A slow start for `Moby Dick'


November 01, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch

Around New Bedford, Mass., or wherever fans of Moby Dick gather, it has been a year of celebration, culminating Nov. 14 in the 150th anniversary of the American publication of Herman Melville's seafaring epic. There have been staged readings and musical productions, a children's book and even a solo performance of the story at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in which a man lying prone on the stage interprets the indomitable white whale. On Nov. 14, the harborside museum will transform one of its galleries into a satellite U.S. Post Office issuing a commemorative cancellation mark.

These festivities make it easy enough to forget that for Melville himself, the book was hardly a triumph. He was ecstatic that the novel won the approval of his literary idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated the book, but as the months after publication unfolded it became clear that Moby Dick would flop commercially. It sold 2,300 copies in its first 18 months, 5,500 in the 50 years that followed. Melville made less money on Moby Dick than on any of his previous books, a total of $1,260 in his life, which ended in 1891 at 72 years.

Melville was stung by many reviews of Moby Dick, which were mixed. That the book would eventually be considered one of the great American novels might seem unlikely given this sample of excerpts of notices that greeted its publication in London in October 1851 (as The Whale) and in New York in November.


London, Oct. 25, 1851

"This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad. So far as the nautical parts are appropriate and unmixed, the portraiture is truthful and interesting. Some of the satire, especially in the early parts, is biting and reckless. The chapter-spinning is various in character; now powerful from the vigorous and fertile fancy of the author, now little more than empty through sounding phrases. The rhapsody belongs to wordmongering where ideas are the staple; where it takes the shape of narrative or dramatic fiction, it is phantasmal - an attempted description of what is impossible in nature and without probability in art; it repels the reader instead of attracting him."

Morning Post

London, Nov. 14, 1851

"There is much that is incredible and a little that is incomprehensible in this latest effort of Mr. Melville's wayward and romantic pen; but despite its occasional extravagancies, it is a book of extraordinary merit, and one which will do great things for the literary reputation of its author. `Take it fore and aft,' as the sailors say, it is a work of great power and beauty, and our remembrance cannot fellow it with any other modern work of a similar class, equally clever and equally entertaining. Judgment is occasionally shocked by the improbable character of the incidents narrated - and even reason is not always treated with that punctilious deference she has a right to expect - but imagination is banqueted on celestial fare, and delight, top-gallant delight, is the sensation with which the reader is most frequently familiar."

Bell's New Weekly Messenger

London, Nov. 2, 1851

"There are people who delight in mulligatawny. They love curry at its warmest point. Ginger cannot be too hot in the mouth for them. Such people, we should think, constitute the admirers of Herman Melville. He spices his narrative with uncommon courage, and works up a story amazingly. If you love heroics and horrors he is your man. Sit down with him on a winter's eve, and you'll find yourself calling for candles before the night sets in. If you desire your hair to stand on end in a natural Brutus, or your teeth to chatter in unnatural discord, listen to what this man of strange lands and strange waters has to tell, and your wishes will be fulfilled. You will have a supper for a very long night's digestion."

Literary World

New York, Nov. 22, 1851

"The intense Captain Ahab is too long drawn out; something more of him might, we think, be left to the reader's imagination. The value of this kind of writing can only be through the personal consciousness of the reader, what he brings to the book; and all this is sufficiently evoked by a dramatic trait or suggestion. If we had as much of Hamlet or Macbeth as Mr. Melville gives us of Ahab, we should be tired even of their sublime company. Yet Captain Ahab is a striking conception, firmly planted on the wild deck of the Pequod - a dark disturbed soul arraying itself with every ingenuity of material resources for a conflict at once natural and supernatural in his eye, with the most dangerous extant physical monster of the earth, embodying, in strongly drawn lines of mental association, the vaster moral evil of the world."


New York, Nov. 20, 1851

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