November 22, 2017
Moby-Dick "So Much Trash"On this day in 1851, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick was published. The British edition, entitled The Whale, had appeared the previous month, but through a sequence of error, poor judgment and bad timing, it had a rearranged and incomplete ending. This set off another sequence of error, poor judgment and bad timing, this time involving not the publishers but the critics, who looked upon the botched ending as the last straw in a book already too unusual and obscure. The upshot was that Melville's masterpiece, the book he was counting on to rescue his reputation and his finances, was so belittled and slandered in the crucial first weeks following publication in America that it never had a chance.
As told in Hershel Parker's monumental biography (two 1000-page volumes, 1996 & 2002), this turning point in Melville's life had the shape of Greek tragedy: the confident and euphoric Melville at his cigar-and-port dinner with Nathaniel Hawthorne on or about publication day, unaware that the British edition was out, or botched; the British reviews describing his novel "as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature" winging their way to Boston by boat that very minute; the U.S. papers about to quote and re-quote the British press, showing not just a similar lack of insight but that they had not read the book, as the American edition was different, and not botched. The long-term personal and professional impact could not have been greater: Melville was just thirty-two years old, and just five years into his career as a novelist. He lived another forty years, his outlook ever darkening, his output ever dwindling, his literary fame so diminished that while still in middle age he was a forgotten man. "Taken all in all," writes Parker of Nov. 14, "this was the happiest day of Melville's life."
Some of those who found Moby-Dick "an absurd book" of "ravings and scraps" wanted a straight-ahead adventure tale from Melville, such as his Typee. Tales of a killer sperm whale destroying its attackers were not commonplace, but in a coincidence that would get any publisher or author excited, reports of such an event hit the east coast papers just several weeks before the American publication date. Melville had in fact based some of his book on a memoir written in 1840 by a survivor of another such attack, and he seems to have taken his whale's name from an 1839 magazine article about the capture of "Mocha Dick," a whale infamous among whalers for its violent attacks -- the whale getting "Mocha" for having been sighted near that island, and "Dick" where it might have gotten "Tom" or "Harry." And Melville had other choices and models, some of whom he invokes in Chapter 45:
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