New York: Dix & Edwards, 1856. First Edition. Hardcover. 1st edition of Melville’s first (and only) book of short stories. Original brown cloth, gilt sharp (usually oxidized away), wear to spine tips, lightly foxed, else very good, tolerable for this cheaply made book. Very good. Item #322
Looking back to the American short story’s roots there was Irving’s Sketch Book (1820), the invention of the modern short story, and the first American book that was a bestseller here and in Europe. Then came Poe’s Tales (1845), Hawthorne’s Mosses From an Old Manse (1846), and after The Piazza Tales, there were Twain, James, Crane, Bierce, and O. Henry, then Fitzgerald and Hemingway but this is the one book that touches them all. Its 431 pages are filled with 6 stories. The Bell Tower is a psychological gripper that’s an advance of Edgar Poe. The Lightning–Rod Man is the shortest but it’s of such absorbing invention and depth that it would be a career marker if credited to any other name. The Piazza (the delusions of idealism) and The Encantadas (sketches of the Galápagos Islands) are longer and just as fine. All 4 are half a century ahead of their time and more intricate than most novels, but it is the 161 pages of Benito Cereno (good versus evil) and the 77 pages of Bartleby the Scrivener (isolation) that soar to the heights and stand tall at the pinnacle. Every word of plot, theme, characterization, and atmosphere are fused in an unfamiliar manner that is nonetheless easily recognized as truthful, seamlessly symmetrical, and readily welcomed, but it was all too late for Melville. By 1856 he couldn’t believe what wasn’t happening to him. He’d already decided that mind is to soul as wave is to ocean, and unbumped by the threat of failure, he wrote as brilliantly as he could for as long as someone would publish him, and dismissed his editor’s advice to write down to his readers and enjoy a successful commercial career (Herman was a genius who never realized that money is coined liberty). But Melville’s martyrdom or the ignorance of 19th century readers does not justify why in the 21st century, 95 years after Melville’s rediscovery, this 1st edition continues to be undervalued beyond reason. In many ways it reads like it was written 62 years ago not 162, and I can cogently argue that it’s American literature’s finest collection of short fiction. The 1st edition (which may include 3 printings) was a small one (2,500 copies), sales were slower than bluff erosion (1,051 sold), the publishers (Dix & Edwards) went bankrupt, and Melville himself was dismissed from literature a year later, all these events ironically, though repeatedly, the journey of real art.