New York: Dix & Edwards, 1856. First Edition. Hardcover. 1st edition of Melville’s first book of short stories (the only book of stories he ever got published). Original cloth, gilt sharp (usually oxidized away), slight wear to spine tips, very good with almost no foxing, surpassing for this cheaply made book. Very good. Item #322
Setup first, details to follow. Looking back to the American short story’s roots there was Irving’s Sketch Book (1819), the invention of the modern short story, and the first American book that was a bestseller here and in Europe. 25 years passed while the next generation absorbed Irving’s innovation, then, in a 100–year span, came Poe’s Tales (1845), Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), and after The Piazza Tales, there was short fiction at the pinnacle by Twain, James, Crane, Bierce, and O. Henry, then Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, but Melville touches them all. 6 tales fill the book’s 431 pages. The Bell Tower is a psychological gripper of ambiguous devilry that’s an advance of Edgar Poe. The Lightning–Rod Man is the shortest but it’s a parable of such absorbing invention and depth that it would be a career marker if credited to any other author. The Piazza (the delusions of idealism) and The Encantadas (sketches hellishly reimagining the Galapagos 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’s 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 zenith. Every word of atmosphere, theme, plot, and characterization, the 4 pillars of short fiction, are fused in an unfamiliar manner that is nonetheless easily recognized as truthful, seamless, 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 unthreatened by 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 lucrative commercial career (Herman 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, 100 years after his rediscovery, this 1st edition continues to be undervalued beyond reason. In many ways it reads like it was written 65 years ago not 165, and I can cogently argue that it is American literature’s finest collection of short stories. The 1st edition (that some wrongly speculate may include 3 printings) was a small one (2,500 copies), and sales were slower than bluff erosion (1,051 sold). This is ironically, though repeatedly, the journey of real art, so it’s not surprising, that after one last novel a year later, Melville was excommunicated from literature, failed to have his prose published again in his lifetime, and like so many virtuosos before him, he was never rescued.