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Title page, first American edition of Moby-Dick
|Genre||Adventure novel, Epic, Sea story|
|Publisher||Richard Bentley (Britain)|
Harper & Brothers (U.S.)
|October 18, 1851 (Britain)|
November 14, 1851 (U.S.)
|Pages||927 (British first edition, 3 vols.)|
635 (U.S. first edition)
Title page, first American edition of Moby-Dick
|Genre||Adventure novel, Epic, Sea story|
|Publisher||Richard Bentley (Britain)|
Harper & Brothers (U.S.)
|October 18, 1851 (Britain)|
November 14, 1851 (U.S.)
|Pages||927 (British first edition, 3 vols.)|
635 (U.S. first edition)
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is the sixth book by American writer Herman Melville. The work is an epic sea story of Captain Ahab's voyage in pursuit of a certain sperm whale that he calls Moby Dick (with no hyphen; but some editions of the book change either the title or the whale's name to make them consistent). A contemporary commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author's death in 1891, its reputation rose during the twentieth century. D.H. Lawrence called it "the greatest book of the sea ever written." Jorge Luis Borges praised the style: "Unforgettable phrases abound." Today it is considered one of the Great American Novels and a leading work of American Romanticism.
The opening line, "Call me Ishmael", is one of the most recognizable opening lines in Western literature. Ishmael then narrates the voyage of the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ahab has one purpose: revenge on Moby Dick, a ferocious, enigmatic white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab's ship and severed his leg at the knee. The detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting and the process of extracting whale oil, as well as life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew, are mixed with exploration of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God.
The narrator, Ishmael, is an observant young man setting out from Manhattan Island who has experience in the merchant marine but has recently decided his next voyage will be on a whaling ship. On a cold, gloomy night in December, he arrives at the Spouter-Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and agrees to share a bed with a then-absent stranger. When his bunk mate, a heavily tattooed Polynesian harpooner named Queequeg, returns very late and discovers Ishmael beneath his covers, both men are alarmed, but the two quickly become close friends and decide to sail together from Nantucket, Massachusetts, on a whaling voyage.
In Nantucket, the pair sign on with the Pequod, a whaling ship that is soon to leave port. The ship’s captain, Ahab, is nowhere to be seen; nevertheless, they are told of him — a "grand, ungodly, godlike man," who has "been in colleges as well as 'mong the cannibals," according to one of the ship's owners. The two friends encounter a mysterious man named Elijah on the dock after they sign their papers and he hints at troubles to come with Ahab. The mystery grows on Christmas morning when Ishmael spots dark figures in the mist, apparently boarding the Pequod shortly before it sets sail that day.
The ship’s officers direct the early voyage while Ahab stays in his cabin. The chief mate is Starbuck, a serious, sincere Quaker and fine leader; second mate is Stubb, happy-go-lucky and cheerful and always smoking his pipe; the third mate is Flask, short, stout, thoroughly reliable. Each mate is responsible for a whaling boat, and each whaling boat of the Pequod has its own pagan harpooneer assigned to it. Some time after sailing, Ahab finally appears on the quarter-deck one morning, an imposing, frightening figure whose haunted visage sends shivers over the narrator. One of his legs is missing from the knee down and has been replaced by a prosthesis fashioned from a sperm whale's jawbone.
He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness... Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.—Moby-Dick, Ch. 28
Soon gathering the crewmen together, with a rousing speech Ahab secures their support for his single, secret purpose for this voyage: hunting down and killing Moby Dick, an old, very large sperm whale, with a snow-white hump and mottled skin, that crippled Ahab on his last whaling voyage. Only Starbuck shows any sign of resistance to the charismatic but monomaniacal captain. The first mate argues repeatedly that the ship’s purpose should be to hunt whales for their oil, with luck returning home profitably, safely, and quickly, but not to seek out and kill Moby Dick in particular — and especially not for revenge. Eventually even Starbuck acquiesces to Ahab's will, though harboring misgivings.
The mystery of the dark figures seen before the Pequod set sail is explained during the voyage's first lowering for whales. Ahab has secretly brought along his own boat crew, including a mysterious harpooneer named Fedallah (also referred to as 'the Parsee'), an inscrutable figure with a sinister influence over Ahab. Later, while watching one night over a captured whale carcass, Fedallah gives dark prophecies to Ahab regarding their twin deaths.
The novel describes numerous "gams," social meetings of two ships on the open sea. Crews normally visit each other during a gam, captains on one vessel and chief mates on the other. Mail may be exchanged and the men talk of whale sightings or other news. For Ahab, however, there is but one relevant question to ask of another ship: “Hast thou seen the White Whale?” After meeting several other whaling ships, which have their own peculiar stories, the Pequod enters the Pacific Ocean. Queequeg becomes deathly ill and, fearing an ordinary burial at sea, requests that a coffin be built for him by the ship’s carpenter. Just as everyone has given up hope, Queequeg changes his mind, deciding to live after all, and recovers quickly. His coffin becomes his sea chest, and is later caulked and pitched to replace the Pequod's lifebuoy.
Soon word is heard from other whalers of Moby Dick. The jolly Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby has lost an arm to the whale, and is stunned at Ahab's burning need for revenge. Next they meet the Rachel, which has seen Moby Dick very recently. As a result of the encounter, one of its boats is missing; the captain’s youngest son had been aboard. The Rachel's captain begs Ahab to aid in the search for the missing boat, but Ahab is resolute; the Pequod is very near the White Whale now and will not stop to help. Finally the Delight is met, even as its captain buries a sailor who had been killed by Moby Dick. Starbuck begs Ahab one final time to reconsider his thirst for vengeance, but to no avail.
The next day, the Pequod meets Moby Dick. For two days, the Pequod's crew pursues the whale, which wreaks widespread destruction, including the disappearance of Fedallah. On the third day, Moby Dick rises to the surface, revealing Fedallah's corpse, held to the whale by a tangle of harpoon ropes. Even after the initial battle on the third day, it is clear that while Ahab is a vengeful whale-hunter, Moby Dick, while dangerous and fearless, is not motivated to hunt humans. As he swims away from the Pequod, Starbuck exhorts Ahab one last time to desist, observing that:
"Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!".—Moby-Dick, Ch. 135
Ahab ignores this voice of reason and continues with his ill-fated chase. As the three boats sail out to hunt him, Moby Dick damages two of them, forcing them to go back to the ship and leaving only Ahab's vessel intact. Ahab harpoons the whale, but the harpoon-line breaks. Moby Dick then rams the Pequod itself, which begins to sink. As Ahab harpoons the whale again, the unfolding harpoon-line catches him around his neck and he is dragged into the depths of the sea by the diving Moby Dick. The boat is caught up in the whirlpool of the sinking ship, which takes the crew on board to their deaths. Only Ishmael survives, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin-turned-lifebuoy for an entire day and night before the Rachel rescues him.
The crew-members of the Pequod are carefully drawn stylizations of human types and habits; critics have often described the crew as a "self-enclosed universe". There are 30 crew members, and as there were thirty states in the union at the time, it has been suggested that, in its diversity, Melville meant the Pequod to be a metaphor for America.
Ishmael, the only surviving crewmember of the Pequod, is the narrator of the book. As a character he is a few years younger than as a narrator. His importance relies on his role as narrator; as a character, he is only a minor or peripheral crewmember. The name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts — in the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells the reader that he has turned to the sea out of a feeling of alienation from human society. In the last line of the book, Ishmael also refers to himself symbolically as an orphan, which maintains the Biblical connection and emphasises the representation of outcasts. In the Book of Genesis, Ishmael is the son of Abraham and his wife's maidservant, Hagar, whom his barren wife, Sarah, gives to her husband so he may have a son. When Sarah finally bears a son, Isaac, she decides Ishmael would not be a good influence on Isaac and therefore has Abraham exile Hagar and Ishmael into the desert (Genesis 21:10).
Ishmael has a rich literary background (he has previously been a schoolteacher), which he brings to bear on his shipmates and events that occur while at sea. His assurance that "only I alone escaped to tell you" (tell thee) is the messenger's admonishment in Job 1: 15–17, 19. He also likens himself to " another Ixion."
Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby Dick, the whale that had maimed him off the coast of Japan during a previous whaling voyage. Although he is a Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion's well-known pacifism. Ahab's Biblical namesake is the evil idol-worshipping ruler in the Book of Kings, and this association prompts Ishmael to ask, after first hearing Ahab's name:
When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?—Moby-Dick , Chapter 16. "The Ship"
When Ishmael remarks upon the ill associations of such a name, he is rebuked by one of Ahab's colleagues, who points out that "He did not name himself."
Little information is provided about Ahab's life prior to meeting Moby Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck, it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years making him 58 years of age and having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his "girl-wife", whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.
Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (save for Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his last harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:
...to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.—Moby-Dick, Chapter 135. "The Chase.—Third Day"
The harpoon becomes lodged in Moby Dick's flesh and Ahab, caught around the neck by a loop in his own harpoon's rope and unable to free himself, is dragged down into the cold oblivion of the sea by the injured whale. The mechanics of Ahab's death are richly symbolic. He is killed by his own harpoon, a victim of his own twisted obsession and desire for revenge. The whale eventually destroys the whaleboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.
Ahab's motivation for hunting Moby Dick is explored in the following passage:
The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.—Moby-Dick, Chapter 41. "Moby Dick"
The character Elijah (named for the Biblical prophet Elijah, who is also referred to in the King James Bible as Elias), on learning that Ishmael and Queequeg have signed onto Ahab's ship, asks, "Anything down there about your souls?" When Ishmael reacts with surprise, Elijah continues:
Oh, perhaps you hav'n't got any," he said quickly. "No matter though, I know many chaps that hav'n't got any — good luck to 'em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul's a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon."—Moby-Dick, Ch. 19 
Later in the conversation, Elijah adds:
Well, well, what's signed, is signed; and what's to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity 'em! Morning to ye, shipmates, morning; the ineffable heavens bless ye; I'm sorry I stopped ye.—Moby-Dick, Ch. 19 
Captain of the Samuel Enderby of London, Ahab encounters him at sea. Boomer has not only seen Moby Dick recently, but lost his arm to him in a previous attack. Like Ahab, he has replaced the missing limb with a prosthesis made of sperm whale bone. Ahab immediately assumes he has found a kindred spirit in his thirst for vengeance, but Boomer is yet another representation of the duality to be found throughout the novel; in this instance, a sane and rational counterpart to Ahab. While Boomer also anthropomorphizes Moby Dick, describing the "boiling rage" the whale seemed to be in when Boomer attempted to capture him, he has easily come to terms with losing his arm, and harbors no ill-will against Moby Dick, advising Ahab "he's best left alone". The Enderby's doctor provides solid reasoning for this attitude, informing the gathering:
Do you know, gentlemen, that the digestive organs of the whale are so inscrutably constructed by Divine Providence, that it is quite impossible for him to completely digest even a man's arm? And he knows it too. So that what you take for the White Whale's malice is only his awkwardness. For he never means to swallow a single limb; he only thinks to terrify by feints.—Moby-Dick, Ch. 100
Boomer jokingly tells a long yarn about the loss of his arm; this attitude, coupled with a lack of urgency in telling where he sighted Moby Dick, infuriates Ahab, leading Boomer to query, "Is your captain crazy?" Ahab immediately quits the Enderby and is so hasty in his return to the Pequod that he cracks and splinters his whalebone leg, then further damages it in admonishing the helmsman. While appearing to be whole, the leg is badly damaged and cannot be trusted; it now serves as metaphor for its wearer.
He is a giant, largely (but not completely) white, bull sperm whale and arguably the main antagonist of the novel. Melville describes him as having prominent white areas around his wrinkled forehead and dorsal fin, the rest of his body being of stripes and patches between white and gray. The animal's exact dimensions are never given but Melville claims in the novel that sperm whales can reach a length of ninety feet (larger than any officially recorded) and that Moby Dick is possibly the largest sperm whale that ever lived. Other notable physical traits are an unusual spout, a deformed jaw, three punctures in his right fluke and several harpoons imbedded in his side from unsuccessful hunts. Having a near legendary reputation among whalers, several fatal encounters have been attributed to him over a number of years, his attacks interpreted by some as being deliberate acts not of "an unintelligent agent." He bit off Ahab's leg, leaving Ahab to swear revenge. The cetacean also attacked the Rachel and killed the captain's son. At the end of the story he kills the entire crew of the Pequod, with the exception of Ishmael. The story does not tell whether he survives his own wounds after that. Although he is an integral part of the novel, Moby Dick appears in just three of the 135 chapters and the reader does not have access to his thoughts and motivations. Moby Dick is considered to be a symbol of a number of things, among them God, nature, fate, the ocean, and the very universe itself.
The symbolism of the White Whale is deliberately enigmatic, and its inscrutability is a deliberate challenge to the reader. Ishmael describes the whale’s forehead as having wrinkles and scars on it that look like hieroglyphics, and recounts:
If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I put that brow before you. Read it if you can.—Moby-Dick, Ch. 79
All the reader can know is that the White Whale symbolizes many things to various characters in the novel. It is their personal interpretations of Moby-Dick, in addition to their individual ruminations on the gold doubloon Ahab has nailed to the mast to motivate his crew, that serve as a further clue to their own inner makeup.
The three mates of the Pequod are all from New England. Starbuck, the young chief mate of the Pequod, is a thoughtful and intellectual Quaker from Nantucket. He is married with a son. Such is his desire to return to them, that when nearly reaching the last leg of their quest for Moby Dick, he considers arresting or even killing Ahab with a loaded musket, and turning the ship back, straight for home. Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal, which lacks reason; such a desire is blasphemous to his Quaker religion. Starbuck advocates continuing the more mundane pursuit of whales for their oil. But he lacks the support of the crew in his opposition to Ahab, and is unable to persuade them to turn back. Despite his misgivings, he feels himself bound by his obligations to obey the captain. Starbuck was an important Quaker family name on Nantucket Island, and there were several actual whalemen of this period named Starbuck, as evidenced by the name of Starbuck Island in the South Pacific whaling grounds. The multinational coffee chain Starbucks was named after Starbuck, not due to any affinity for coffee, but because the name "Pequod" was first rejected by one of the co-founders.
Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, is from Cape Cod, and always seems to have a pipe in his mouth and a smile on his face. "Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whaleboat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests." (Moby-Dick, Ch. 27) Although he is not an educated man, Stubb is remarkably articulate, and during whale hunts keeps up an imaginative patter reminiscent of that of some characters in Shakespeare. Scholarly portrayals range from that of an optimistic simpleton to a paragon of lived philosophic wisdom.
The harpooneers of the Pequod are all non-Christians from various parts of the world. Each serves on a mate's boat.
Queequeg hails from the fictional island of Rokovoko in the South Seas, inhabited by a cannibal tribe, and is the son of the chief of his tribe. Since leaving the island, he has become extremely skilled with the harpoon. He befriends Ishmael early in the novel, when they meet before leaving for Nantucket. He is described as existing in a state between civilized and savage. Queequeg is the harpooneer on Starbuck's boat, where Ishmael is also an oarsman. Queequeg is best friends with Ishmael in the story. He is prominent early in the novel, but later fades in significance, as does Ishmael.
Tashtego is described as a Gay Head (Wampanoag) Native American harpooneer. The personification of the hunter, he turns from hunting land animals to hunting whales. Tashtego is the harpooneer on Stubb's boat.
Daggoo is a tall (6 ft 5 in or 196 cm) African harpooneer from a coastal village with a noble bearing and grace. He is the harpooneer on Flask's boat.
Fedallah is the harpooneer on Ahab's boat. He is of Persian Zoroastrian ("Parsi") descent. He is described as having lived in China. At the time when the Pequod sets sail, Fedallah is hidden on board, and he later emerges with Ahab's boat's crew. Fedallah is referred to in the text as Ahab's "Dark Shadow". Ishmael calls him a "fire worshipper" and the crew speculates that he is a devil in man's disguise. He is the source of a variety of prophecies regarding Ahab and his hunt for Moby Dick.
Pip (nicknamed "Pippin," but "Pip" for short) is a African-American youth said to be from Tolland County, Connecticut, although he is referred to as "Alabama Boy". He is "the most insignificant of the Pequod's crew". Because he is physically slight, he is made a ship-keeper, (a sailor who stays aboard the ship while its whaleboats go out). Ishmael contrasts him with the "dull and torpid in his intellects" — and paler and much older — steward Dough-Boy, describing Pip as "over tender-hearted" but "at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe". Ishmael goes so far as to chastise the reader: "Nor smile so, while I write that this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king's cabinets."
The after-oarsman on Stubb's boat is injured, however, so Pip is temporarily reassigned to Stubb's whaleboat crew. The first time out, Pip jumps from the boat, causing Stubb and Tashtego to lose their already-harpooned whale. Tashtego and the rest of the crew are furious; Stubb chides him "officially" and "unofficially," even raising the specter of slavery: "a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama." The next time a whale is sighted, Pip again jumps overboard and is left stranded in the "awful lonesomeness" of the sea while Stubb's and the others' boats are dragged along by their harpooned whales. By the time he is rescued, he has become (at least to the other sailors) "an idiot," "mad." Ishmael, however, thought Pip had a mystical experience: "So man's insanity is heaven's sense." Pip and his experience are crucial because they serve as foreshadowing, in Ishmael's words, "providing the sometimes madly merry and predestinated craft with a living and ever accompanying prophecy of whatever shattered sequel might prove her own." Pip's madness is full of poetry and eloquence; he is reminiscent of Tom in King Lear. Ahab later sympathizes with Pip and takes the young boy under his wing.
Dough Boy is the pale, nervous steward of the ship. The Cook (Fleece), Blacksmith (Perth), and Carpenter of the ship are each highlighted in at least one chapter near the end of the book. Fleece, a very old, half-deaf African-American with bad knees, is presented in the chapter "Stubb's Supper" at some length in a dialogue where Stubb good-humoredly takes him to task over how to prepare a variety of dishes from the whale's carcass. Ahab calls on the Carpenter to fashion a new whalebone leg after the one he wears is damaged; later he has Perth forge a special harpoon that he carries into the final confrontation with Moby Dick. Perth is one of the few characters whose previous life is given in much detail: his life ashore has been ruined by alcoholism.
The crew as a whole is international, having constituents from both the United States and rest of the world. Chapter 40, "Midnight, Forecastle," highlights, in its stage-play manner (in Shakespearean style), the striking variety in the sailors' origins. A partial list of the speakers includes sailors from the Isle of Man, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, the Azores, Sicily and Malta, China, Chile, Denmark, Portugal, India, Tahiti, England, Spain, and Ireland.
The Pequod is named for the now extinct Pequot tribe of Native Americans. The Jerobeam, the Rachel, and the Jungfrau are ships with Biblical names, with the last ship representing "the Five Foolish Virgins of Jesus's parable, who, going to meet the Bridegroom without oil in their lamps, tried to borrow from their five wise sisters. For Master Derick de Deer of the Jungfrau, or Virgin as Ishmael obligingly translates, eagerly boards the Pequod to obtain oil from Ahab for his empty lamp-feeder."
Moby-Dick is based on Melville's actual experience on a whaler. On December 30, 1840, he signed on as a green hand for the maiden voyage of the Acushnet, planned to last for 52 months. Its owner, Melvin O. Bradford resembled Bildad, who signed on Ishmael, in that he was a Quaker: on several instances when he signed documents, he erased the word "swear" and replaced it with "affirm". Its captain was Valentine Pease, Jr., who was 43 years old at the start of the voyage. Although 26 men signed up as crew members, two did not show up for the ship's departure and were replaced by one new crew member. Five of the crew were foreigners, four of them Portuguese. The Scottish carpenter was one of the two who did not show for the ship's departure. There were three black men in the crew, two seaman and the cook. Fleece, the cook of the Pequod, was also black, and therefore probably modeled on this Philadelphia-born William Maiden, who was 38 years old when he signed for the Acushnet.
Only eleven of the 26 original crew members completed the voyage. The others either deserted or were regularly discharged. The First Officer, Frederic Raymond, left the ship after a "fight" with the captain. A first mate, actually called Edward C. Starbuck, was on an earlier voyage with Captain Pease, in the early 1830s, and was discharged at Tahiti under mysterious circumstances. The second mate on the Acushnet' was John Hall, English-born but a naturalized American. He is identified as Stubb in an annotation in the book's copy of crew member Henry Hubbard, who, like Melville, had joined the voyage as a green hand. Hubbard also identified the model for Pip: John Backus, a little black man added to the crew during the voyage. Hubbard's annotation appears in the chapter "The Castaway" and reveals that Pip's falling into the water was authentic; Hubbard was with him in the same boat when the incident occurred.
Ahab seems to have no model in real life, but his death seems to be based on an actual event. On May 18, 1843, Melville was aboard The Star, which sailed for Honolulu. Aboard were two sailors from the Nantucket who could have told him that they had seen their second mate "taken out of a whaleboat by a foul line and drowned". The model for the Whaleman's Chapel of chapter 7 is the Seamen's Bethel on Johnny Cake Hill. There Melville heard the chaplain, the 63 year old Reverend Enoch Mudge, who is at least in part the model for Father Mapple. Even the topic of Jonah and the Whale may be authentic, for Mudge was a contributor to Sailor's Magazine, which printed in December 1840 the ninth of a series of sermons on Jonah.
Despite its length and its apparent wanderings, Moby-Dick is "a remarkably tight fiction."
The novel is structured around the two consciousnesses of Ahab and Ishmael, with Ahab as a force of linearity and Ishmael a force of digression. While both have an angry sense of being orphaned, they try to come to terms with this hole in their beings in different ways: Ahab with violence, Ishmael with meditation. And while the plot in Moby-Dick may be driven by Ahab's anger, Ishmael's desire to get a hold of the "ungraspable" accounts for the novel's lyricism.
One of the most distinctive features of the book is the variety of genres that appear. Bezanson mentions sermons, dreams, travel account, autobiography, Elizabethan plays, epic poetry. Some scholars have tried to identify a single genre underlying the whole. Charles Olson saw the Elizabethan play as a likely model, but the experiment of establishing acts only revealed that the chapters resist inclusive arrangements. F.O. Matthiessen joined Olson's enterprise, only to admit that some two hundred central pages delay the forward movement of the drama. Northrop Frye found the book to be the best illustration of the "romance-anatomy," but Bezanson cautions us not to forget that the book's "deepest anxieties" stem not from whales but from the Bible and Shakespeare. Newton Arvin tried to link the book to the heroic poem or epic, but found that the book escapes epic form. In the words of scholars John Bryant and Haskell S. Springer, "Moby-Dick is a classic because it defies classification." It is both drama and meditation, a tragedy and a comedy, a stage play and prose poem. Essay, myth, and encyclopedia.
One level of the book is its documentary guise, emphasized by the presence of explanatory footnotes by Ishmael--"a Nabokovian touch." Besides the books on whaling, Melville's experiences in the Pacific constitute the documentary validation.
Most of all, the book is language, or, as Bryant and Springer sum up: "nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological, alliterative, fanciful, colloquial, archaic, and unceasingly allusive." The last two words are the most significant, for they describe the most Melvillean of the characteristics of Melville's prose. Yet Bryant and Springer mention another one: "Most amazing are the paragraph-long sentences that defy the gravity of normal syntax, and yet stay grammatical and alive."
Chief among the thematic content are Melville's epistemological views. The American edition has Ahab "discover no sign" (Ch, 133) of the whale when he is staring in the deep. In fact, Moby Dick is then swimming up at him. In the British edition, Melville changed the word "discover" to "perceive." And with good reason, for "discovery" means finding what is already there, but "perceiving," or better still, perception is "a matter of shaping what exists by the way in which we see it." The point is not that Ahab would discover the whale as an object, but that he would perceive it as a symbol of his making. This theme pervades the whole book, perhaps never so emphatically as in "The Doubloon" (Ch. 99), where each crewmember perceives the coin in a way shaped by his own personality.
While it may be rare for a mid-nineteenth century American book to feature black characters in a non-slavery context, slavery is frequently mentioned. The theme of race is primarily carried by Pip, the diminutive black cabin boy. When Pip has almost drowned, Ahab, genuinely touched by Pip's suffering, questions him gently, Pip "can only parrot the language of an advertisement for the return of a fugitive slave: 'Pip! Reward for Pip!'"
All races are represented among the crewmembers of the Pequod. Ishmael and Queequeg's sensual friendship initiates a kind of racial harmony that is shattered when the crew's dancing erupts into racial conflict in "Midnight, Forecastle" (Ch. 40). Fifty chapters later, Pip suffers mental disintegration after some incidents where he is reminded that as a slave he would be worth less money than a whale. Commodified and brutalized, "Pip becomes the ship's conscience."
In addition to his own experience on the whaling ship Acushnet, two actual events served as the genesis for Melville's tale. One was the sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820, after it was rammed by a large sperm whale 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the western coast of South America. First mate Owen Chase, one of eight survivors, recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.
The other event was the alleged killing in the late 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha. Mocha Dick was rumored to have twenty or so harpoons in his back from other whalers, and appeared to attack ships with premeditated ferocity. One of his battles with a whaler served as subject for an article by explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker or New-York Monthly Magazine. Melville was familiar with the article, which described:
This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature... a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool!
Significantly, Reynolds writes a first-person narration that serves as a frame for the story of a whaling captain he meets. The captain resembles Ahab and suggests a similar symbolism and single-minded motivation in hunting this whale, in that when his crew first encounters Mocha Dick and cowers from him, the captain rallies them:
As he drew near, with his long curved back looming occasionally above the surface of the billows, we perceived that it was white as the surf around him; and the men stared aghast at each other, as they uttered, in a suppressed tone, the terrible name of MOCHA DICK!
"Mocha Dick or the d----l [devil],' said I, 'this boat never sheers off from any thing that wears the shape of a whale."
Mocha Dick had over 100 encounters with whalers in the decades between 1810 and the 1830s. He was described as being gigantic and covered in barnacles. Although he was the most famous, Mocha Dick was not the only white whale in the sea, nor the only whale to attack hunters.
While an accidental collision with a sperm whale at night accounted for sinking of the Union in 1807, it was not until August 1851 that the whaler Ann Alexander, while hunting in the Pacific off the Galapagos Islands, became the second vessel since the Essex to be attacked, holed and sunk by a whale. Melville remarked:
Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.
While Melville had already drawn on his different sailing experiences in his previous novels, such as Mardi, he had never focused specifically on whaling. The eighteen months he spent as an ordinary seaman aboard the whaler Acushnet in 1841–42, and one incident in particular, now served as inspiration. It was during a mid-ocean "gam" (rendezvous at sea between ships) that he met Chase's son William, who lent him his father's book. Melville later wrote:
I questioned him concerning his father's adventure; . . . he went to his chest & handed me a complete copy . . . of the Narrative [of the Essex catastrophe]. This was the first printed account of it I had ever seen. The reading of this wondrous story on the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect upon me.
The book was out of print, and rare. Knowing that Melville was looking for it, his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, managed to find a copy and buy it for him. When Melville received it, he fell to it almost immediately, heavily annotating it.
Moby-Dick contains large sections—most of them narrated by Ishmael—that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot but describe aspects of the whaling business. Although there had been a successful earlier novel about Nantucket whalers, Miriam Coffin or The Whale-Fisherman (1835) by Joseph C. Hart, which is credited with influencing elements of Melville's work, most accounts of whaling tended to be sensational tales of bloody mutiny, and Melville believed that no book up to that time had portrayed the whaling industry in as fascinating or immediate a way as he had experienced it. Early Romantics also proposed that fiction was the exemplary way to describe and record history, so Melville wanted to craft something educational and definitive.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family had moved to a small red farmhouse near Lenox, Massachusetts, at the end of March 1850. He became friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and Melville beginning on August 5, 1850, when the authors met at a picnic hosted by a mutual friend. Melville had just read Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse, and his unsigned review of the collection, titled "Hawthorne and His Mosses", was printed in the The Literary World on August 17 and 24. The essay is "so deeply related to Melville's imaginative and intellectual world while writing Moby-Dick," Bezanson finds, "as to be everybody's prime piece of contextual reading; it could be printed almost as a preface, as relevant to Moby-Dick as Whitman's Preface would be to his 1855 Leaves of Grass." Hawthorne is compared to Shakespeare and Dante, and it is "impossible to miss Melville's self-projection" in the repeats of the word "genius, the more than twenty-five references to Shakespeare, and in the insistence that "Shakespeare's unapproachability" is nonsense for an American.
It is unknown whether Melville first conceived of the book as just another personal story, or as a more ambitious project in the vein of Mardi. He may either have found a plot before writing, or discovered his plot as the writing process was underway. Considering his elaborate use of sources, "it is safe to say that Melville's reading in them...helped him shape his whaling narrative, including its plot."
About the "whaling voyage"--I am half way in the work, & am very glad that your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of book, tho', I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho' you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree;--& to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.
Less than two months later, in a letter of June 27, Melville reported to Richard Bentley, his English publisher:
My Dear Sir,--In the latter part of the coming autumn I shall have ready a new work; and I write you now to propose its publication in England.The book is a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author's own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer.
The most intense work on the book was done during the winter of 1850–1851, when Melville had changed the noise of New York City for a farm in Pittsfield. During these months, he wrote several letters to Hawthorne which show that "Melville's moods are cyclical, from letter to letter (and even within one letter)." A letter from June 1851 summarizes Melville's career in three sentences: "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,--it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches." This is still the same stubbornness of the Melville who stood by Mardi and talked about his other, more commercial books with contempt. The letter contains a revealing passage of how Melville experienced his development from his 25th year: "Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould." Bezanson's analysis of the evidence implies the conclusion that Melville's imagination unfolded in a way that he did not anticipate in the spring of 1850, an unfolding that led his book to evolve and expand along the lines of its original conception rather than departing from it.
The book would be finished a year later than announced (the author's role of harpooner was not accurate either), giving room for scholars to develop a theory about the work's course of completion which holds that Melville's original conception was a straight narrative of a whaling voyage, only changed into the book it became after he met Hawthorne. The theory has been harpooned in two ways by Bezanson: he disagrees with both the underlying assumption about Melville's intellectual development before 1850 and the way scholars have been evaluating the evidence. "The implication here," Bezanson argues, "is that Melville was not ready for the kind of book Moby-Dick became, that he despaired of picking up where he had left off with Mardi, that the critics, or financial need, or self-doubt, or a combination of these for six months had him tied down. But the profile that emerges from reading the documents, beginning with the almost rudely bold letter he wrote to John Murray on 25 March 1848, a virtual declaration of literary independence, takes quite another shape." Melville's letters of this period show him denouncing his last two straight narratives, Redburn and White-Jacket, as two books written just for the money, and he firmly stood by Mardi as the kind of book he believed in. His language is already "richly steeped in seventeenth century mannerisms," which are characteristic of the style of Moby-Dick.
The Dana letter quoted above has led scholars to argue that Melville started out writing another kind of book than it became, but the language of the letter contains many ambiguities. The usual assumption, Bezanson argues, "is that Dana's 'suggestion' would obviously be that Melville do for whaling what he had done for life on a man-of-war in White-Jacket." But J. Ross Browne had already accomplished that, said Melville in his 1847 review. In addition, Dana had experienced how incomparable Melville was in dramatic story telling when he met him in Boston, so perhaps "his 'suggestion' was that Melville do a book that captured that gift." And the long sentence in the middle of the above quotation simply acknowledges that Melville is struggling with the problem, not of choosing between fact and fancy but of how to interrelate them. The most positive statements are that it will be a strange sort of a book and that Melville means to give the truth of the thing, but what thing exactly is not clear.
Melville's four "quite wonderful" letters from November 1848 to April 1849 to Evert A. Duyckinck are evidence of the "immense leap of his ambitions" since the writing of Mardi. The second letter, dated February 24, 1849, dates the beginning of the development of the Shakespearean style of Moby-Dick: Melville, just having acquired a Shakespeare edition, describes his discovery of Shakespeare "as if he had never heard of him before."
It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every "t" like a musket barrel. Dolt & ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago, never made close acquaintance with the divine William. Ah, he's full of sermons-on-the-mount, and gentle, aye, almost as Jesus. I take such men to be inspired. I fancy that this moment Shakespeare in heaven ranks with Gabriel Raphael and Michael. And if another Messiah ever comes twill be in Shakespeare's person. --I am mad to think how minute a cause has prevented me hitherto from reading Shakespeare. But until now, every copy that was come-atable to me, happened to be in a vile small print unendurable to my eyes which are tender as young sparrows. But chancing to fall in with this glorious edition. I now exult over it, page after page.
Less than two weeks later, on March 3, Melville wrote again on Shakespeare, already with a hint of self-projection[a] when he described the superior writing circumstances Shakespeare would have experienced in present-day America as opposed to Elizabethan England.
I would to God Shakspeare had lived later, & promenaded in Broadway. Not that I might have had the pleasure of leaving my card for him at the Astor, or made merry with him over a bowl of the fine Duyckinck punch; but that the muzzle which all men wore on their souls in the Elizabethan day, might not have intercepted Shakspere's full articulations. For I hold it a verity, that even Shakspeare, was not a frank man to the uttermost. And, indeed, who in this intolerant Universe is, or can be? But the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.
Melville first proposed the English publication, in his letter from June 27, 1850 to Richard Bentley. Usually, Tanselle explains, "proof sheets of the American edition were sent to the English publisher and...American publication was held up until after the work had been set in type and published in England. Given the uncertain legal status of the English copyright for an American work, this procedure was generally regarded as providing the strongest claims for such a copyright". Eventually the new book was finished almost a year later than Melville had announced, and the lack of income from the delayed book forced him to borrow money, as the Harpers had denied him an advance.[b]
Probably to save time in advance of finding an American publisher, Melville arranged for the typesetting and plating of his book: the Harper publishing contract signed on September 12 mentions "the stereotype plates now in the possession of R. Craighead." Robert Craighead, who had printed Typee before, had a shop in New York. There would be less delay in publishing once an agreement was reached, plus proceedings for the English publication could move forward.
In June he found himself in New York, in a "third-story room, and work and slave on my 'Whale' while it is driving through the press", as he wrote to Hawthorne. By the end of the month he was back in Pittsfield, now writing to Hawthorne that "'The Whale' is only half through the press; for, wearied with the long delay of printers" Melville came back to the grass to "end the book reclining on it, if I may." Three weeks later, the typsesetting was almost done, as he announced in a letter to Bentley from July 20: "I am now passing thro' the press, the closing sheets of my new work." Melville was simultaneously working on his manuscript and proofreading what had been set. After the returning of his corrected proof the type would be plated, so that the text of earlier parts of the book was already fixed when he was revising the later parts, and Melville must have "felt restricted in the kinds of revisions that were feasible." Tanselle suggests that the following quotation from Melville's next book, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852) reflects the experience of finishing Moby-Dick.
At length, domestic matters—rent and bread—had come to such a pass with him, that whether or no, the first pages must go to the printer; and thus was added still another tribulation; because the printed pages now dictated to the following manuscript, and said to all subsequent thoughts and inventions of Pierre--Thus and thus; so and so; else an ill match. Therefore, was his book already limited, bound over, and committed to imperfection, even before it had come to any confirmed form or conclusion at all. Oh, who shall reveal the horrors of poverty in authorship that is high?
On July 3, 1851, Bentley wrote to Melville, offering him ₤150 and "half profits", which offer Melville accepted in a letter dated July 20, after which Bentley drew up a contract on August 13. The term half profits meant the author "was to receive half the profits that remained after deducting all the expenses of production and advertising". Melville signed and returned the contract in early September, and then went to New York to hand the proof sheets, this set made from the finished plates, over to his brother Allan, who sent them to London on September 10.
Melville had had these proofs in his possession for over a month, and could devote all his time to carefully correct and revise them as extensively as he saw fit, because the book would have to be set anew anyway. At this time he had not yet settled with an American publisher, so "there was not the usual urgency about getting the sheets abroad so that English publication could precede American." He had every reason to correct them carefully, if the following passage from Pierre is an accurate description of his correction of the summer in New York.
As every evening, after his day's writing was done, the proofs of the beginning of his work came home for correction. Isabel would read them to him. They were replete with errors; but preoccupied by the thronging, and undiluted, pure imaginings of things, he became impatient of such minute, gnat-like torments; he randomly corrected the worst, and let the rest go; jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics.
The text of the already plated American edition would be expensive to change, so that the English reading would be the revised one in case of differences between the two editions. The English edition differs from the American in over 700 wordings, in addition to thousands of instances of punctuation and spelling. The most obvious revision is the addition in Chapter 87, "The Grand Armada", of a footnote on the word "gally", which is no part of the American edition.
Bentley received the proof sheets, with Melville's corrections and revisions marked on them, on September 24,[c] Bentley received the proof sheets with Melville's corrections and revisions marked on them, and published it less than four weeks later.
After Melville had given the proof sheets for Bentley to his brother Allan, he continued to make alterations, even a very important one: he changed the title. Probably late in September, Allan sent Bentley two pages of proof accompanied by a letter of which only an undated draft survives:
Since sending proofs of my brothers new work by the Asia on the 10th he has determined upon a new title & dedication—Enclosed you have proof of both—It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title—It is to be hoped that this letter may reach New Burlington Street before it is too late to adopt these new pages.
Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book, being the name given to a particular whale who if I may so express myself is the hero of the volume.
Changing the title was no problem for the American edition, since the running heads throughout the book only showed the titles of the chapters, and the title page itself could only be printed after a publisher was found, whose name would also appear on the title page. The October issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine printed chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story", with a footnote saying: "From The Whale. The title of a new work by Mr. Melville, in the press of Harper and Brothers, and now publishing in London by Mr. Bentley." Evidently copy for the issue was still alterable on September 14, since the death of James Fenimore Cooper was announced. The only one surviving leaf of proof, "a 'trial' page bearing the title 'The Whale' and the Harper imprint," and this shows that some point after the publishing agreement the original title still stood.
The English edition was in three volumes, each having a title page, and each having the title printed on the first page of the text as well. Changing the title pages was possible, but printing of the text may already have begun or even been finished when Allan's letter arrived. When it did arrive, no sooner than in early October, Bentley had already announced The Whale in both the Athenaem and the Spectator of October 4 and 11. Probably to accommodate Melville, Bentley inserted a half-title page in the first volume only, which reads "The Whale; or, Moby Dick."
On October 18, the English edition, The Whale, was published; the London Morning Herald for October 20 printed the earliest known review. Only 500 copies were printed: the figure for both Mardi and White-Jacket had been 1,000 and that for Redburn 750. Bentley's experience in the slow sales of Melville's previous books had convinced him that a smaller number was more realistic.
On November 14, the American edition, Moby-Dick, was published, and the same day reviewed in both the Albany Argus and the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer. On November 19, Washington received the copy deposited for copyright purposes. The first printing of 2,915 copies was almost the same as the first of Mardi, but the first printing of Melville's other three Harper books had been a thousand copies more.
At numerous points the editions differ from each other, the title being only the most obvious difference. The English multi-volume edition necessitated a change in the dedication to Hawthorne: "this book is" was adjusted to "these volumes are." Excluding the preliminaries and extract, the three volumes of the English edition came to 927 pages and the single American volume to 635 pages. The table of contents in the English edition generally follows the actual chapter titles in the American edition, and therefore must have been drawn from the proof sheets, probably by a clerk of Bentley's. Nineteen titles in the American table of contents differ from the titles above the chapters themselves. This list was probably drawn up by Melville himself: the titles of chapters describing encounters of the Pequod with other ships had—apparently to stress the parallelisms between these chapters—been standardized to "The Pequod meets the...", with the exception of the already published 'The Town-Ho's Story'. For no apparent reason, the "Etymology" and "Extracts" had been moved to the back of the edition, probably reflecting Bentley's own judgment "that they were somehow inappropriate for the opening pages of a novel." An epigraph from Paradise Lost, included in the second of the two quotations from that work in the American edition, appears on the title page of each of the three English volumes.[d]
The final difference concerning the material not already plated is the presence of the "Epilogue," which accounts Ishmael's miraculous survival, in the American edition, and its absence in the English. Obviously the epilogue was not an afterthought too late for inclusion in the English edition, for it is referred to in "The Castaway": "in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself." Why the "Epilogue" is missing, is unknown. Expurgation seems an unlikely explanation, as there seems to be nothing objectionable in it. Most likely it was somehow lost while the preliminaries were moved to the back. In case it should have been misplaced in Bentley's office, it would not be so easy for anyone to recognize what book it was part of as it had no page number or running title, as the other pages did. The only paragraph it consists of does not refer to whaling nor does it feature the name Ishmael, though Ahab's name is mentioned once.
British reviewers read a book with a first-person narrator who apparently did not survive to tell the tale. The reviewer of the Spectator objected that "nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish."" Two papers, the Dublin University Magazine and the Literary Gazette, asked "how does it happen that the author is alive to tell the story?" respectively how the writer, "who appears to have been drowned with the rest, communicated his notes for publication to Mr. Bentley is not explained."
The largest of Melville's revisions is the addition to the English edition of a 139-word footnote on the word "gally." The edition also contains six short phrases and some sixty single words lacking in the American edition. In addition to this, there are about thirty-five changes that produce genuine improvements, as opposed to mere corrections: "Melville may not have made every one of the changes in this category, but it seems certain that he was responsible for the great majority of them." The most convincing example appears near the end of chapter 135, where Tashtego, in the mast of the sinking Pequod his head already under water, hammers a bird to the mast and then freezes in his "death-grasp." The insertion of an "r", missing in the American edition, restores the opposition with the "ungraspable phantom of life" in the opening chapter, "Loomings."
Bentley placed the proof sheets in the hands of one or more revisers to purge the book of any material that might give offense. These expurgations fall into four categories, ranked according to the apparent priorities of the censor:
These expurgations also meant that any corrections or revisions Melville may have marked upon these passages are now lost.
In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne written within days of Moby-Dick's American publication, Melville made a number of revealing comments:
... for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.
A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your understanding the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable sociabilities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon. It is a strange feeling—no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content—that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.
Melville was regarded as a very successful author after the acclaim received by his popular earlier works Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). He considered Moby-Dick to be his magnum opus but was shocked and bewildered at the scathing reviews it received. Instead of bringing him the literary acclaim he sought, this masterwork started a slide toward literary obscurity in his lifetime. This was partially because the book was first published in England, and the American literary establishment took note of what the English critics said, especially when these critics were attached to the more prestigious journals. Many critics praised Moby-Dick for its unique style, interesting characters, and poetic language, but others agreed with a critic associated with the highly regarded London Athenaeum, who described it as:
[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.
One problem was that publisher Peter Bentley botched the English edition, most significantly in omitting the epilogue. For this reason, many of the critics faulted the book, what little they could grasp of it, on purely formal grounds, e.g., how the tale could have been told if no one survived to tell it. The generally bad reviews from across the ocean made American readers skittish about picking up the tome. Still, a handful of American critics saw much more in it than most of their U.S. and English colleagues. Hawthorne said of the book:
What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones.
Another problem was that by the time the book was published, whaling and maritime adventuring were no longer the main focus of the American public. The Gold Rush had shifted their interest to the West, and the lengthy novel, with its long factual passages dealing with the brutal technology of the whaling industry, seemed far less relevant to the author's American audience.
Within a year after Melville's death, Moby-Dick, along with Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, was reprinted by Harper & Brothers, giving it a chance to be rediscovered. However, only New York's literary underground seemed to take much interest, just enough to keep Melville's name circulating for the next 25 years in the capital of American publishing. During this time, a few critics were willing to devote time, space, and a modicum of praise to Melville and his works, or at least those that could still be fairly easily obtained or remembered. Other works, especially the poetry, went largely forgotten.
Then came World War I and its consequences, particularly the shaking or destruction of faith in so many aspects of Western civilization, all of which caused people concerned with culture and its potential redemptive value to experiment with new aesthetic techniques. The stage was set for Melville's legacy to find its place.
With the burgeoning of Modernist aesthetics (see Modernism and American modernism) and the war that tore everything apart still so fresh in memory, Moby-Dick began to seem increasingly relevant. Many of Melville's techniques echo those of Modernism: kaleidoscopic, hybrid in genre and tone, monumentally ambitious in trying to unite so many disparate elements and loose ends.
In the 1920s, British literary critics began to take notice. In his idiosyncratic but landmark Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence directed Americans' attention to the great originality and value of many American authors, among them Melville. Perhaps most surprising is that Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the original English edition.
The next great wave of Moby-Dick appraisal came with the publication of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Published in 1941, the book proposed that Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville were the most prominent figures of a flowering of conflicted (and mostly pre-Civil War) literature important for its promulgation of democracy and the exploration of its possibilities, successes, and failures. Matthiessen's book came out shortly before the entry of the U.S. into World War II, critic Nick Selby argues that
... Moby-Dick was now read as a text that reflected the power struggles of a world concerned to uphold democracy, and of a country seeking an identity for itself within that world.
The novel has been adapted a number of times in various media including the stage, radio, TV, comics and graphic novels and movies. The most famous of these was the John Huston film of 1956 produced from a screenplay by author Ray Bradbury. These plays have varied from a the stage version called Moby Dick! The Musical to a 2010 film adaptation of the same name.
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