By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

11. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 355-395

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)The 'Gees; The Apple-Tree Table or Original Spiritual Manifestations; The Piazza
"The 'Gees" (with a hard "g") is an attempt at what might be called humorous ethnography: a piece about the offspring of Portuguese convicts and the "aboriginal" residents of the island of Fogo in the Cape Verde archipelago. Or as Melville explains it, "Some three centuries ago certain Portuguese convicts were were sent as a colony to Fogo, one of the Cape de Verds, off the northwest coast of Africa, an island previously stocked with an aboriginal race of negroes, ranking pretty high in incivility, but rather low in stature and morals." Unfortunately, "The 'Gees" doesn't get better as it goes along. Though Melville occasionally turns a funny phrase, the whole thing is a rather labored and for us inconsequential bit of stereotyping.

"The Apple-Tree Table" is better. While Berthoff is right in saying that the whole thing fizzles out in the end, it has a kind of Thurberesque charm. The narrator buys a house with an attic that hasn't been entered for years and is said to be haunted, but one day he finds the key and ascends into it, where he finds an old table made out of apple wood. It has a round top, "supported by a twisted little pillar, which, about a foot from the bottom, sprawled out into three crooked legs, terminating in three cloven feet. A very satanic-looking little old table, indeed." He also finds "a mouldy old book ... -- Cotton Mather's Magnalia."

He hauls down the table and the book, and after the table is spruced up by a cabinet-maker, it becomes both a breakfast table and "a night-reading table" for the narrator. His wife is very pleased with the table, but their daughters, believers in the old stories that the attic is haunted, are not so impressed. Then one night, the narrator sits at the table and reads Cotton Mather, who "laid before me detailed accounts of New England witchcraft, each important item corroborated by respectable townsfolk, and, of not a few of the most surprising, he himself had been eye-witness." He grows uneasy reading "doleful, ghostly, ghastly Cotton Mather," and then is startled to hear "A faint sort of inward rapping or rasping -- a strange, inexplicable sound, mixed with a slight kind of woodpecking or ticking."

The next day, the whole family hears the ticking, which terrifies his daughters. His wife, however, takes a more sensible approach to the whole business and sets about trying to find the source of the noise, even taking up the carpet in the process. The daughters are certain it has something to do with the table, which the frightened maid has carried out to the woodshed while the carpet is taken up. But the narrator's wife insists that the table be returned to the room and everything put back in order. And for a while the ticking stops.

That night, when everyone else has gone to bed, the narrator sits up reading. He hears the ticking again, but tries to ignore it, remembering a story about how the philosopher Democritus steadfastly ignored the efforts of some boys to frighten him by pretending to be ghosts. But then the ticking stops and he sees "something moving, or wriggling, or squirming upon the slab of the table. It shone like a glow-worm." He traps the bug under a tumbler, and realizes that the sound had been "the bug, in eating its way out."

Unfortunately, before he can show his family the insect the next day, the maid has arrived and thrown it into the fire "and rinsed out the tumbler ever so many times." Moreover, the ticking has begun again. He tries to persuade them about the insect, but his daughters are still convinced the table is haunted. His wife, more sensibly, decides to "rub this table all over with that celebrated roach powder I've heard of," and threatens to "whip" the ticking out of the table, but she settles instead for giving it a good waxing.The narrator likens her to Democritus, but as for himself, "In a strange and not unpleasing way, I gently oscillated between Democritus and Cotton Mather."

That night, all four of them decide to mount a vigil on the table. Everyone falls asleep, but when the baker knocks in the morning to deliver the bread, they awaken and find a "beautiful bug ... like the sparkle of a glorious sunset" making its way out of the table. Even the daughters are delighted with it. They take the bug to a "professor" who tells them it's not unheard of for insect eggs to lie dormant in the wood they were laid in and eventually to hatch out.

It's a nothing of a story, but it's lightly handled, and once again, in the scene in which the narrator explores the cobwebbed old attic, demonstrates Melville's architectural imagination.

Architecture is also part of the essence of "The Piazza," which is about the narrator's building a porch or a veranda -- "piazza" used to be a common word for veranda in New England and the South Atlantic states. His house has fine views from all four sides, but he chooses the northern exposure -- to the derision of some of his neighbors -- because it has the best view of Mount Greylock.
For though, of old, when reverence was in vogue, and indolence was not, the devotees of Nature, doubtless, used to stand and adore -- just as, in the cathedrals of those ages, the worshipers of a higher Power did -- yet, in these times of failing faith and feeble knees, we have the piazza and the pew.

When his place of worship is finished, he looks out on the scene and one day spots something:
From the piazza, some uncertain object I had caught, mysteriously snugged away, to all appearance, in a sort of purpled breast-pocket, high up in a hopper-like hollow, or sunken angle, among the northwestern mountains -- yet, whether, really, it was on a mountain-side, or a mountain-top, could not be determined. 
It becomes an object of fantasy: "One spot of radiance, where all else was shade." And after a spring shower it is the place where a rainbow ends.

Finally, he goes in search of this mysterious spot, and makes his way up the hillside to a small, broken-down cottage where he finds a young woman called Marianna. (The name evokes both the Mariana of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Tennyson's poem about her.) She lives there alone, she tells him, now that her brother has died. And from her point of view, she has fantasized about the narrator's house: "I have often wondered who lives there; but it must be some happy one; again this morning was I thinking so." She tells him of how beautiful his house is at sunset, and he replies, "No doubt the sunset gilds it finely; but not more than the sunrise does this house, perhaps."

She says that the sun "never gilds this house. Why should it? This old house is rotting." She tells him that she knows all the shadows that fall on her house during the day, and that she never ventures far from it. "Sometimes, 'tis true, of afternoons, I go a little way, but soon come back again. Better feel lone by hearth, than rock. The shadows hereabouts I know -- those in the woods are strangers."

He leaves without telling her that he is the man she fancies as so happy, and decides not to return to her. "But every night, when the curtain falls, truth comes in with darkness. No light shows from the mountains. To and fro I walk the piazza deck, haunted by Marianna's face, and many as real a story."

Berthoff suggests that the cadenced prose of this melancholy little story signals Melville's turn from prose fiction to poetry, and calls it a "parable-sketch." Marianna is a sentimental contrivance who doesn't work as a plausible character, but Melville handles the melancholy tone well.

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