Moby Dick: Melville’s stormy passage to the canon

What follows is an excerpt of Liveright editor-in-chief Bob Weil’s talk to the Chataqua Institution entitled “How To Recognize A Classic”

What is clear to us now: That Moby-Dick is a classic — wasn’t so clear in 1850. Also: despite all the changes in technology, new formats and audiences, distribution and marketing, publishing hasn’t changed much. Which is its strength and why it will continue to outlive the many predictions of its demise.

It is not down on any map; true places never are

The curious story of Herman Melville’s canonization holds no parallels in American literary history and reveals the pivotal role champions can have in rescuing literary masterpieces. As those familiar with Melville’s biography know, he was already a literary sensation as a young man. After several harrowing years at sea, he returned to Boston on a frigate in 1844, and soon thereafter wrote Typee, a fictional though heavily autobiographical account of his South Seas adventures amidst cannibals and so-called “primitive people.” Published first in London in 1846, Typee, with its lubricious descriptions of sex between sailors and South Sea women, with its graphic depiction of “smoked human head[s] and edible, “half-picked skeleton[s],” offended the prim sensibilities of the public, so much so that the publisher had to issue a bowdlerized version. The ensuing hoopla made the unprepossessing newcomer a rough-hewn sex symbol in the tradition of Lord Byron. He was feted in exclusive New York literary circles of the late 1840s, welcomed into the Waverly Place salon of Miss Anne Lynch, the great hostess herself, where he met the fabled writers, poetesses, and social lions of his day. Melville’s second novel, Omoo, appearing one year later, only added to his notoriety. With its combustible mix of “savagism and Christianity,” with its Polynesian sex scenes, it arrived on the post-Jacksonian horizon two years after the American annexation of Texas, a year before America’s triumph in the Mexican-American War. Clearly, it spoke to a new generation of jingoistic readers, who regarded Melville as the most promising American writer of the mid-nineteenth century.

Four years later, Moby Dick, an “unholy adventure,” with its “tales of terror told in words of mirth,” barged onto the literary scene like “some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea.” Despite its Biblical scope, it was, with few exceptions, savaged by the critics as “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact,” a book of “sheer moonstruck lunacy.” Abandoned by that rarefied clutch of New York literati, Melville first fled to the rural warrens of Massachusetts, retreating — overburdened with debt — into a deep personal and literary exile, before returning to New York where he died in 1891.

“Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar,” wrote Melville in a letter to Hawthorne in 1851, five months before Moby Dick’s publication. On one level, Melville may have merely been complaining that his publisher was forcing him to crash his schedule, to turn the work in “a final hash,” but the “dollars damn me” phrase has always suggested to me something more. Like Hawthorne, Melville must have been increasingly aware of the chasm between literature and commerce, yet he was simply unable to continue writing in the sensational manner of Typee and Omoo. It was as if he had foreordained his own precipitous literary demise, becoming the kind of character he would create so vividly in Bartleby, the Scrivener, whose “suicidal acceptance of the immitigable irrationality of all existence,” to quote the critic Newton Arvin, reflected Melville’s own trajectory. Indeed, the death of the recluse of East 26th Street would arouse less interest than that of his fictional alter-ego, Bartleby, and it would not be until 1924, that Billy Budd, Melville’s wrenching morality tale of a villain “struck dead by an angel of God,” would posthumously be published. While it is commonly believed that Melville was completely rediscovered on the centenary of his birth in 1919 or in the 1920s, this is only partially true. Some recognition did indeed come then, so much so that a young novelist by the name of Faulkner confessed in the Chicago Tribune that the one book he wished he had written was Moby Dick, a work of “Greek-like simplicity.” Faulkner was not alone, yet noted Melville scholar Hershel Parker observes that “Moby-Dick was seldom taught in colleges before 1950,” a full century after its first publication.

Disclosure: Bob recruited me to Norton based on a random encounter we had in a restaurant and he is a friend.

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