This Day In Literary History
On November 14th, 1851, Moby Dick, the classic novel by the legendary American writer Herman Melville, was published in the United States. It had been published in England as The Whale a month earlier - a release that proved to be a disaster.
Melville's classic adventure novel was based in part on the true story of Mocha Dick, a giant albino sperm whale so named because his territory was the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha.
For many years, Mocha Dick terrorized the whaling ships that sailed through his territory. He was known to attack ships with incredible ferocity. He supposedly had around twenty harpoons stuck in his back by previous whalers.
By the time Mocha Dick was finally killed in the late 1830s, he had successfully fought off one hundred whaling crews and destroyed many ships. Sailors told stories about him in every port, and his legend grew.
When Herman Melville read a book about Mocha Dick, he became fascinated by the true story of a giant killer sperm whale and saw in it the potential for a great novel, one he hoped would prove to be his magnum opus. He had already become famous for such classic novels as Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).
The narrator of Moby Dick is Ishmael, an itinerant sailor who signs up for work on the whaling ship Pequod along with his new friend Queequeg, a master harpooner from a South Seas island where his father was the chief of a cannibal tribe.
Also on the crew of the Pequod are harpooners Tashtego and Daggoo, and chief mate Starbuck. The crew is under the command of Captain Ahab, a tyrant with a hidden agenda.
While on a whaling trip off the coast of Japan, Captain Ahab's ship was attacked by Moby Dick, a giant albino sperm whale. The ship was destroyed, and in the process, the giant whale bit off part of Captain Ahab's leg.
The crew of the Pequod has no idea that their captain plans to risk their lives to satisfy his monomaniacal desire for revenge against Moby Dick. When it becomes obvious that this is no ordinary whaling trip, Starbuck is the only one who objects.
Captain Ahab isn't deterred from his quest when Starbuck points out the madness of his plan and that revenge is against their religion - they're Quakers. In the novel's exciting climax, Ahab and nearly his entire crew pay the ultimate price for his revenge. Ishmael is the sole survivor of the Pequod's final battle with Moby Dick.
Although today Moby Dick is rightfully considered an epic masterpiece of American literature, the novel was savaged upon its first publication in England. Critics referred to it as "so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature."
The scathing reviews were thanks to Melville's monumentally incompetent British publisher, who chopped up his already experimental manuscript for the censors, rearranged the ending, and forgot to include the crucial epilogue.
Melville had no idea that the UK version of his novel was so badly botched until it was too late. Shocked and confused by the bad reviews in British magazines, he was relieved when Moby Dick was published in America in its correct and unexpurgated original version.
Unfortunately, by then, the damage was done. The American reading public's interest had changed from sea adventures to tales of the American West and the Yukon gold rush, and though Moby Dick did receive good reviews from American critics, readers still remembered the bad reviews of the English critics.
The warm reception by American critics to the definitive version of Moby Dick was not enough to undo the damage done to the novel by its British publisher and make it the magnum opus Herman Melville had hoped for. It sold less than 3,000 copies during his lifetime. His total earnings from it were $556.37
He continued to write over the next several years, but after his novel The Confidence-Man was published in 1857, he plunged into alcoholism and depression and his writing came to a screeching halt.
In 1876, Melville published his classic epic poem Clarel, and it sold so poorly that he couldn't afford to buy back the unsold copies at cost, so they were burned. Unable to make money as a writer, he scraped by as a customs agent for New York City.
When Herman Melville died in 1891 at the age of 76, he had been completely forgotten as a writer. In a final insult, an article on Melville published in The New York Times ten days after his death mistakenly referred to him as Hiram Melville.
His last work, the classic novella Billy Budd, Sailor, was published posthumously in 1924 and became an instant classic that would rekindle an interest in his work. Moby Dick would finally receive its due as one of the greatest American novels of all time.
Quote Of The Day
"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it." - Herman Melville
Today's video features a complete reading of Herman Melville's classic novel, Moby Dick. Enjoy!