Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was published in the U.S. 160 years ago today. Melville could not have predicted its eventual masterpiece status, but he was hopeful that his novel would rescue his reputation and his finances. When, through a sequence of errors, poor judgment, and bad timing, it was dismissed as “an absurd book” of “ravings and scraps,” the author’s dashed expectations became a personal and professional disaster.
As told in Hershel Parker’s monumental biography (two 1,000-page volumes, 1996 and 2002), the full story has the shape of Greek tragedy. The British edition of Moby-Dick, entitled The Whale, had appeared the previous month with a confused and incomplete ending. The British critics, unaware of the editing mix-up, looked upon the botched ending as the last straw for a book already too unusual and obscure, and they dismissed the novel “as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature.”
On or about publication day in America, as the contemptuous British reviews were winging their way to Boston by boat, a hopeful and euphoric Melville was at a cigar-and-port dinner with Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was unaware that the British edition was out, or botched; and he could not have expected that a number of U.S. reviewers would quote and re-quote the British press, showing that they had either not read or not finished the American edition, which had been published with the correct ending. With the addition of negative reviews by those who had expected Melville to offer another straight-ahead sea yarn like Typee, the book was so belittled and slandered in the crucial first weeks following its American publication that it never had a chance.
Melville was just thirty-two years old and just five years into his career as a novelist. He lived another forty years, his literary fame ever diminishing and his outlook ever darkening. “Taken all in all,” writes Parker of November 14th, “this was the happiest day of Melville’s life.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.