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Like many others, I personally began my reading of Herman Melville with Moby-Dick. Unlike many others, I loved it from the first moment to the last, from sub-sub-librarians and etymologies to the final chase. After pretty quickly becoming one of my most re-read books, Melville’s epic of metaphysics and cetology inspired me to read all of his work—or at least, all of his prose fiction and most of his poetry. As a fanatic, it’s hard for me to accept that Moby-Dick itself is not universally loved, but nor do I think it makes sense to dive into such a powerful author with what is certainly a difficult book—not to mention a serious time commitment. Instead, let me suggest an alternative pathway into Melville, culminating, of course, in the quest for the great white whale.
Resting solidly in “novella” territory, Benito Cereno gives a strong taste of Melville, in particular of his sea writing, in a smaller dose—though the story itself is far from easily digestible. Based on a true account of a slave rebellion at sea, the story is frightening and compelling and contains many of the themes and devices that appear again and again in Melville’s larger body of work. The narrator, a somewhat naive and solidly American ship’s captain, proceeds in confusion and wariness, and the reader’s reliance on him is tested. The author’s extraordinary humanism, never afraid to confront the difficulties of understanding and reading one another, is on mature display, and the style is Melvillean without descending into the flights of philosophizing that readers may be quick to write off as tangential. And his confronting a story that is difficult and in many ways unpleasant to tell is also characteristic. A masterpiece in its own right, Benito Cereno gives a faithful taste of the author and bears any amount of re-reading.
The opening short story in the collection The Piazza Tales is very short, but a beautiful miniature Melville. Here we find him on land, perhaps an unexpected setting but not a terribly uncommon one. And here we have something of the fanciful Melville, a quality suppressed by the seriousness of Benito Cereno. The narrator is exuberant, full of joy at life and the beauty of nature. But this joy is tempered; Melville’s narrators are not often truly at peace. The prose is among his most gorgeous, though not affected or precious. There is both dark and light in “The Piazza,” as there is dark and light in all of Melville, a marriage that creates beautiful art even as it represents deep psychological difficulties for all us humans whom Melville cares so much about. Benito Cereno is dark, even grim; here we are fairly dazzled. And I think this combination makes for solid preparation for the next stage.
By now, if you don’t know Ishmael himself, you will surely know what kind of narrator he might be, and how Melville might use him. You may particularly recognize in him qualities of the narrator of “The Piazza,” and his relentless, loving humanism—always struggling with same—shines through from the first chapters, most famously in his fast friendship with Queequeg. If you liked the prose of the above works, you can at this point be confident of rewards here as well. And be not afraid of seeming digressions. Not only will lovers of the novel insist they are some of the most important parts of it, an open mind will make it clear that many of Melville’s thematic concerns were built and worked at over a lifetime: this is, arguably, their apotheosis. The darkness and the light is just one of these, and readers primed for the narrative will find many more developed here. And if you make it this far, I would almost dare you to stop. The ideas, problems, and themes will occur and recur throughout the rest of Melville’s oeuvre, and his testing of our ability to plumb those issues can seem irresistible.By signing up you agree to our Terms of Service