Friday, September 7, 2012

The Fiddler

Herman Melville (1819–1891)
From Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose

The Franconi Hippodrome in New York, 1853. Tinted lithograph with additional hand-coloring, created for cover of sheet music: Franconi Schottisch, composed by Frank Harris for the pianoforte. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection/
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.”

Virtually all scholars and critics now agree that the story was written by Melville, but for many years it was considered apocryphal. Although the story was published anonymously, four consecutive editions of the index to Harper’s magazine listed the author as Fitz-James O’Brien. But there are two contemporary pieces that support Melville’s authorship: one is a scrapbook gathering his magazine pieces and the other is a handwritten list of his stories—both items were assembled by his wife. William B. Dillingham, in his study of Melville’s short fiction, adds a third element that supports Melville’s authorship. Thematically and structurally, “The Fiddler” resembles “The Happy Failure,” a Melville story published the same year; “critics have with good reason frequently linked them as companion pieces. . . . In ‘The Happy Failure’ Melville depicts an ass trying to be a lion; in ‘The Fiddler’ he shows a lion trying to be an ass.”

Notes: The Latin phrase magnum bonum (page 1197) means “a great good,” but it also refers to a type of succulent plum. William Henry West Betty (“Master Betty”), mentioned on page 1199, was one of the most famous child actors of the early nineteenth century. Born in 1791, he performed through the British Isles from 1803 to 1808; he would have still been alive when “The Fiddler” was published and died in 1874.

There are several literary and classical allusions scattered in the story. “The saying of the Athenian” (page 1196) can be found in Plutarch’s Life of Phocion. “Genius, like Cassius, is lank” (p. 1199) is a reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: “Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look, He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.” Orpheus (p. 1201) is the mythical Greek poet whose music can charm the beasts. It was not Cicero (p. 1202) who was “traveling in the East” but rather a friend who wrote to Cicero to console him when his daughter died.

*   *   *
So my poem is damned, and immortal fame is not for me! I am nobody forever and ever. Intolerable fate! . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.