One day Melville, a young academic in his 20s, randomly decided to set off on a whaling ship. The captain turned out to be a cruel, hard-driving leader, and Melville deserted the ship in the Marquesas, where he lived among cannibals for three weeks before finding another ship. No, seriously. This experience drove the storyline of his two first novels, Typee and Omoo, which were wildly popular and widely disbelieved.
Capitalizing on his success, Melville continued to write using his whaling experiences. But as he grew older, he became more introspective and philosophical. Melville’s mature writing finally culminated in Moby Dick.
It was a complete critical and commercial failure.
Here’s what one contemporary critic had to say:
We have no intention of quoting any passages just now from Moby Dick. TheLondon journals, we understand, ‘have bestowed upon the work many flattering notices,’ and we should be loth to combat such high authority. But if there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melville’s.
–New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review, January 1852.
That delightfully vitriolic passage is, ironically, read today only because of its association with the American classic.
Moby Dick failed. Alienated and troubled, Melville continued to publish but was unable to regain a large audience. He died working as a deputy customs inspector. One of his obituaries stated, “even his own generation has long thought him dead.” Ouch.
So why do we read this book today? Why is it considered one of the most important books ever written by an American? Thank Raymond Weaver, the first biographer of Melville. His 1921 biography and his 1924 edition of Melville’s unpublished Billy Budd placed the author in the spotlight, where his works could be re-examined. Through Weaver’s work, critics read Moby-Dick again, 75 years later. And they found the Great American Novel.