Today marks the 162nd anniversary of the American publication of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick.
Before publication, Melville as an author was at the peak of his popularity, thanks to the well-received Typee and Omoo. He considered Moby-Dick, published in 1851, to be his magnum opus, and was confident that it would be his best-recieved publication to date. However, despite fellow contemporary and Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne exclaiming "What a book Melville has written!", it was not well-recieved by the majority of the literary establishment, with the influential London Atheaneum writing:
[A]n 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.
Sadly, the publication of Moby-Dick marked the beginning of the end for Melville as an author. His latter works were increasingly ignored, and he suffered from alcoholism and a bi-polar disorder. With finances rapidly depleting, he was forced to take a position as a customs inspector for New York City, effectivley ending his writing career. His wife was constantly urged by her family to leave him and to commit him to an asylum - which she refused - and they suffered the deaths of their two sons. He died in 1891, almost forgotten by the literary world who had spurned him.
Melville and his works, however, underwent a renaissance in the 1920s, thanks in part to the publication of a revisionary biography by Raymond Weaver, entitled Herman Melville: Man, Mariner, and Mystic. Thus, Melville's vastly ambitious, poetic and profound Moby-Dick was rescued from obscurity, and - decades later - has finally earned the respect and admiration Melville had always hoped it would. Posthumously, Melville has won great acclaim and is now considered one of the defining American authors. Rather fittingly, in 2010 a species of now-extinct giant sperm whale was named after him: the livyatan melvillei.
To mark this anniversary, we've put together a Moby-inspired reading list, and have made chapters available for free for one month:
- 'Herman Melville, 1819-1891: A Brief Biography' in A Historical Guide to Herman Melville
- 'Moby-Dick and the Opposite of Providence' in Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Maurice S. Lee
- 'Of Whales and Sharks and Giant Squid' in Ocean: Reflections on a Century of Exploration by Wolf H. Berger
- 'Melville's Furious Life' in Whipscars and Tattoos: The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and the Maori by Geoffrey Sanborn
- 'Sperm Whales in Ocean Ecosystems' in Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems by James Estes
- 'Moby-Dick' in The American Classics: A Personal Essay by Denis Donoghue
- 'The Anti-Whaling Campaign' in The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse by Charlotte Epstein
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