Sometimes knowing the story behind the story helps in the understanding and appreciation of it. Especially with an author like Herman Melville whose work I have read very little of. As a matter of fact I can only count Bartleby the Scrivener as the sole work read. Maybe someday I'll attempt Moby Dick, but if I ever do, I think my work will be cut out for me. This week's story from Fifty Great American Short Stories is Melville's "The Fiddler". It's interesting how one story seems to segue into the next, but more about that in a minute.
So the story behind the story? First the story--in the opening sentences a poet laments the bad reviews he has received on his recent work. He chances upon a friend who in turn introduces him to another friend. There's a bit of a misunderstanding--each man thinking he knows what the other is talking about but as it turns out they are each thinking of something different. As the poet gets to know this friend of his friend, an unlikely sort of character who is ever cheerful and chipper, he begins to reassess his own life and the emotions and the thoughts upper most on his mind at that particular moment. I've not entirely decided whether the story is meant tongue in cheek or if it really is a stern talking to oneself to look on the brighter side of things in life.
I've just stumbled on Library of America's Story of the Week--how cool is this? Had I known they offer a story each week to read plus a little something extra to think about or reflect on or to enrich the reading experience I would have been reading along all the while. Maybe I should join them now? Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight stories they are up to with the most recent being one by Stephen Crane. Maybe I should join them now? It would be impossible to catch up but I could move forward with them? Go back and read at whim?
Somewhere back on week #141 they read "The Fiddler" and offered a little insight into the circumstances of what was going on in Melville's life at the time he wrote this.
"In 1851–52 Herman Melville published Moby-Dick and Pierre, two novels which proved to be commercial and critical disappointments. While Moby-Dick never sold out its initial printing and would remain largely unheralded for seventy years, it was Pierre that brought out the knives; one advance notice wrote that the novel 'appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman'.
It’s not too difficult, then, to imagine Helmstone, the narrator of "The Fiddler," as Melville’s alter ego. Written the year after the publication of Pierre and published anonymously in Harper’s in 1854, the story is a comic tale, one of several magazine pieces Melville wrote to help pay the bills. It opens with a poet mourning that his career has been doomed by a hostile notice from a critic. He encounters a friend who, oblivious to the author’s personal embarrassment, takes him to a circus to see a widely acclaimed clown. The contrast between scorned high-brow art and crowd-pleasing popular entertainment couldn’t be more dramatic, but what catches the poet’s eye is the reaction to the performance of Hautboy, a new acquaintance who resembles 'an overgrown boy'."
So, we have the poet, Helmstone (Herman Melville?), his friend Standard and the cheery fiddler, Hautboy. The three spend the afternoon at the circus where Hautboy takes immense pleasure and joy out of watching the famous and "inexhaustible clown". Hautboy is almost childlike in his jubilance, at which initially the poet sneers at. Helmstone is certain that if Hautboy had been ambitious, had he once heard applause or endured contempt he would surely be a different man. Of course the joke is on Helmstone as Hautboy has heard the applause (and maybe, too, the contempt?) and is none the less satisfied by his life now, despite leading a life of obscurity.
I really must learn something more about Melville now to decide what his take on the ending really was. And one story leading into the next? I read that Edgar Allen Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle", last weekend's story, may have been an influence on Melville's Moby Dick. And reading about Meville's story I discover it had been published anonymously. At the time it was thought to have been written by Fitz-James O'Brien. Next weekend's story? Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was It?". How's that for one story leading to the next?
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This week's New Yorker story is another by Robert Coover. It is another very short retelling of a fairy tale, which I must admit I appreciated far more than "The Frog Prince" from last February. "The Waitress" is a take on the three wishes theme with a fun twist. It's definitely a little bit of a cautionary tale in that you do have to take care of what you wish for. But happily the protagonist comes out of it all relatively unscathed. You can read a very brief Q&A about it here. And you're in luck. If you like fairy tales, you can read the story online this week, too.
And since you can never have enough stories in your life, I am going to sign up for the weekly Library of America story, too.