Introduced by Jay Parini
Illustrated by Bill Bragg
With stories like ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ and ‘Billy Budd’, Melville’s short fiction is unmissable. Illustrated by Bill Bragg.
Herman Melville’s status as one of the great figures of American literature is not simply founded on his novels. During the 1850s he produced outstanding shorter fiction now ranked among the greatest of 19th-century American literature. This collection brings together all twenty-two of Melville’s shorter works, from tales like ‘The Bell Tower’ and ‘The Lightning-Rod Man’ to sketches such as ‘The Happy Failure’.
‘Melville instinctively aspired to the grandest scale, and even in his shorter works offers vast inklings and the resonance of cosmic concerns’JOHN UPDIKE
Many of these stories are set at sea, a legacy of Melville’s years of adventure abroad as a whaler and beachcomber. ‘Billy Budd, Sailor’ is the allegorical tale of an innocent young sailor falsely accused of mutiny and exposed to terrible cruelty. Posthumously published and later adapted as a play, film and opera, Melville’s novella is considered by many to be a masterpiece. ‘Benito Cereno’ tells of the crew of the Bachelor’s Delight, who encounter a dilapidated slave ship off the coast of Chile. There is something very strange about the atmosphere on board – what has happened to the captain, crew and slaves? This ingenious mystery has a tantalising twist. ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ is a Wall Street clerk – ‘pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn’ – who one day refuses to continue with his mindless work. Asked to proofread or copy out a document, he gives the same reply: ‘I would prefer not to.’ This tragicomedy, with its closing words, ‘Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!’, is considered one of the greatest short stories of the era.
To introduce our edition, we have commissioned the American writer Jay Parini, author of The Passages of Herman Melville, a fictionalisation of the life of the author. He describes the ‘blaze of energy’ with which Melville poured out these ‘works of superb artfulness’. Bill Bragg’s illustrations echo the strangeness and power of Melville’s imagination.
‘No writer ever put reality before his reader more unflinchingly’
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