"They but reflect the things": style and rhetorical purpose in Melville's "The Piazza Tale".
The lack of critical attention to Melville's style may be a matter of timing with regard to when he began writing his tales. Critically, it is the period just prior to 1853 that has been the focus of most scholarly attention to Melville's stylistic thrusts. In Brian Foley's words, "during the years 1848-51, while Melville's imagination was teeming with new ideas gleaned from his reading, he sought a new mode of expression, one that could encompass a multiplicity of modes" (267). With that backdrop, it's not surprising that Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre have become central works in the Melville canon for examining Melville's stylistic concerns. As appropriate as that may be, it still does not fully explain why such inquiry would not be directed into what is Melville's most mature period as a publishing author. One obvious explanation is that Melville's ideas invite attention. That is, as John Bryant says in the introduction to Melville's Evermoving Dawn (1997), as "traveler, ethnographer, allegorist, humorist, tragedian, philosopher, closet dramatist, psychologist, biographer, novelist, talespinner, and poet," Melville "could speak volumes" (5). Two other reasons are implicitly manifest in Michael Kearns's analysis of Melville's style: "the critics who argue most persuasively recognize that Melville's style has a rhetorical effect that can be connected in some way to his interest in what's inexplicable, ineffable about human experience" (54). One, this suggests that because Melville scholars have historically connected his style to larger metaphysical concerns, we have come to accept benignly this relation without close analysis of the syntactical component in his sentences; and, two, because Melville's metaphysical "ideas" are seen as his most defining characteristic as an author, less emphasis is placed on his stylistic innovations. To these explanations I would like to add one more: the lack of analysis of Melville's style in his serialized fiction between 1853 and 1856 is due to the implicit yet prominently hel d belief that the hermeneutical key to understanding Melville's narrative artistry is best seen in analysis of his longer prose narratives. (2)
If style as a rhetorical choice is central to Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre, then it is worth examining during Melville's tenure as a serial writer between 1853 and 1856. Indeed, from the linguistic minimalism of Bartleby in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," the epitaph inscribed on Oberlus's gravestone in the "Encantadas," to the court documents in "Benito Cereno," it is clear that Melville's concern with language uses, meanings, and expressions continues into his short fiction. For these reasons, Melville's short fiction is worth closer examination in the way his syntactical sentence structures inform an understanding of his larger rhetorical choices during the period 1853 through 1856. (3)
As arguably the most stylistically embellished tale in the Melville ouevre, "The Piazza Tale" is exemplary for analysis. What makes "The Piazza Tale" unique in the context of the other stories in the Piazza Tales collection (1856) is that it was written exclusively to introduce the collection, and as an introduction it anticipates in rhetorical purpose many moves Melville makes in the other tales. By analyzing Melville's stylistic techniques in this tale, we may better appreciate how the syntactical components in his sentences reinforce how he establishes character tension and subverts the narrative voice so often associated with the tales in general. Ultimately, meaning in "The Piazza Tale" not only evolves out of an understanding of the manifold allusions and topical patterns evident in the text, but also in Melville's manipulation of style in the voices of both the narrator and Marianna. (4)
One passage located just three pages into the story ideally illustrates the stylistic excess of "The Piazza Tale."
And then, in the cool elysium of my northern bower, I, Lazarus in Abraham's bosom, cast down the bill a pitying glance on poor old Dives, tormented in the purgatory of his piazza to the south.(3)
The passage reflects two rhetorical strategies central to Melville's critique of American culture. Both reveal the sailor-narrator's unwillingness to confront reality. First, based on Cicero's genera of style, the sentence is grande: ornamental, densely allusive, elaborately constructed, with an elevated diction. (5) "Elsium" and "bower," terms used in classic Renaissance texts (Shakespeare's Henry VI and Spenser's Faerie Queene, for example) and the long, convoluted sentence identifies the style as baroque, a term that connotes not just heavy embellishment, but also the Renaissance period. The style of the passage reveals the depth of the sailor-narrator's Old World preoccupations. In the narrator's equating his farmhouse perspective first to an "elysium," then a "northern bower," and finally to "Abraham's bosom," the sentence moves farther and farther away from reality, as it also regresses in history. Additionally, the sentence is heavily modified, not straightforward or typical of common speech rhythm. Th e kernel sentence is delayed, then interrupted by an appositive before the predicate is completed by yet another modifying phrase. Such an artificial sentence construction parallels the narrator's style of indirect communication. That he refers to himself as "Lazarus" and his neighbor as "Dives," names taken from Christ's parable "The Rich Man and Lazarus" in Luke, only reinforces his unwillingness to confront directly and accept his reality.
Second, the passage also reveals the narrator's preoccupation with material interests. The word "elysium" indicates his perspective is blissful and like that from a paradise. Yet, the reality of his circumstance conveys something different. No elaborate "Bower of Bliss," the narrator's farmhouse is "old-fashioned" with the "deficiency" of no piazza, something he "more regretted" (1). Moreover, if he were in the paradise of "Abraham's bosom," he would be content with his material situation, but he is not; rather, while he "casts a pitying glance" on Dives, he too seeks the "Potosi mine" that will improve his material reality (5). Living in an old farmhouse that admittedly had a least one deficiency, and with a "fortune narrow," the narrator cannot be content with reality; his addition of a piazza to the farmhouse serves as tangible proof of his desire to improve his lot.
In both the narrator's style and his preoccupation with material interests, Melville establishes two characteristics contrary to a "republican" definition of America, a prominent theme in other stories in the Piazza Tales. The narrator's style illustrates his difficulty in clear, direct, confrontational communication, attributes important in democratic public discourse; and his preoccupation with material interests illustrates that he is motivated by economic determinism, not by the virtue of self-sacrifice forwarded by the nation's framers and persistent in cultural discourse prior to the Civil War. Both economic determinism and the call for self-sacrifice invalidate the reality of lived experience in America. The narrator's Old World preoccupations ignore the reality of economic deprivation in New World capitalism, evident in his "narrow fortune" and eventually in Marianna's "fagged out" existence later in the story. And his self-serving material drive lacks the republican virtue of selflessness necessary i n helping others. So it is no surprise that at the end of the story the narrator's meeting with Marianna results in nothing more than his return to the "illusions" that characterized the beginning. The end of "The Piazza Tale" reveals the effect of Melville's rhetorical strategies: he effectively subverts the narrator's antirepublican perspective by showing how it is contrary to the maintenance of community, and in fact leads to its destruction.
I. 1856 Reviews of The Piazza Tales
Surveying the critical heritage of The Piazza Tales indicates today's academic scholars have neglected what initial reviewers foregrounded in assessing the collected stories: Melville's style as a writer. In 1856, American reviewers were clearly taken by phrases such as the one, "in the cool elysium of my northern bower," associating them with leisurely repose on a comfortable summer afternoon. In contrast, today we tend to focus less on the feeling intimated by the style of Melville's writing than on his ideas. A case in point, William Bysshe Stein, in "Melville's Comedy of Faith," argues that "The Piazza Tale" is about "the hero's quest for spiritual regeneration, a faith in divine light that will reconcile him to the dislocating polarities of good and evil in the world" (315). Such interpretations are common in Melville Studies, but in focusing on Melville's ideas exclusive of his style we are neglecting an essential part of Melville's methodology as a writer: his manipulation of style to emphasize his id eas. And no tale in the Melville canon demonstrates this emphasis more than "The Piazza Tale."
Three noticeable patterns of response emerge from analyzing the reviews of The Piazza Tales appearing immediately after the collection's publication in 1856. Although they all deal with the style of the tales, reviewers in 1856 had a difficult time characterizing it. More than once reviewers applied the adjective "peculiar" in labeling his exorbitant language: "all of [the tales] exhibit that peculiar richness of language, descriptive vitality, and splendidly imaginative" quality characteristic of Melville, wrote one reviewer (482). (6) Thomas Powell's depiction of the Piazza Tales in the New York News exemplifies the attitude of many reviewers in the early summer of 1856, just after the collection was published: "magnificent descriptions of scenery, sea and cloud-land, resembles Tennysonian verse" (470). Perhaps the poetic richness of Melville's language was Tennysonian, but American reviewers looked for comparisons among writers in the short tradition of American fiction. For one, Poe was the best associat ion in descriptive power they could link with Melville: "The weird, fantastic fancy of Poe [...] is in reasonable measure shared by Melville" (474). For another, the "mysterious" and "strange" things Melville writes of could only be compared with Charles Brockden Brown (474). Hawthorne, by comparison, was considered more "dry, prosaic, and detailed," while Irving had a style more "elegant, careful, and popular" (474). Melville, conversely, seemed more of a "wizard" (474). Clearly, reviewers recognized that Melville's writing style was unique, but exactly how it was unique was less clear.
A second noticeable pattern relates to reviewer preference. Many reviewers highlighted for mention the stories that still command our attention today. They most overtly preferred "Bartleby, the Scrivener," "Benito Cereno," and "The Encantadas," particularly with regard to the stories' topics. That these stories have maintained importance in the Melville canon attests to how little reader expectations--at least in terms of topical interest-- have changed from 1856 to today. But beneath the surface of the reviews--and important for my analysis here, it is the style or styles of "The Piazza Tale," the introductory tale of the collection, that clearly attracted contemporary readers. Though not mentioned nearly as often as the other tales, "The Piazza Tale" was singularly highlighted by reviewers. Notice the effect consistently described in the following responses: the book "would be an excellent companion for a summer tour" (478); it's "a delightful companion for an afternoon lounge" (478); "each [tale] forms th e feast of a long summer's noon" (482). That this effect can be linked with "The Piazza Tale" specifically is evident in statements made by various reviewers: says one, "All of [the tales] exhibit that peculiar richness of language, descriptive vitality" that awaken in the reader "a deep longing to gaze with him upon the sublime and lovely scenery which his words paint so well" (482). Melville, says another, "proves to travel into the mystic regions of fairy land, that it is very seldom he can be either appreciated or understood" (473). These are all direct references to the narrator's gazing from his piazza into the scenery of the Berkshire mountains and his eventual journey there represented in "The Piazza Tale." The reader's desiring to "lounge" directly parallels the disposition of the narrator, who in the tale chooses a "royal lounge of turf--a green velvet lounge, with long, moss-padded back" to "leisurely" gaze upon the mountains around his home (2).
While reviewers for the popular press often do not read an entire book, that they selected for comment passages from "The Piazza Tale" nonetheless indicates their attachment to the style of Melville's writing. Their comments suggest that Melville's style affected readers on an intuitive, psychological level. Indeed, it may be that the style affected readers in a way that the ideas in the tales did not. Only one reviewer, in writing that he knew not whether to laugh or cry in reading "Bartleby," even hints at the "concealment" motif we attach to Melville's intentions as a writer. Instead, it was the poetic nature of "The Piazza Tale" itself that invited comment. As one reviewer described it, "the introduction is one of the most graceful specimens of writing we have seen from and American pen. It is a poem--essentially a poem--lacking only rhythm and form" (481).
If it was Melville's style that most affected reviewers in 1856, that suggests stylistic techniques might prove important in analyzing Melville's rhetorical strategies today. Indeed, this point is emphasized in a third pattern evident in the contemporary reviews. While nearly all reviewers recognized "a singularly graphic power" in Melville's descriptions, several particularly keen observers understood that Melville's "style" really was a conglomerate of many styles. Of the stories, Powell, in the review already mentioned, wrote, "they are, we admit, moulded in styles different from the peculiar setting of Typee, but that fact only proves the versatility of the pen which prepared them" (470). The reviewer for the New York Churchman echoed Powell: Melville is "remarkable for certain taking variety of style" (475), commenting that the tales lie between Typee and Moby-Dick in stylistic sensibility. In one analytical observation, a reviewer commented that "his style is felicitously adapted to the subject" (476). That even in 1856, after several books in between, Typee and Omoo were still the benchmarks for comparison of everything else Melville wrote confirms why some reviewers either hesitantly embraced the collection of tales or found their style(s) too difficult for reading. "Under the idea of being romantic and pictorial in style, [Melville] is sometimes barely intelligible" was the conclusion in the London Athenaeum (481). The review in the Newark Daily Advertiser conveyed that one "reads [the tales] with delight and rejoicing that the author has laid his rhapsoding aside, which seemed too much of Swift, Rabelais, and others" (479). It is the "rhapsoding" comment that most deserves attention. If reviewers liked "Bartleby" and similar stories, then they were apt to be predisposed to a well structured plot and dislike Melville's "rhapsoding" style. Nevertheless, other reviewers clearly were positively affected by just the reverse: the rich variety of Melville's styles.
More recent criticism has tended to neglect how Melville manipulates style to reinforce his ideas. Stein, previously mentioned, is a case in point. He emphasizes the topical patterns in the text, and how they suggest a unity in "narrative method" (315). This approach to Melville, one consistent with much scholarship in Melville Studies, is a holdover lingering from the reading tendencies of New Critics. For example, in his analysis of Mardi, Ray Browne comments, "In this work Melville is an immature bird trying too soon to fly into abstract symbolism and merely getting confused" (20). Obviously, Browne's comment assumes that formal consistency in a work is important. This presupposition has long held sway in Melville scholarship. That is, compared in terms of a consciously well ordered plot structure, Melville does not fare as well as a Flaubert, Henry James, or Charles Dickens. (7) Only recently has scholarship begun to embrace Melville's general style as a writer and his careful manipulation of character v oice through specific stylistic shifts. Paul Lyons, in a stylistic analysis of Moby-Dick, writes that "Moby-Dick demonstrates how technique becomes statement [... Melville's] style entangles personality, epistemological angle, and zeitgeist in ways that enrich its participation in meaning" (446). To Lyons, Melville's leaving styles distinct demonstrates a coherent methodology reflecting positively on Melville's rhetorical strategies. In reading Melville, these antithetical views suggest a need to revaluate our practices. If we apply Wayne Booth's model for responsible ethical criticism to Melville scholarship, we not only would complicate our understanding of Melville's rhetorical intentions, but also include an awareness of our own critical appraisals of what we value in a text (Booth 8).
II. Stylistic Precursors to "The Piazza Tale"
It is important to emphasize the maturation of Melville's understanding of how style relates to his larger rhetorical aims in the period between 1848 and 1852, prior to the serialization of his fiction. Since Mardi and Moby -Dick have garnered the most attention, I'd like to focus on these works. Mardi prefigures Melville's commitment to a dialogically conceived rhetorical strategy. And Moby-Dick explores the notion that an epistemological understanding of reality is necessarily grounded in the nature of linguistic representation. Both the dialogical and the linguistic are issues that become central for Melville as he subverts the sailor-narrator's perspective in "The Piazza Tale." To start, I want to reinforce a claim made by Paul Lyons: "as Melville's enthusiasm for books increased he became less interested in synthesizing his materials, and more open about leaving literary and extra-literary styles distinct" (445). Thus, while we should recognize that formal consistency in a work is a value, we must also recognize that it may not be the best criterion for evaluating Melville--or evaluating Mardi.
Certainly the seeds for what Melville employs stylistically later can be seen as early as Mardi. Elizabeth Foster notes that the book "freed his imagination and intellect to roam the universe from the silliest custom of man to Dantean heavens, to hobnob with the great writers and thinkers of the ages, to match wits with them and learn to speak their language" (657). Her words suggest just how we should read Mardi: not as product, but as process, something many contemporary reviewers could not do. A review in the Athenaeum called the book "strange," noting that "the reader will be at once struck by the affectation of its style, in which are mingled many madnesses" (Leyda 1: 293). Confused about the resulting "product"--"pleasantry, allegory, romance, prose-poem, and adventure," this reviewer saw the book become "more and more foggy" until the end seemed a "happy release." Once again, such commentary says more about reader expectations than it does about Mardi. An important step in criticism of the book was th e movement away from seeing the book as product, and thus expecting formal consistency. Merrill Davis may have been the first to note that the book emerged as a process of change in Melville's literary methods, but his analysis also recognizes the book's "flaws." Even when the book is praised for its digressions, scholars seem still unable to let go of an interpretive model that expects unity. In That Lonely Game (1975), Maxine Moore pays homage to the book's complexities, but still her emphasis, like that of others before her, is to find "unity" in the book, in her case, one found in an astro-mythological "game." That this desire for unity is still prevalent is seen in Parker's recent biography where the book is depicted as a product of Melville's "reckless impulses," an "artistic compromise" for Melville to write a romance in defense of validating the authenticity of his travel adventures (591). Certainly Parker is commenting as much on Melville's own indecision or uneasiness regarding reader expectations a s he is on the ultimate product of Mardi. It is this uneasiness that would make him see his works as "botches" (Leyda 1: 412).
If Melville himself felt his works were "botches," it should come as no surprise that we too, as readers, should feel similarly torn when reading his works. But the confusion we feel in reading Mardi is not just the result of a writer learning his craft, as Parker, Browne, and others imply; while certainly it is true that Melville was expanding as an author, the "artistic compromise" with which Parker suggests Melville was struggling in Mardi actually never ceases in his writing. If we assume Mardi was the product of an immature author, then we immediately invalidate the clear choices Melville made in keeping various literary styles distinct--Yoomy's songs and the dramatic structure of chapter 180 being good examples. If we accept, however, that Melville's rhetorical aim was intransigence, then we can see the book in a different light. Michael Kearns, in linking Melville's style with his overall rhetorical aims, sees Melville employing a generative model of chaos in his writing. This model is specifically se en, says Kearns, at the syntactical level: "Melville's intransigent sentences display anti-grammar, for instance, when they play fast and loose with prepositions or mix transitive and intransitive senses of verbs" (58). Although his focus is Moby-Dick, the stylistic thrusts Kearns notes can later be seen in "The Piazza Tale" and earlier in Mardi.
Whereas Bickley focuses on Babbalanja's speeches in chapter 180 in showing Melville's "improvisational method" for writing (3), I want to focus on chapter 155 to show a similar thrust, but one that may better explain how we as readers should respond to knowledge or coming to epistemological understanding (that is, as process). I focus on this chapter not because Taji and the others in their shallop reach landfall--that would be looking at plot--but because this chapter contains what may be seen as a template for how to read Melville's use of style later in his later works. To contemporary reviewers, chapter 155 must have seemed like another "rhaposoding" event in a very loosely knitted plot intertwined with metaphysical meanderings, yet here we get the "wild soup of Yoomy, the wild chronicles of Mohi, and wilder speculations of Babbalanja." They not only "divert" Media in smoking, but they also divert our attention away from the search for Yillah, which, as the story progresses, actually becomes ancillary to the discussions between the searching men. Curious about "neap tides" and their relationship to the moon, Media in this chapter "turned over Babbalanja for an encyclopaedia, however unreliable," for an answer. Quoting from an "older and better authority [Bardianna]," Babbalanja refers to a specific chapter titled "On Seeing Into Mysteries Through Mill Stones." That Media knew Babbalanja to be an unreliable source and still demanded the information of him may indicate "product" was not his goal. For Media, the information itself is not so important as the process of its delivery and the epistemological quest for the information. Moreover, Babbalanja understands this. Accused of not being patient for wisdom, he says, "Ay, keep moving is my motto," then follows with the story of "Midni the ontologist and entomologist" (504).
The story not only affirms what Media and Babbalanja know, that truth is an ongoing search, hut it may he taken as a parable of how we should read Mardi itself: as a quest in which the journey means more than the end result. Indeed, as such a parable, it is the story of Midni that points to Melville's rhetorical aims. "Poring over the works of old logicians," the philosopher Midni read often by night, glow worm in hand, "tracing over his pages, line by line" (504). Unavoidably, as knowledge is contingent on factors beyond our control, "glow worms burn not long; and in the midst of some calm intricate thought, at some imminent comma, the insect often expired, and Midni groped for meaning" (504). Here, inextricably, meaning is tied closely with sentence syntax. Unable often to locate another glow worm, Midni "thus forever went halting and stumbling through his studies, and plunging through his quagmires after a glim" (504). What he lamented was that "for one instant of sun-light to see [his] way to a period" ( 504). This anecdote nicely illustrates just how aware Melville was of the relationship of syntactics to overall meaning making. Like the maddening search for Yillah, meaning cannot come from the complete sentence, period at the end; we are thus reduced to accepting only a fragmentary understanding of final product. The focus, then, should not he on an unattainable end, but on the epistemological process in searching itself. Babbalanja's final resolve to stay on Serenia--his attempt to "counsel" Taji to give up the fruitless search of Yillah-- and Taji's descent into the "hell of despair" that consumes him in the end all reinforce the parable of Midni earlier (637-54).
Certainly the passage can be read as not a discussion of style so much as the investigation of an idea. Melville's emphasis on "the works of old logicians" might be like his commentary on the guidebooks Redburn uses in that novel: they are useless. Yet the digressiveness of the chapter away from the central plot, Babbalanga's "unreliability" in knowing, and the unique approaches Yoomy, Media, Mohi, and Babbalanga each brings to an epistemological understanding of reality--all relate to what Melville will do later in "The Piazza Tale."
The remainder of chapter 155, though not as significant here as the story of Midni, nonetheless supports Melville's investigation of style as it reinforces ideas in writing. It is devoted to a discussion of evolution, and ends with Babbalanja discoursing on the virtues of plants versus humans. "Plants," he says, "elegantly inhale nourishment, without looking it up [...] Such nourishment we humans are always after" (508). And, indeed, it is that quest--represented physically (geographically), psychologically, and linguistically--which consumes the men as they search for Yillah. Ultimately, it is the process of the quest that is the essence of life, not the unattainable product itself. Yoomy's songs, Media's revelry, Babbalanja's philosophical wanderings, and Mohi's historiography all confirm this theme.
Here we see the rhetorical strategy Melville will employ later: using varying styles to replicate a "heteroglossia" of voices, a feature essential in America to a republican definition of nationhood. (8) Media and the rest all approach knowledge differently, and that no single voice quashes the rest underscores the importance of Media's decision at the outset of the journey to dethrone himself symbolically. That single act presages the pluralism Melville allows to pervade the text later. Dillingham notes the loss of narrative voice in the novel--and truly Taji is absent from many of the discussions that take place in the shallop and on the various islands; but we must recognize that narrative voice evolves for Melville out of the combination of voices of all the characters. Taji is somewhat a composite of voices of all the others. So while Mardi does not illustrate Melville's manipulation of different period-bound and generic allusions stylistically (seen later in Moby-Dick and "The Piazza Tale"), the novel nicely prefigures in the multivaried voices of the characters his later commitment to a dialogically conceived rhetorical strategy.
As John Bryant, in Melville and Repose (1993), superbly illustrates, style for Melville became a central concern in Moby-Dick. The "historical pluralism" associated with the creation of the text and its reception by the reading public provides a good backdrop to Bryant's discussion of Melville's manipulation of sources (such as Shakespeare) (viii-ix). The novel advances Melville's rhetorical aim of making "fiction argument" by not only contrasting Ishmael and Ahab epistemologically, but by tying that understanding to a linguistic representation. The novel draws attention to the self-conscious, artificial nature of language formation and use. It does not begin with the famous words, "Call me Ishmael" in chapter one; instead, the reader is first ushered into an "Etymology" section "(supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)," where the definition of "whale" is given from both Webster's and Richardson's dictionaries (xv). Then, an "Extracts" section, "(Supplied by a Sub Sub Librarian)," provides "what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied and sung of Leviathan, by many nations and generations, including our own" (xvii). The prefatory remarks to these sections--in purpose not unlike Babbalanga's philosophical meanderings in Mardi--are set in brackets, and like the parentheses that surround the commentary just below the section titles, they serve to draw attention to a digressive meditation on the multivaried perspectives associated with "whale"--literal word, empirical fact, and symbolic idea. All this comes before a narrative that includes styles--literary and extra-literary--that stray from the central plot. Taken together, these rhetorical choices announce a primary preoccupation of the novel itself: that an epistemological understanding of reality is reflected in a linguistic representation that is arbitrary.
A dramatic illustration of Melville's understanding of the representation of language and its relationship to meaning is the famous "Doubloon" chapter. Here, while other characters try to imbue the doubloon with meaning, only Pip, "with that unearthly idiot face," resists: "I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look" (434). The other "interpreters" can only pity his attempt: "he's been studying Murray's Grammar! Improving his mind, poor fellow." As Mark Bauerlein notes, Melville's reference to Murray's Grammar is important: unlike Webster's, An American Dictionary of the English Language, a book with which it competed, Murray's Grammar is not as concerned with word etymology as with how base morphemes are made into other parts of speech in contemporary usage. Like the whale itself, the doubloon resists an epistemological understanding. Pip's conjugation shows its meaning is relative to the speaker (25-26). Meaning evolves dialogically. As in Mardi, Melville in Moby -Dick explores the futility in the quest for ultimate meaning. Moreover, while this scene may not explicitly illustrate Melville's growing rhetorical sensitivity to the relation of sentence style to ideas, it does show his understanding that language is the arbitrator for humans in negotiating reality. Ahab, like Taji, is the tragic figure--an aspect of all of us--that must search for resolution, but ultimately fails because human capability is limited.
III. Style and Rhetorical Purpose in "The Piazza Tale"
By the time Melville writes "The Piazza Tale" in 1856, he has matured from a writer exploring the impact of sentence style on meaning to employing period-bound and generic allusions for the purpose of advancing his rhetorical aims in Moby-Dick, Pierre, and even in the serialized tales thereafter. Because "The Piazza Tale" was written exclusively to introduce the larger collection of his collected short stories, and given the time in which it was written, it may reflect his most sophisticated understanding of the relation between sentence style and overall meaning in a text. Written in first person, the story is of a land-locked sailor who, by his own admission, wishes to forgo the reality of the world around him in favor of indulging his romantic ideations in a journey to see Marianna, the perceived embodiment and fulfillment of his ideations. Only she isn't. Despite his journey to see here, his idealism remains untainted, a choice he clearly makes at the end of the tale. Unable to incorporate reality in the form of Marianna's economic plight into his thinking, the narrator ultimately rejects her instead, returns home, and contents himself with the illusion that his ideations were never challenged by Marianna's condition.
In relating Melville's manipulation of sentence style to his ideas, I suggest "The Piazza Tale" critiques the narrator's antirepublican perspective, and in doing so the story critiques an America that had failed to overturn Old World abuses and implement lasting republican reform. (9) The stylistic excess of the narrator's sentences illustrates at once his Old World preoccupations and his unwillingness directly to confront reality, a reality materially defined by economic deprivation. Marianna functions as a New World reality in directly confronting his ideations; her sentences are syntactically void of excess, and her lived experience is one of economic hardship. In the end, the narrator's unwillingness to reform his Old World illusions and include Marianna's reality into his perception illustrates not only the fallibility of a self not dialogically conceived, but also the failure of America to incorporate truly republican reform in overthrowing Old World abuses. Melville's subversion of the narrator's pers pective demonstrates his idea that in a contingent reality, only by reaching mutual agreement through language can we sustain community. (10) The isolated quest for knowledge, as Taji, Ahab, and the sailor-narrator here tragically show, is antithetical to a republican definition of community: it leads to individual alienation and community destruction. Only in a knowledge conceived dialogically, through mutual agreement, can a democratic American community sustain itself.
The first sentence of the story immediately establishes the sailor-narrator's Old-World preoccupations and his denial of a reality that is materially restricted.
When I removed into the country, it was to occupy an old-fashioned farm-house, which had no piazza--a deficiency the more regretted, because not only did I like piazzas as somehow combining the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors, and it is so pleasant to inspect your thermometer there, but the country round about was such a picture, that in berry time no boy climbs hill or crosses vale without coming upon easels planted in every nook, and sun-burnt painters painting there. (1)
The sentence is heavily embellished with several subordinating and relative clauses, features we should identify as characteristic of the late Renaissance period. Several facts support this association. One, the diction is of that style. For example, the word "removed," used in this sentence, takes on the unfamiliar intransitive verb form (I removed) with the antiquated (even for 1855) definition of "to change location." Illustrated in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, the word's primary usage was as a transitive verb with the more familiar definition of "to take away" (I removed the dishes). Similarly, the word "round" is notable for its Old World charm. As a preposition, it is superseded in use in America by "around," but in England the shortened form is preferred (Webster's New World Dictionary). When combined with "vale," the more poetical term for "valley," and "nook," these words are remote, antiquated, not characteristic of a New World reality. And when we notice that the n arrator makes direct allusions to Spenser ("not even one Edmund Spencer, who had been[to fairy-land]), Shakespeare ("Midsummer Night's Dream, and all about Titania"), and Cervantes ("At least, so says Don Quixote, that sagest sage that ever lived"), it is clear he is invested in ideations characteristic of Romance (5-6).
Not only in diction does the style of the passage reflect such ideations. A pattern that becomes evident throughout the tale is the narrator's characteristic delaying of the kernel sentence, in this case by beginning with a subordinate clause: "When I removed into the country." Two other examples from the first page are notable. In describing the house, the narrator says, "Seventy years since, from the heart of the Hearth Stone Hills, they quarried the Kaaba, or Holy Stone, to which, each Thanksgiving, the social pilgrims used to come." And later, in describing a lone tree spared by workmen's axes, he says, "Of that knit wood, but one survivor stands--an elm, lonely, through steadfastness" (1). In the first example, the narrator modifies the kernel sentence with two prepositional phrases, and in the second example with one. Such modifying phrases, set awkwardly as sentence modifiers in front of the kernel sentence, have the literal effect of slowing the reader down with junctures uncharacteristic of common s peech rhythms. The sentences seem irregular, unnecessarily gaudy, and needlessly dense and entangled. Melville clearly wants to draw attention to the artificial nature of language construction. Not direct, the character of the sentence parallels that of a narrator who is uncomfortable with reality as it exists and so does not speak in a straightforward way.
In reviewing the syntactical components in the story, what becomes evident in just a few sentences is the issue of perspective. Just as in Moby-Dick, these rhetorical choices announce a primary preoccupation of the tale itself: human perception of reality is reflected by the arbitrariness of linguistic representation. The language of the unnamed narrator in "The Piazza Tale" is entangled, just as his perception is. So when he says the farmhouse he bought "had no piazza--a deficiency the more regretted," he is also speaking--in a nice representation of dramatic irony--of a "deficiency" he has with viewing the world around him, a deficiency in perspective. And as his baroque sentence style and direct allusions illustrate, that deficiency is not just physical; it is also psychological: he is embedded in romantic ideations that are at odds with his lived reality--a reality, due to his economic constraints, he seems unwilling to accept psychologically.
The stylistic excess of the narrator's sentences is also reflected in the tale's Renaissance allusions. One of the central allusions in the tale is to Cervante's Don Quixote. Coming just after the speaker sets off on a quest to locate what he perceives as a "fairy-land," the allusion informs both the nature of the questor and the reading of his quest. Seeing "drowsy cattle" that "seemed to walk in sleep," the narrator says, "Browse, they did not--the enchanted never eat. At least, so says Don Quixote, that sagest sage that ever lived" (6). Characteristically, the narrator inverts the normal order of subject and verb, placing "browse" awkwardly at the beginning of the sentence. Additionally, the allusion illustrates to what extent he is immersed in the system of values that Don Quixote represents--one also commensurate with the baroque style of his sentences. It can be argued that the narrator is being self-mocking in saying Quixote is the "sagest sage who ever lived." But even if he is, he is lost on just ho w ironically influenced he is by Quixotic values. A passage from Don Quixote is illustrative. In the pitch black of night and hearing the banging of hydraulic hammers, Don Quixote, "fearless as ever, climbed up on Rocinante and, taking up his shield, set his lance" and in hyperdramatic fashion said,
Let me tell you, Sancho, my friend, that I have been born in this Age of Iron, by the will of Heaven, in order to restore the Age of Gold--or the Golden Age, as they usually call it. I am the man for whom all dangers are expressly reserved, and grand adventures, and brave deeds. I, let me say once more, am the man destined to resurrect the Knights of the Round Table, the twelve Peers of France and the Nine Worthies, and the man who will make the world forget the Platirs, the Olivantes and Tirants, the Phoebuses and Belianises, and the whole mob of once famous knights errant, by accomplishing such extraordinary things, in this Age in which I find myself, such wonders, such feats of arms, that they will forever darken the brightest of theirs. (103)
What is conjured by Quixote here--in the grande style replicated by Melville's sailor-narrator--is a dissatisfaction with a world where the self is becoming liberated from the constraints of an historically conceived, static order of existence." It is this fact that makes the episode of Quixote freeing the galley slaves so ironic; saying that "it is [his] obligation as a knight errant to intervene" on behalf of those held against "their own free will," Quixote believes he is acting in accordance with the mandates of chivalry: "I have no choice but to undo compulsion and give aid and assistance to all sufferers" (120). What Quixote doesn't understand is that just as he is operating on "the will of Heaven," so is the system of justice under which the criminals were being held. The result, of course, is that although Quixote frees the criminals, thus literally showing the liberation of the individual from past constraints in the Age of Iron, he feels he is fulfilling a code of conduct mandated by the Age of Gold .
The lack of self-recognition on the part of Don Quixote is what makes the novel as a whole so humorous, and it is this same quality that makes "The Piazza Tale" so tragic. Like Quixote, the narrator in "The Piazza Tale" is consumed with a desire to escape to a world where there is permanence. (12) William Stein has noted that the hero may be "enamored" by "Spenser's world of imperishable forms" (324). Like Don Quixote, he is certainly consumed with Romance. As his interest grows in the gleam on the mountain that will be the object of his quest, he immerses himself in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream: "Day after day, now, full of interest in my new discovery, what time I could spare from reading Midsummer Night's Dream, and all about Titania, wishfully I gazed off toward the hills" (5). The exchange between his already idealized ideations and the play tend to exacerbate his longing for other worldliness. His obsession seems consistent with what we know Melville considered Quixoticism. In a passing commen t in a letter, Melville noted the strange behavior of a Quixotic friend: he had "Puritanical energy," "preposterous" ideas, and a "resolve" to see his goal to the end (Leyda 1: 549). Significant, though not overtly apparent, is that such a quest is futile because no matter how resolved one is, the combination of a single-minded zeal with a preposterous idea will inevitably lead to failure in the face of reality--see Taji and Ahab.
As the style of his sentences show, the narrator is deeply embedded in Old-World preoccupations and unwilling to accept his lived reality. But exactly what his perception of reality is has caused disagreement. Stein believes the narrator is unsettled in the "polarities of good and evil in the world," and in his "unfaith" and "skepticism" he feels discomfited by the "chaos and impermanence of history" (324). Dillingham sees the narrator as suffering from severe "weariness," an "emotional crisis" that can essentially be described as depression (321). Helmbrecht Breinig believes that this prototypical Melvillian protagonist simply lacks a secure faith in God (274). Judith Slater, like others, sees the narrator suffering from an "emotional equilibrium" upset by the realization that evil is at the core of existence (278). John Seelye seems to believe he is just bored or susceptible to fantasy (24). While all these views have some merit, that the exact cause of the narrator's dissatisfaction with reality may be so mething different, something more economic in nature, is exemplified by an analysis of the following passage:
The house was wide--my fortune narrow; so that, to build a panoramic piazza, one round and round, it could not be--although, indeed, considering the matter by rule and square, the carpenters, in the kindest way, were anxious to gratify my furthest wishes, at I've forgotten how much a foot. (2)
This passage ideally fuses the exorbitant style of the first-person narrator with a topical pattern that has not been the focus of scholarship: economic circumstance. Ironically, the stylistic "wealth" of this passage, in all its denseness, is inconsistent with the narrator's lived economic reality. The dash between the first two clauses syntactically illustrates the semantic gulf between the narrator's desires and his economic circumstance. That "the house was wide" reflects the "wide" idealism associated with his placing there a piazza "round and round"--language indicative of the Old World charm seen by contemporary reviewers. Conversely, because of his "narrow" financial means, he is restricted in meeting his ideals. The result is a practical compromise that also has psychological implications: it is the feeling of economic restriction that motivates his eventual quest to the fairyland he perceives in the mountains. This psychological compromise is further illustrated in the syntactical arrangement of the sentence. Characteristic of the narrator, the main idea is subordinated to a number of conflicting thoughts, ones reflected by the various prepositional phrases and relative clauses evident in the passage. Not only is he disconsolate at not having the means to build an elaborate piazza, but he also feels the pangs of having to pay carpenters who seem ready to manipulate him for more money.
The conflation of the narrator's exorbitant style with allusions to the narrator's economic circumstance are spread throughout the tale. First evidence of the narrator's economic situation comes quite early in the story. Exactly why the narrator moved into the country to "occupy an old-fashioned farmhouse" is not clear (1). What is clear is that he didn't like the fact that it hadn't a piazza. At first he tries to do without one:
During the first year of my residence, the more leisurely to witness the coronation of Charlemagne [the mountain to the north of his farmhouse] (weather permitting, they crown him every sunrise and sunset), I chose me, on the hill-side bank near by, a royal lounge of turf. (2)
The style is characteristic of the narrator. The sentence beginning with a prepositional phrase is not unusual, but to delay the acting subject with two modifying elements, one parenthetical, that should conventionally follow "royal lounge of turf' is unusual. That the adverbial "more leisurely to witness" begins with an article complicates matters even more. Finally, the prepositional phrase set off in commas, "on the hill-side bank nearby," also belongs rightfully after "turf." In short, a straightforward rendering of the sentence would be:
During the first year of my residence, I chose a royal lounge of turf on the hill-side bank near by to more leisurely witness the coronation of Charlemagne (weather permitting).
Even the clarity of this sentence could be improved by eliminating the figurative language associated with royalty--"royal," "coronation," "Charlemagne"--and replacing it with concrete description. But the figurative language demonstrates just how obsessed he is with his material reality. Now for the narrator to go without the "convenience" of a piazza for a year, "a deficiency" so pronounced that he mentions it first in his story before his beloved Charlemagne, may indicate that he lacks the financial means to build one. This fact is reinforced when he says it is because of his "narrow fortune" that he could not build a piazza around his entire farmhouse-a dream in keeping with his romantic ideations (2). The result of his lack of wealth produces one of his most realistic statements in the whole story: "Upon but one of the four sides would prudence grant me what I wanted. Now, which side?" (2). Being forced to make a prudent financial decision would not set well with this narrator. ft meant that he had to compromise his idealistic preoccupations of the whole "picture-gallery" all around his farmhouse in favor of just one side. Picking a side wasn't easy; each had its advantages: to the east were the "Stone hearth Hills"; to the south were "apple-trees"; to the west an "upland pasture, alleying away into a maple wood at the top"; but, as the narrator says, "to the north is Charlemagne" (3). By picking the north side of his farmhouse for the piazza, the narrator unwittingly plays into his romantic illusions; he strays farther into an interiority at odds with an ability to communicate with others in a dialogically conceived relationship.
Significantly, immediately after his discussion of where to build the piazza, the narrator reflects on how his neighbor, a man named Dives, "broke" into a laugh regarding a piazza facing northerly weather. In essence, neighbor Dives is a part of the real world the narrator is trying to escape. Again, to him that real world is associated with economic deprivation and a lack of romantic vision. Dives is exemplary of it; he chides the narrator's sense of vision by saying he no doubt wants to watch the "Aurora Borealis, I suppose; hope he's laid in good store of Polar muffs and mittens" (3). But the narrator's romantic vision is not as fleeting as the Aurora Borealis, nor is it in need of home comforts like polar muffs and mittens. In essence, Dives juxtaposes literally and figuratively the narrator's romantic vision. That he "cast down the hill a pitying glance on poor old Dives, tormented in the purgatory of his piazza to the south" is indicative of the arrogance of his perception, a fact consistent with his a ffiliation with Don Quixote (3).
Of course, the purgatory of Dives's world is really economic in nature. The narrator disdains his sense of practicality; this "work-a-day neighbor" is identified by how he juxtaposes the narrator's idealized perception. Thinking the vision he sees is a fairy-land, the narrator rejects his neighbor's belief that "it was some old barn-an abandoned one, its broadside beaten in, the acclivity its background" (5). Of course, the egoistic narrator says such a view is false: "though I had never been there, I knew better" (5). By positioning himself and his value system above his neighbor, the narrator has effectively alienated himself from other people. So it is no wonder he suffers from depression, as other scholars have pointed out; but his "weariness" is symptomatic of a hostility to the practical, daily work habits that characterize the life of his neighbor. He would rather live a life of "convenience," one where he "leisurely" reclines in his "easy chair" while viewing his fairy land (2).
The solution for his "weariness," as he sees it, is to journey to his "one spot of radiance" (4). Again, the nature of the narrator's allusiveness (wide ranging) has given rise to the persistent belief that the narrator's quest is ultimately emblematic of an intellectualism equated with "enlightened ignorance," as Richard Fogle says (91). In this view, the quest is about the limitations of an intellectualism that privileges fancy to observation. Perhaps so, but we cannot ignore the fact that the narrator associates his fairy land with economic salvation. He blatantly says that "viewed through the rainbow's medium, it glowed like the Potosi mine." Once again, as with his other economically charged language in the story, this statement immediately elicits in his thoughts his "work-a-day neighbor" (5). It is important to emphasize that the narrator's illusory perception is also displayed syntactically. Both of the narrator's preceding statements are highly figurative: not only does "glow" reflect the associatio n he is making between the Potosi mine and the glimmer on the mountain, it also represents the "glow" of his fancy with regard to that; and it is the "rainbow's medium"-figuratively-that also clouds his perception of reality. His escape is away, as Fogle rightly points out, from the "hard fact" of daily existence in favor of an "illusion" (91), but the nature of the illusion is economic: "remembering that rainbows bring out the blooms," the narrator says, he believes that "if one can get to the rainbow's end, his fortune is made in a bag of gold" (5). If the questor is a mouthpiece for Melville, as so many critics believe, it is a Melville concerned with a lot more than the nature of artistic representation or the creative imagination of the writer. That he is also concerned with a value system based on the individualistic desire to achieve a lifestyle of material wealth and ease is presented stylistically as well as topically.
Such a view is consistent with the way other protagonists throughout The Piazza Tales are represented in that they are unaware or fail to recognize the fallacy of their own positions. Whereas Judith Slater points to the "doubleness of vision" and "naivete" of the protagonists (279), Louise Barnett calls them "diminished" in perspective, or at most misguided (59). I would add that the problematic perspectives of these characters are seen stylistically in that their story telling replicates their values. In "The Encantadas," the sailor-narrator is unreliable in his depiction of the setting and events of the Galapagos islands: "such is the vividness of my memory, or the magic of my fancy, that I know not whether I am not the occasional victim of optical illusion concerning the Gallipagos" (129). Like the sailor-narrator in "The Piazza Tale," he uses a style that is excessive and language that is figurative. In "Benito Cereno," Captain Delano, after being told that a "strange sail" was approaching, is described as having a "singularly undistrustful good nature" (47). But just as in "The Encantadas" and in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," the reader is immediately alerted that what may appear to be true may actually turn out to be false: "Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine" (47). Why the characters in these tales are so "blind" is their adherence to a value system that, like that of the narrator in "The Piazza Tale," is defined by Old World characteristics. Ironically, wh ile Delano considers himself "republican" in sentiment, it is his antirepublican upholding of slavery, the status quo, that leads to his misperception of events in that story. In "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Bartleby's restrictedness is best evidenced by his unwillingness to go beyond the language of "I would prefer not to" (20). (l3) As the first-person narrator, the lawyer privileges the language and encoded ideology of conformity and submission to a value system dominated by antirepublican paternalism and material pursuits. He controls the narrative just as the sailor does in "The Piazza Tale." Just as submission to authority is established early in the story, so is the ideal of conformity. The office relationship between the narrator and his employees-Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut--is based upon "mutually conferred" language (18). It is a community defined by the worldly business of Wall Street, "remunerative" financial reward, "vanity," and the worldly motto of "the easiest way of life is best" (14). The language is strikingly similar to that used in "The Piazza Tale." Only when Bartleby, a character antithetically defined by his lack of worldly possessions, enters the office community and says "I would prefer not to" does the stable, orderly world based upon "submission" to authority and "mutually conferred" language of conformity begin to break down. Then the central issue in the story is whether the narrator will reform his antirepublican ideas and admit to a dialogically conceived reality. It is upon the breakdown of the office community that the action in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" rests.
What's important to recognize in "Bartleby" is that the self-assured perspective of the narrator is challenged by Bartleby. Bartleby's fate represents the unwillingness of the lawyer-narrator to reform his perception to meet Bartleby's needs. That same unwillingness is evident in the sailor-narrator in "The Piazza Tale." In the stylistic excess of the narrator's language, two religious allusions reinforce the narrator's misguided perception of reality. While William Stein has already superbly analyzed the depth of the religious allusions in the tale, I want to highlight two, interestingly enough, that he does not, for they are significant.
In the first allusion, the narrator comments that the stone used for the foundation of his house was quarried from "the heart of the Hearth Stone Hills." He equates the stone with "the Kaaba, or Holy Stone, to which, each Thanksgiving, the social pilgrims used to come" (1). This phrase is indicative of the density of language evident in this tale and so noticed by critics. Figuratively, the phrase has a whole system of associations attached to it. Stein has adroitly noticed that "the Kaaba" is associated with Muslim piety, that "for the spiritual life of the Moslem remains incomplete until, on his day of Thanksgiving, he discharges the vow of a pilgrimage to Mecca in order to kiss the Kaaba and worship on the Hill of Mercy" (316). Such an act of piety forgoes his or her "self-indulgence." The association is an apt parallel to our questor. He believes piety is best done from "an easy chair" and that the piazza replaces dedicated worship, as was done in "cathedrals of those [past] ages" (2). Furthermore, he is self-indulgent, believing salvation for him lies in the 'Potosi mine" that is his fairy land.
What is further--and significantly--conjured in our questor' s language is his use of the words "social" and "thanksgiving." In American Puritan tradition, days of fast and thanksgiving were enormously important social occasions. On those days, entire communities would come together to hear a minister preach a jeremiad. In social terms, the importance of this event is emphasized by the belief that on the first nationally declared fast day in American history, July 20, 1775, more than two million colonists went to church. Of course, such a ritual of social bonding is foreign to the narrator in "The Piazza Tale." He is characterized by his alienation from others, his extreme isolation. And "fast"ing, in both the sense of community ritual and what Stein calls the act of "self-abnegation," is not consistent with the narrator's value system. Thus it is no surprise that in the second major religious reference, he forgoes fasting for the journey.
At the critical point in the story when the narrator initiates his quest, he comments that "further than to reach fairy-land, it must be voyaged to, and with faith" (6). Indeed, but it is not a faith consistent with Christian values that the narrator understands the terms of his journey. In fact, his act of leaving takes him farther away from the true source of his salvation: cordial relations with his "work-a-day" neighbors. Gathering himself together, rejecting the "convalescing" he was undergoing at home, he "cast off the fast," and ventured forth (6). Of course, he was not fasting in the Christian sense; no, his sense of fasting meant a deprivation from his fairy land. Such a conflation of religious terminology with his romantic ideations typifies his behavior and language use throughout the story.
Up to this point in the story, the narrator has indulged in baroque language indicative of an ethos inconsistent with his own lived reality of economic constraint. The question now is whether Marianna will truly "reflect" his ideations and satisfy them. Louise Barnett has noticed that speech in many of the Piazza Tales moves toward silence "because experience is too horrific or incomprehensible to find expression in words" (59). Articulated another way, we see the confrontation of different characters, represented stylistically, as the stories move on. "Bartleby, the Scrivener" clearly offers the most obvious confrontation between characters represented differently by their use of language. While the lawyer-narrator dominates the speech acts in the story, Bartleby ("I would prefer not") offers linguistic minimalism. The same pattern in the contrast between the sailor-narrator and Marianna plays out in "The Piazza Tale." While the speech of the narrator is characterized by long, convoluted sentences, the spee ch of Marianna is characteristically just the opposite: short and straightforward, as I will show. In "The Piazza Tale," the narrator describes an "inland voyage to fairy-land" (empirically, a gleam of light he sees on a mountain off in the distance). Convinced this "fairy-land is his "Potosi mine," the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, he sets out in high hopes. Once he meets with Marianna, that Titania of his fantasy, she serves to confront his romantic ideas. Just as Dulcinea is not the beautiful and genteel damsel whom Don Quixote meets, neither is Marianna what the narrator in "the Piazza Tale" envisions. It is important to keep in mind exactly what he did expect: economic salvation. The narrator's emotional response to Marianna's condition demonstrates just how his "Potosi mine" fantasy eschewed reality. He describes Marianna as a "lonely girl, sewing at a lonely window" (8). Sadly, Marianna's humanity is compromised by the symbolism with which the narrator has imbued her. Materially dep rived and lonely, Marianna seems much like the sailor-questor, but there are important differences.
Unlike the narrator's sentence style, Marianna's is not baroque. Typically, her sentences are more straightforward and direct. For example, Marianna mentions looking off in the distance and seeing what seems like a beautiful home, ironically his: "I have often wondered who lives there, but it must be some happy one; again this morning I was thinking so" (9). The sentence begins with the acting subject, not a modifying clause or phrase as is characteristic of the narrator's sentences. Though not stylistically excessive, Marianna's sentences do display elements that link her wishful thinking to the narrator's. The last independent clause contains inverted word order, and this inversion is characteristic of her expressions throughout this section. She also gives passing shadows the name of a dog, Tray, paralleling the narrator's illusory perception of the gleam of light he saw in the mountains. She, like the narrator, has dreams of something better.
Yet unlike the narrator who ventures off in search for his "Potosi mine," Marianna accepts her physical restrictedness. She realizes to "once get to yonder house, and but look upon whoever the happy being is that lives there" is a "foolish thought" (12). Her story is not of castles and bags of gold, but of how she and her brother were orphans and lived a piteous existence. Hers is a world best characterized by the drudgery of daily toil. Her brother works endlessly, "fagged out" often from work, presumably as a coal miner (9). Marianna's reality situates her as a victim in the story, and this role is reinforced by her being the recipient of the narrator's visit. The impetus for reformation in the story is with the narrator: he is the questor, and he knows the truth about the "yonder house." The question is whether he will actively engage such reformation or retreat into his illusions.
Ironically, while both Marianna and the narrator suffer from the same pain, they manifest different reactions to it. They both are products of an America that encourages desire, yet rejects charity. Melville's concern with the disparity between the rhetoric of promise bequeathed by the nation's framers and the reality of economic deprivation is evident throughout his 1850s fiction. A case in point is the Coulters in "Poor Man's Pudding, Rich Man's Crumbs." Their reality more than impinges on the Old World lifestyle of the narrator, Blandmour, and Squire Teamster, but the narrator's decision to leave without compensating Dame Coulter shows that those in wealth and status--though they recognize social and economic inequities--are not willingly going to participate in their reform. Thus we are left with an understanding of the distance between the two perspectives represented in "Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs" (the narrator's and the Coulters'): one is able to transfer an Old-World paternalistic econ omic system, blessed by the rhetoric of the Revolution, onto the contemporary realities of I 850s America, while the other is able to participate only in the ideals of the Revolution by having "hope" in a better day. So it is apt when the narrator says upon leaving the Coulters that
the American poor suffer more in mind than the poor of any other people in the world. Those peculiar social sensibilities nourished by our peculiar politicat principles, while they enhance the true dignity of a prosperous American, do but minister to the added wretchedness of the unfortunate; first, by prohibiting their acceptance of what little random relief charity may offer; and, second, by furnishing them with the keenest appreciation of the smarting distinction between their ideal of universal equality and their grind-stone experience of the practical misery and infamy of poverty. (296)
In "keenest appreciation" and "smarting distinction," the narrator appropriately illustrates the rigidity of the means which separate classes in American society. Here in a nutshell is one of Melville's boldest pronouncements showing the hypocrisy of an illusory rhetoric of promise and the reality of economic deprivation in America.
Both Marianna and the narrator in "The Piazza Tale" suffer like the Coulters do. Yet what is problematic is that the narrator proactively quests, and in doing so he must bear more responsibility than Marianna for altering his misguided illusions--and hers. She functions like Bartleby and Hunilla in other stories contained in the Piazza Tales. In each, the narrators would like to impose their realities on others, but in each case the objects of their imposition do not reciprocate. Instead, they tend to challenge the protagonists' perceptions. In "Bartleby, the Scrivener," the narrator's initial reaction to Bartleby's refusal to work is one of shock: "rallying my stunned faculties [.... ,] it occurred to me that my ears deceived me" (20). Yet instead of dealing with Bartleby, he ignored the situation, saying, "But my business hurried me" (21). His business, predictably, is worldly material affairs. The dominant word used in that story to describe Bartleby is "strange." It too is the dominant word used by the n arrator in "The Encantadas" to describe Hunilla's story of being left on an island (152). And it is the way the narrator in "The Piazza Tale" describe's Marianna's words: "Yours are strange fancies, Marianna," he says. Actually, because the strange fancies are the narrator's, when Marianna says, "They but reflect the things," only the questor himself loses its meaning (10).
At the end of the story, the narrator resists a dialogically conceived definition of self. Confronted with Marianna's plight, the narrator seems to have only two options at the end: in a truly republican act, he could try to help Marianna, and thus commit to changing his perception of reality, or he could retreat back into his romantic, Old-World ideations. That her condition made him "mute" signals his inability linguistically to bridge the gap between him and her (9). He tries to communicate, but wishes not to understand her perspective. Though he's been confronted with a reality that more than impinges on his romantic ideations, he still doesn't recognize that in her is a lesson. Instead, he goes home still willing to accept illusion: "I stick to my piazza" (12). Marianna's disillusionment with her world should affect the narrator like a mirror becoming clear from steam. Earlier, when the narrator says, "even in the common world, the soil, close up to farmhouses, as close up to pasture rocks, is, even tho ugh untended, ever richer than it is a few rods off--such gentle, nurturing heat is radiated there," he fails to grasp the fact that his salvation, human salvation, rests not in an external quest for romantic dreams but in humble, nurturing, active relationship-building (communication) with neighbors. Neither with Dives nor with Marianna has the narrator fostered a dialogic relationship. And worse, though he returns home, he still desires to participate in his romantic ideations.
When the narrator's baroque style returns at the end, it signals his unwillingness to change his reality, despite his confrontation with Marianna: "--Enough. Launching my yawl no more for fairy-land, I stick to the piazza. It is my box-royal; and this ampitheatre, my theatre of San Carlo. Yes, the scenery is magical--the illusion so complete" (12). His emphatic "enough" signals in language a psychological desire not to meditate further on Marianna's plight. Indeed, doing so would affect his "theatre of San Carlo," his willful participation in a material-driven play of his own creation. As earlier in the story, the word choice and specific allusion (San Carlo) illustrate his adherence to Old-World values. In short, he has chosen to maintain a perspective, literal and psychological (represented stylistically), that does not fully account for the reality around him. It can be argued that when the narrator says at the very end, "But, every night, when the curtain fall, truth comes in with the darkness," he has b een affected by his visit with Marianna (12). Indeed, just as Bartleby's death makes the lawyer write about it later, so too is the sailor "haunted" by Marianna' condition. There is, however, a significant gap between feeling psychological pain and proactively altering reality. And this the sailor-narrator does not do. Melville has effectively shown here how sentence style can inform an overall thematic concern. The unwillingness of people to negotiate their perceptions to reach a level of agreement that maintains communal harmony can be as disastrous as the dissolution and utter destruction of the Pequod in Moby-Dick or as simple as two people in "The Piazza Tale" not being able to connect. Moreover, such unwillingness could also lead to the fall of a republic, as Melville shows in "The Bell-Tower." Bannadonna, in Frank Kermode's language, escaped into the destructive forces of myth, just as had the sailor in "The Piazza Tale." Ironically, while the protagonists in Melville's tales may be swept up in "fictio n" of their own realities, the stories as fiction provoke a process of self-reflection in the reader. And therein lies Melville's "fiction as argument"--we must learn not to fall passively, unconsciously into the deception of myth and its destructive ends; we must actively, consciously engage others in such a way that communal interests are upheld, and the republic that America is supposed to be is maintained. Recognizing a dialogically conceived reality is that means.
(1.) Books analyzing Melville's fiction between 1853 and 1856 include Richard Fogle's Melville's Shorter Tales (1960), Marvin Fisher's Going Under: Melville's Short fiction and the American 1850s (1977), William Dillingham's Melville's Short Fiction 1853-1856 (1977), and R. Bruce Bickley's The Method of Melville's Short Fiction (1975). None of these studies considers style a focal point among Melville's other rhetorical choices. Only Bickley's book is unique in that it is a rhetorical analysis of the "techniques Melville experimented with during the four year period of literary reorientation" (xi) that followed Pierre. Unfortunately, Bickley's work does not address the complexity of Melville's style as a writer. Two other works, Helen Trimpi's Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the ]850s (1987) and Carolyn Karcher's Shadow over the Promised Land (1980), are particularly good books showing the intersection of politics and his 1850s fiction, but again, rhetorical analysis in these works locates the loci of Melville's generative power in contemporary allusions. There are numerous articles of distinction about single works within Melville's fiction of the 1850s, but like the aforementioned studies these do not speak to the relationship of sentence style to meaning in the texts.
(2.) John Wenke's justification for his focus in Melville's Muse is a case in point: "I have chosen to focus on those longer prose narratives that most clearly reveal Melville's attempt to marry fiction and philosophy" (xvii). Consequently, he does not "systematically examine" Melville's short fiction. Moreover, the "historical reconstruction" in Israel Potter makes that work "tangential to his study. But he does acknowledge--importantly for my point here--that Melville was primarily an artist, not a metaphysician.
(3.) As the term "style" has a ubiquitous nature (in that it is used frequently, yet is often not even listed in the index of many grammar books), it is worth establishing the context of its use here. In "Nine Ideas About Language," Harvey Daniels writes that style is essentially a speech pattern of choice--informal, formal, etc.--that is a representation of "sociolinguistic rules which tell us what sort of speech is appropriate in differing social situations" (49). For a writer like Melville, we are better served to think of style as a conscious choice employed at the syntactical level in writing for the purpose of eliciting in the reader an awareness of a particular period-bound and generic allusion. As the argument here maintains that style is a statement of meaning within the context of other rhetorical choices made by Melville, we should be aware that Melville alters his style in writing to meet the rhetorical purpose(s) he intends. Thus, when critics note difficulty in locating a central "voice" in such texts as Moby Dick for example, it is often because Melville employs different styles for different characters (such as Ahab and Ishmael). Melville's "voice," then, emerges often out of the dialogue between competing styles. The example in this study is of the narrator and Marianna in "The Piazza Tale."
(4.) Historically, scholars have recognized the story as "unproportionally complex in imagery and symbolism," something not lost on original reviewers in late 1856 and early 1857 (Breinig 254). Interpretation of the tale, indicative of the "ambiguity" so attached to Melvillian scholarship (in more ways than one), has been diverse. The unreliability of perception, possibilities of creative imagination, and a reaction to the European romantic sublime have all been put forth as issues evident in the text. What persists as the most pervasive interpretation of the story is that it reveals a Melville in emotional crisis. Leon Howard may have been one of the first to raise this issue in 1951, but it hasn't lost its attraction. William B. Dillingham states in his 1977 Melville's Short Fiction 18S3-J856 that "'The Piazza' is not primarily a fictionalized treatment of a universal truth but a highly personalized account of an emotional crisis" (320). References to "The Piazza Tale" are numerous throughout Melville schol arship, but for studies that specifically target "The Piazza Tale," see Breinig, Poenicke, and Stein. For other articles that contain interpretations relevant to "The Piazza Tale," see Slater, Barnett, and Donaldson. Book length studies of Melville's short fiction are listed in an earlier footnote.
(5.) While Cicero's rhetorical theory is spread among the great variety of his works, in the Orator he provides definitions for three styles used in elocutio: genus tenue, genus medium, and genus grande. Each style has particular aim suited to it: to instruct, to please, to win over, respectively. As will be shown, the passage from "The Piazza Tale" highlighted here clearly "won over" his reviewers.
(6.) All of the following reviews can be found collected in Higgins and Parker.
(7.) Early Melville scholarship particularly stressed the often inconsistent form of Melville's writing. And, indeed, the implied criterion of evaluation was the need for unity in a work. For elaboration of this perspective many works can be used. Although many others could be cited, I selected the works below because of their prominence in Melville scholarship. These authors listed here all posit unity as an important tool in determining the quality of a text, and their discussions of Mardi ideally exemplify the trend in seeing that book as having "many flaws" (Dillingham 111): Davis, Melville's Mardi: A Chartless Voyage; Stern, The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville; and Dillingham, An Artist in the Rigging.
(8.) Here I follow Mikhail Bakhtin's position in The Dialogic Imagination that the stylistics of language contain a dialogized heteroglossia, one that is ideologically saturated with meaning, language as world view. So conceived, meaning in Mardi arises out of all the participants' speech acts on the journey to find Yillah. I tend to agree with Dorothy Finkelstein's idea that Taji is really a "composite figure," one encompassing "romantic, mythological, and mystical elements"--all the attributes of his other companions on the journey (197).
(9.) My argument presumes that Melville attempted to carry "republican progressiveness" into literature. In "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (1850), Melville teased those who believed in "Shakespeare's unapproachability." He wrote, "What sort of belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature, as well as into Life?" (245). Throughout The Piazza Tales, and particularly in the serialized Israel Potter (1855), Melville critiques America's public definition of self as bequeathed by its framers. Revolutionary rhetoric promised an overthrow of Old World authority, dictatorial tyranny, and aristocratic corruption in favor of equality and individual liberty in a progressive democracy. To what extent such reform-laden principles took hold in the new republic is questionable. For a Melville who suffered through his own family's economic decline, his restrictedness as a commercial sailor, and his subsequent failure as a popular author, a discrepancy existed between the rh etoric of promise as bequeathed by the nation's framers and the reality of lived experience in America.
(10.) Informing my argument throughout is the application of the social theories of Jurgen Habermas. In one of his most celebrated works, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), Habermas challenges a Western rationality, in place since the Enlightenment, that is based upon the Cartesian paradigm of the solitary thinker. At the root of Habermas' s social theory is the assumption--quite antithetical to the Cartesian model--that our consciousness is socially conceived:
If we assume that the human species maintains itself through the socially coordinated activities of its members and that this coordination is established through communication--and in certain spheres of life, through communication aimed at reaching agreement-then the reproduction of the species also requires satisfying the conditions of a rationality inherent in communicative action. (1: 397)
A monological approach to philosophy, the Cartesian model posed certain ways of seeing problems: subject versus object, reason versus sense, mind versus body, and self versus other. Because the model is rooted in a subjective, individualistic consciousness, it denies a socially conceived self. To Habermas, this assumption leads to the radical individualism associated with Western rationalism, an individualism Habermas identifies as anthropocentric, egoistic, possessive, and domineering--all characteristics of the narrator in "The Piazza Tale." Essentially, Habermas wants to ground rationality in communicative action, and thus a central concern of his is how language is used in culture. If we assume a contingent reality and reject truth claims, we then are left with the necessity of coming into mutual agreement through language. Habermas's theory of communicative action provides a way to avoid the individual's subjective claim to truth in favor of a socially conceived agreement in reality based upon people sat isfying conditions for language use.
(11.) In linking the narrator in "The Piazza Tale" to Don Quixote, I argue that like Quixote he is representative of a static mindset opposed to a progress (in the overthrow of history) that is, in America's case, associated with the Revolution and the overthrow of "tyranny" in the symbolic representation of England. Indeed, in this light, the project Melville undertakes in this story can be linked to his other serialized fiction, most notably, Israel Potter. I agree with Bernhard Radloff in Melville's Critique of Modernity (1996) that in Moby-Dick and beyond, Melville systematically attacks Enlightenment claims that posit "the economic enterprise and the atomistic social order of Lockean isolatoes defining modern democracy" (2).
(12.) As Frank Kermode says in The Sense of an Ending (1967), "myths are agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. [...] Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time" (72). The narrator's desire to escape is inconsistent with the conscious awareness that his ideations are fiction; the result, as Kermode illustrates, is that in being unable to confront himself--a confrontation essential in understanding fiction, the narrator dips into myth, as the allusions to Quixote illustrate. The result of unconsciously falling into myth, seen in this tale and in Don Quixote, is the degeneration of social communication. Kermode's example of such degeneration is Nazism and its correlating belief systems.
(13.) Why this story has taken such a prominent place in the Melville canon may not be entirely based upon its tightly bound plot structure. The first sentence, "I am a rather elderly man," mirrors Ishmael's opening words in Mob y-Dick. Straightforward, the syntactical component of such statements immediately encourage the credibility of the narrating perspective, something that the exorbitant language of the narrator in the opening of "The Piazza Tale" does not. As a result, the lawyer-narrator in "Bartleby" seems more honest, and thus more believable. And it is his believable "character" that really makes the tension with Bartleby so gripping in the story.
Barnett, Louise. "'Truth is Voiceless': Speech and Silence in Melville's Piazza Tales." Papers on Language and Literature 25 (1989): 59-66.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Bauerlein, Mark. "Grammar and Etymology in Moby Dick." Arizona Quarterly 46 (1990): 17-32.
Bickley, R. Bruce, The Method of Melville's Short Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1975.
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.
Breinig, Helmbrecht. "The Destruction of Fairyland: Melville's 'Piazza' in the Tradition of the American Imagination." ELH 35 (1968): 254-83.
Bryant, John, ed. Melville's Evermoving Dawn. Kent: Kent State Up, 1997.
Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Burton Raffel. New York: Norton, 1995.
Chomsky, Noam. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton, 1957.
Cicero, Marcus. De Oratore. Landmarks in Rhetoric and Public Address. Ed. J. S. Watson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1970.
Daniels, Harvey. "Nine Ideas about Language." Language: Readings in Language and Culture. Ed. Virginia Clark et al. 6th ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.
Davis, Merrill. Melville's Mardi: A Chartless Voyage. New Haven: Yale UP, 1952.
Dillingham, William. Melville's Short Fiction: 1853-1856. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1977.
_____. An Artist in the Rigging. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1972.
Donaldson, Scott. "The Dark Truth of the Piazza Tales." PMLA 85 (1970): 1082-86.
Finkelstein, Dorothy. Melville's Orienda. New Haven: Yale UP, 1961.
Fisher, Marvin. Going Under. Melville's Short Fiction and the American 1850s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1977.
Fogle, Richard. Melville's Shorter Tales. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1960.
Foley, Brian. "Herman Melville and the Example of Sir Thomas Browne." Modern Philology 81(1984): 265-77.
Habermas, Jurgen. Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. 2 vols. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.
Higgins, Brian, and Hershel Parker, eds. Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1995.
Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. 1755. New York: AMS Press, 1967.
Karcher, Carolyn L. Shadow Over the Promised Land. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.
Kearns, Michael. "Melville's Chaotic Style and the Use of Generative Models: An Essay in Method." Style 30 (1996): 50-68.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967.
Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1951.
Lyons, Paul. "Melville and His Precursers: Styles as Metastyle and Allusion." American Literature 62 (1990): 445-63.
Melville, Herman. Mardi. Ed. Harrison Hayford et al. Vol. 3. Evanston: Northwestern UP-Newberry, 1970.
_____. Moby-Dick. The Writings of Herman Melville. Ed. Harrison Hayford et al. Vol. 6. Evanston: Northwestern UP-Newberry, 1988.
_____. The Piazza Tales. The Writings of Herman Melville. Ed. Harrison Hayford et al. Vol. 9. Evanston: Northwestern UP-Newberry, 1987.
Moore, Maxine. That Lonely Game. Missouri: U of Missouri P, 1975.
Parker, Hershel. Melville: A Biography. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1996.
Poenicke, Klaus. "A View from the Piazza: Herman Melville and the Legacy of the European Sublime." Comparative Literary Studies 4 (1967): 267-81.
Radloff, Bernard. Cosmopolis and Truth. Melville's Critique of Modernity. Studies in Themes and Mot ifs in Literature. Vol. 16. Ed. Horst S. Daemmrich. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
Seelye, John. The Ironic Diagram. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.
Slater, Judith. "The Domestic Adventurer in Melville's Tales." American Literature 37 (1965): 267-79.
Stein, William. "Melville's Comedy of Faith." ELH 27 (1960): 315-33.
Stern, Milton. The Fine Hammered Steel of Herman Melville. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1957.
Trimpi, Helen P. Melville's Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s. Hamden: Archon Books, 1987.
Webster's New World Dictionary. Ed. Victoria Neufeldt and David Guralnik. New York: Webster's, 1988
Wenke, John. Melville's Muse: Literary Creation & the Forms of Philosophical Fiction. Kent: Kent State UP, 1995.
Scott A. Kemp (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of English specializing in pre-1865 American literature and rhetoric at International College. He recently completed his dissertation, "Melville's Critique of America: Rhetorical Strategies in the Piazza Tales and Israel Potter," and has received his Ph.D. in literary studies from the University of Denver. The current article, "'They But Reflect the Things': Rhetorical Strategies in 'The Piazza Tale,' is taken from a chapter in his dissertation.
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|Author:||Kemp, Scott A.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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