“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
This was the way that American writer Herman Melville (above, circa 1860) began his stirring and classic novel “Moby Dick” which was first published on today’s date, November 14 in 1852, by Harper and Brothers Publishers in New York City. Melville’s tale of the young Ishmael’s adventure on the whaling ship, “the Pequod“, and of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the great white whale of the novel’s name has long since come to be recognized as one of the greatest stories of all time, capturing as it did the adventure as well as the perils of life on the great oceans of the world. But at the time of it’s debut, it was very coolly received, and Melville received little acclaim for it in his lifetime.
Melville and life at Sea
Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1809. He was the third of nine children of Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melville of a well-regarded Boston family. His father, a merchant trader in dry goods and furs suffered business setbacks and died when Herman was 12, leaving his family penniless. While she had relatives who were able to help her out, young Herman developed a desire to support
himself, and had an adventurous spirit so he signed on as a cabin boy in a ship bound for Liverpool. He made the voyage and apparently the spirit of the sea stuck with him, because like his character of Ishmael above, (“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth…) he found himself longing for more adventure. So after a stint as a teacher he signed up for more work at sea in late 1840. Herman recorded many of his impressions of life at sea, and his adventures on his subsequent voyage became the basis for his very successful novel “Typee” (1846). From 1838 to 1847 he lived at what is now called the Herman Melville house in Lansingburgh, New York (pictured, above). He went on other voyages, and produced other novels telling exotic and adventurous tales based on his experiences, such as “Redburn” (1849) and “Whitejacket” (1859) which was based on a 14 month stretch of service aboard the frigate U.S.S. United States.
Melville and “Moby Dick”
But those two novels, while both commercially and critically successful were just for paying the bills; they were in his words: “…two jobs which I have done for money — being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood”. Melville had deeper themes in mind with “Moby Dick” which is altogether much more allegorical
than his adventure novels. “Moby Dick” is based on two actual events which Melville read about. First was the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in 1820 after being rammed by a Sperm Whale. Second was the alleged killing in the late 1830’s of an albino whale named “Mocha Dick” which was said to have survived many harpoon hits, and which was said to have committed pre-meditated attacks on pursuing ships. Along with considerable description of the business of whaling and how it is done, the story contains much symbolism of class as the characters discuss their place in the world and aboard ship. And their is a lot of representation of greed as the bizarre character of Captain Ahab nails a gold Doubloon to the mast for the man who sights the great white whale, as well as good and evil, with Ahab and his relentless chasing of the whale to the exclusion of all else, including other whaling opportunities or even the safety of his own ship, the Pequod.
“Moby Dick” Tanks….
Regrettably for Melville, “Moby Dick” was a commercial failure with most of the public, which was hoping for a swashbuckling tale of adventure on he high seas, and ports of call to exotic islands such as they had enjoyed with “Typee” and “White Jacket”. And the critics of the day were none-too-pleasant about the book either. A critic for the London Athenaeum called it:
“An ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”
In America “Moby Dick” was met with a similar reception, But Nathaniel Hawthorne (above) wrote of it: “What a book Melville has written! It gives me the idea of much greater power than his preceding ones.” In it own time, “Moby Dick” only sold 3,000 copies to begin with. Also with the “Gold Rush” of 1848 being in full swing, the imagination of the American public had turned fully to the west, and its tales of quick riches. So the timing of this work which Melville considered his magnum opus would appear to have been wrong. Nevertheless, “Moby Dick” has since come to be one of the greatest classics in the history of American literature.
Herman Melville = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Herman_Melville_1860.jpg
Herman Melville House = http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/herman-melville-house-lansingburgh-ny-troy/
Nathaniel Hawthorne = http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/nathaniel-hawthorne-and-literary-humor
“Moby Dick” by Herman Mellville, (Originally published by) Harper Bros. Publ., New York, 1851