Sunday, July 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 96: Herman Melville, The Fiddler (#141)

Herman Melville, "The Fiddler" (1854) from Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose:

If Twitter had existed in the 1890s, the general response to news of Herman Melville's 1891 death would have been "He was still alive? I thought he died years ago." Honestly, I studied 19th-century literature and I'm still surprised he died in the 90s since so much of his famous work was in the 40s and 50s. And I say this as someone whose favorite Melville novel might be his last: The Confidence-Man, 1857.

But though Melville dropped off the list of famous authors, his career sealed by poor sales and negative reviews (like the 1852 review titled "Herman Melville Crazy"), he did keep writing and even got a few short pieces published in the big-name magazines. Which brings us to "The Fiddler," a short piece claimed to be by Melville in his wife's memoranda; and which seems to deal with some of the issues he was dealing with in real life. To wit: "The Fiddler" starts with a poet who has gotten bad reviews and follows him as he sees popular but dumb entertainment--the clown at the circus; and genius but obscure entertainment--the fiddler who was once famous but is now happy just giving fiddling lessons and playing common songs.

So... yeah. Unlike many of my favorite Melville pieces, this doesn't quite reach the heights of weirdness of, say, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" or "Bartleby" or even "I and My Chimney." It has the balance--or ambivalence--that we can find in lots of Melville: we may both feel bad for and despise the egotistic poet at the beginning; and we might pity and celebrate his final choice to pick up the fiddle instead of the poem. (We might as well ask why he doesn't pick up the clown makeup, since the story seems to indicate some happiness even there.)

But at the end of the day, this doesn't leave a very strong impression since it lacks Melville's humor and wordplay.

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