Ask most critics and scholars to name THE Great American Novel and a fist fight will break out between the champions of Huckleberry Finn on one hand and Moby Dick on the other. Both are widely read and appreciated today. Mark Twain’s novel was an immediate critical and popular success. Herman Melville’s, alas, was not.
On November 14, 1851 Moby-Dick; or The Whale was published in New York by Harper and Brothers. It sank like the Pequod.
Melville was then a 32 year old writer and former sailor. He had been writing sea tales, encouraged by his friends including another novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne for some time. Drawing on his own experiences on a Nantucket whaler, and two actual events, Melville had been working furiously on the manuscript for some time hoping to match the success of his earlier novels Typee and Omoo. In 1820 the whaler Essex was rammed and sunk by a huge sperm whale. The surviving First Mate had written a popular account of the incident and the survival of just eight men of the crew. The second were reoccurring reports of an enormous white bull sperm whale named Mocha Dick because he was frequently spotted off of the Chilean island of Mocha. The whale was covered in harpoons and lines, evidence that it had survived many brushes with hunters.
Melville wove rich detail of whaling lore, rousing adventure, and deep religious symbolism into his massive novel. He dreamed that its success would support his wife and children. He was off to a good start when a prestigious London publisher, Richard Bentley picked up the book. But Bentley feared that his readers would recoil at the violence and gore of the story. His three volume edition published as The Whale was expurgated and left out the critical epilogue, without which the plot made no sense. The London critics were brutal.
The single volume American edition was published only a few weeks later, but American critics and readers waited to see the reaction in Britain. The English notices poisoned the American reaction.
Championed by Hawthorne and a few others, the book survived past hand to hand by a couple of generations of literary bohemians while it was forgotten by mainstream readers and the general public. Disappointed and heartbroken, Melville struggled on for decades before dying in 1891 at the age of 71 in almost total obscurity. After his death Harper republished Typee, Omoo, and Moby Dick causing a minor stir among some serious readers.
But it was not until 1921 when Raymond Weaver’s critical biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic was published did Melville begin to receive serious attention. In 1924 his novella Billy Budd, which Melville had never been able to place, was finally published. It was a sensation. Publishers rushed to reissue Melville’s work. His earlier novels had at least a minor reputation, but no one expected much for his dense, 650 page whaling epic. But now critics were ready to look at it with fresh, awe struck eyes.
Among the literary heavy weights who extolled Melville in the 1920’s were Carl Van Doren, D. H. Lawrence, and Lewis Mumford. By 1945 the Melville Society was formed to provide a forum for scholarly investigation of the writer’s work.
In the 1950’s John Huston’s film starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and several inexpensive paperback editions of the novel helped make Moby Dick a popular as well as highbrow success.