of "inside" is his own. He looks at his major characters at length from every angle and, yes, opens them up to peer inside. Yet they never look at themselves from the inside, and so can never talk about their feelings. But opera characters require an inner voice—something that Forster provided magnificently for Claggart and Vere, both of whom Melville scrutinizes in detail, but leaves as ciphers to themselves. Even the "Billy in the Darbies" poem, an inner voice of a kind, is tacked on as one of three appendices, each viewing the preceding narrative in an ironically contrasting light.

Indeed, as I read through these seven stories, the common feature that strikes me most is the inscrutability of characters who are a mystery to others and most likely to themselves. It is most striking in "Benito Cereno" where nothing in the stricken slave ship is what it seems. It is exquisitely distilled in the enigmatic figure of Bartelby the Scrivener with his repeated reply, "I would prefer not to." It can be seen in the title character of "The Lightning-Rod Man" and the waif-witch of "The Piazza." And each of the three major characters in "Billy Budd" are people about whom we are told all, but barely know inside. This splendid collection makes a difficult writer accessible to readers—but one who raised inaccessibility to an art form.
Profile Image for Alec.
28 reviews
November 15, 2015

Herman Melville wrote Billy Budd for a specific reason: to satirize the “justice” modern society imposes upon its subjects. In society there are often “zero tolerance” policies, which prohibit special cases and favoritism. Everyone knows that, ironically, whenever such a policy is enacted money can be safely bet on the protagonist incurring the wrath of the society for a crime misinterpreted or presence unluckily found. Melville uses all of these instances in Billy Budd, so the purpose is quite clear. Furthermore, a limited omniscient third-person narrator adds an element of insightful detail yet restricted backstory. For example, we know a whole lot more about Billy than we ever do Claggart. This was intentional, and builds on the purpose by upholding the myth (and sometimes unfortunate reality) of people shrouded in power and secrecy impacting the innocent lives of those beneath them.

The theme of Billy Budd is easy to pick out. Melville writes to imply a theme of the individual facing off against a society sworn to a higher level of moral authority. Intertwining this with a judges conflict of conscience, Melville stretches the reader; one must consider what he or she would do if put in the judges shoes. Captain Vere, in this case, represents the “Pontius Pilate” figure. Torn between a law he loves and probably amended to a conscience he cannot deny, Vere is the epitome of an ethical decision crisis. Only throwing more logs onto the fire, Melville also spends ample time portraying Billy’s general innocent nature, which further complicates the major conflicts found in the novel’s climax.

The style of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is not unlike that of Moby Dick. Unlike Moby Dick, Billy Budd goes from start to finish quite nicely, in only 90 pages. Melville uses language that is descriptive and lush, narrating a story rather than persuading a point. The novella is quite short, with a plot developing and ending before one can realize it’s over. The narrator focuses a lot on describing the youthful namesake of the book, using little action paired with liberal amounts of description. Melville utilizes this flowing yet piecemeal paradox to entice the reader, making the small work seem infinite in effect. Key moments come and go, with the reader left to imagine the in-between parts.

I found the novella to be interesting and thought-provoking. This being my first Melville classic (I do know a little about Moby Dick), I went in with an optimistic vibe. His style is not for everyone. I, having read almost all of Tom Clancy’s novels, am no stranger to immense detail and complex plots. However, Melville’s application of such style is not for my taste. While I enjoyed the satire, as I always do with classics, as a whole I would not recommend it to a light reader. The subject matter, along with the hole of historical context left unfilled by a non-history buff, prevents a stronger recommendation. I would alter the amount of exposition, as it is arguably the longest piece of the entire plot structure. Melville should receive kudos for his inventive work, but its higher caliber existentially makes the ranking of Moby Dick above Billy Budd understandable.

Profile Image for Danny.
430 reviews1 follower
August 4, 2015
This is heavy stuff; my perception from historical accounts is that Melville was a troubled soul, wanting badly to be successful like his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. There are in these stories inklings and phrases, snippets and passages that are brilliant (an overused word, but descriptive) and inspiring, and you wish those portions could go on forever. But then some of the narratives seem to drag down piecemeal, morose and foreboding so that the illumination tumbles away.
My favorite in this compilation was The Piazza, a short story that seemed concrete enough at the beginning, but which then slipped away to a dream place, sailing free of reality. I was left mystified at the end when the whole fanciful tale blew away like the autumn leaves. I wish I could be so imaginative.
28 reviews4 followers
August 21, 2018
My favorite short story in this book is Bartleby, but I prefer not to speak about it.
Profile Image for Steve.
550 reviews8 followers
May 5, 2019
Way back in the summer of 1973, I remember visiting high school before entering as a Freshman for some sort of orientation event. I remember distinctly entering a room where a group of older students were sitting around in a circle discussing Billy Budd, and whether or not he should have been killed, and what his fatal flaw was. I was impressed with the ways in which all these kids seemed to have something to say, and intrigued by this character they were discussing. And then - - well, I never read the story until now. And holy moley! It's one of the greatest novellas I've ever encountered. But, wait - this edition also contains two more of the greatest novellas I've ever read. There's Bartleby, which I read a year or two back, and is even richer the second time around, and there's Benito Cereno, which I'd never even heard mentioned before, and which evidences a more complicated understanding of race than anything else I've heard discussed in the 19th Century. There are also a couple very short twisty stories, and one long travelogue about the Galapogos Islands. Melville's writing is beautiful in its details and complex sentences. His understanding of humanity is deep, filled with darkness mixed with moments of humor, compassion, and capacity for suffering. I am finally ready to believe what so many have said all my life, that Melville is one of the greatest of all American writers.
Profile Image for Christopher Rush.
618 reviews8 followers
May 11, 2018
It has been too long since I've sailed anywhere with Herman Melville. I had forgotten what a linguistically rigorous experience it is, so imagine my delight in exploring such divers lands again (no offense to the high school students whose writing most of my reading time these last few years have occupied). We have lost something substantial about ourselves , our ability to understand and relate such understandings of the world through such a palpable decline in vocabulary. Our world is dimmer, poorer. We need to return to this level of thought and expression. Except for the racial stuff, of course. We can do without that.

I read this because I want to use it in my 11th-grade American literature course, but I'll likely skip a couple of the stories. Still, the humanity and depth of Billy Budd, Bartleby, and, eventually, Benito Cereno are not to be missed. I had my doubts about Cereno for a while, but the ending made up for the tortuous path. Much of the Encantacadas is admittedly slow going, but Melville's diction carries us past that (maybe just me). The miscellaneous stories, like the Belltower and lightning rod man, are very clever and will no doubt make for good discussions in class. This is some good stuff, but considering it is Melville, that is not a surprise.
6 reviews
July 18, 2017
Read it a long time ago but some of the stories still sticks with me and I remember it being an enjoyable read, no reason I wouldn't recommend it to someone.
26 reviews2 followers
November 1, 2017
Bartleby is the most beautiful and sad thing ever. And holy shit, Benito Cereno.

Billy Budd itself, boringest thing ever.
Profile Image for Eric Marcy.
110 reviews3 followers
March 29, 2017
Dizzying and complicating. All the collected works here showcase Melville at his complicating best outside Moby-Dick itself.
Profile Image for Erik.
405 reviews35 followers
March 21, 2015
As others have stated, Billy Budd was great (definitely my favorite of the bunch). A few others, like The Bell-Tower and Beneto Cereno stand out. The Lightning Man was cool. I wasn't as enamored with Bartleby as much as others were and I couldn't even finish The Encantadas (which was actually more like travel writing than story telling. Yawn). This May or may not be my last Melville book, we'll see.
Profile Image for Jeni Enjaian.
2,146 reviews30 followers
May 4, 2014
I am not a Herman Melville fan and this book (a compilation of several of his short stories) did not change my mind. Melville's prose is dense. Each story is utterly depressing. Some of them don't even make much sense. (The final sketches on the Encantada Islands seemed to be a bunch of words thrown together.)

I recommend this book only to those trying to read all the classics.
Profile Image for Craig.
35 reviews1 follower
May 15, 2009
Bartleby the Scrivener is good stuff. completely absurd years before the notion seemed to have existed.
Profile Image for Jason Beymer.
Author 3 books112 followers
May 18, 2011
Nice edition with plenty of endnotes and trivia facts. I especially liked "Bartleby"
Profile Image for Marcos Teach.
928 reviews13 followers
July 29, 2011
I liked it enough. My favorite in this collection is Benito Cereno.
Profile Image for J.
36 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2013
Look, I like classics as much as the next guy, but -YAWN-
Profile Image for Russell Hayes.
131 reviews1 follower
December 23, 2013
Billy Budd and Bartleby are good; Benito Cereno is okay; the rest are too amorphous and vague and should be avoided.
Profile Image for Jose.
130 reviews5 followers
April 11, 2014
Billy Budd is tragic genius, the best thing I've ever read under 100 pages. Bartley and the rest are interesting but do not hold a candle to BB.
Displaying 1 - 23 of 23 reviews

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