On This Day

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Library of Congress

On This Day: Melville’s “Moby-Dick” Published in America

November 14, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 14, 1851, Herman Melville’s epic narrative of the great white whale debuted on the American literary scene, meeting mixed reviews and tepid sales.

“Moby-Dick” Released to Mixed Reviews, Poor Sales

Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick” was first released in London in October 1851 as “The Whale.”  It received both praise and criticism from English book reviewers.

“Herman Melville's last and best and most wildly imaginative story, The Whale … will worthily support his reputation for singularly vivid and reckless imaginative power—great aptitude for quaint and original philosophical speculation, degenerating, however, too often into rhapsody and purposeless extravagance—analmost unparalled power over the capabilities of the language,” read a review in the November 1851 edition of the Illustrated London News.

A month later, New York publisher Harpers & Brothers released it with Melville’s revised title, “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.” It prepared what it considered to be a conservative first printing of 2,915 copies, but after 1,500 sales in the first two weeks, readers purchased only 470 copies over the next 10 weeks. “Moby-Dick” was a commercial flop.

Again, the critical reception of the novel was mixed. The January 1852 edition of the Southern Quarterly Review called most of the book “sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous,” commending only the “highly vivid and exciting” action of the whale scenes.

George Ripley praised the work in the December 1851 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “Beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life … the genius of the author for moral analysis is scarcely surpassed by his wizard power of description.”

As with many artists, Melville was largely unappreciated in his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1920s—30 years after his death in 1891—that scholars recognized “Moby-Dick” as a valuable addition to the American literary canon.

Background: Inspirations for “Moby-Dick”

Melville drew heavily on his experience as a seaman in the Merchant Marines, the U.S. Navy and a whaling ship called the Acushnet. Aboard the Acushnet, he met the son of Owen Chase, a young first mate aboard an ill-fated whale ship, the Essex.

In one of the most well known maritime disasters of the time, the 238-ton Essex was attacked and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Chase survived the incident and wrote of his experiences, and his writings were loaned to Melville by his son. Chase’s account provided the inspiration for the novel’s climactic encounter between the Pequod’s crew and the eponymous white whale.

Melville never explained how he arrived at “Moby-Dick” as the title for his literary opus, but a May 1839 article in Knickerbocker Magazine offers a clue. The story, titled “Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific,” described a giant white sperm whale infamous for its violent attacks on ships and their crews. Having frequently sighted the creature in the vicinity of the island of Mocha, sailors quickly began referring to the fearsome sea mammal as Mocha Dick—the “Dick” serving merely as a generic name similar to “Jack” or “Tom.”

Biography: Herman Melville

Herman Melville was born in 1819 into a New York family marked by financial uncertainty. At the age of 21, he began work as a seaman. He spent 18 months on the Acushnet before deserting it in Polynesia. His time among the Typee people served as the inspiration for his first literary success, “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life,” and its sequel, “Omoo: A Narrative of the South Seas.”

Melville left Polynesia aboard a passing Australian ship and spent time in Hawaii before returning to Massachusetts in 1844 at age 25. Melville would say that his time at sea changed his life. He wrote to author Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851, “Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then + now, that I have not unfolded within myself.”

Melville would complete 10 novels in his life in addition to numerous short stories and the unfinished novel “Billy Budd.” When he died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1891, he had been all but forgotten by the literary community, but he has been posthumously recognized as one of the great American writers.

“There were a few respectful obituaries of the kind written about a man who has outlived his renown,” wrote University of Pennsylvania English professor and Melville scholar Hennig Cohen in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. “The remarkable waxing of Melville’s reputation dates from the 1920s. It was influenced by the growing interest in myth and psychology …, the disillusion and questioning that followed World War I, and at the same time, an awareness of national maturity suggested … that demanded a reexamination of the literary past.”

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