Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Whale of a Tale

Magnet # 92: Herman Melville Caricature

Material: Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By: Me

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick was first published on this day in New York City in 1851. Technically, it had already been released a few weeks earlier in London under the lesser-known name of The Whale, but it was censored and divided into three different volumes, so it wasn't really the book we are familiar with today.

It's funny, a book nearly all of us take for granted as one of the greatest in American literature was never well-received during it's author's lifetime. Unfortunately, the book was reviewed first in England, and the publisher there did a pretty poor job with Melville's manuscript, even going so far as to omit the epilogue, causing critics to believe that all the characters had died, and insist that the story's telling made no sense if none were left to recall it. The epilogue revealing Ishmael's survival did appear in American versions, but by then many readers had been scared off by mostly poor reviews. A few of Melville's contemporaries praised his work, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, his friend and author of works such as The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables.

Melville had enjoyed success with his first three novels and, in retrospect, it's a little odd that his greatest work should mark the beginning of his decline. He had been a sailor and traveled as far as the South Pacific, and he drew heavily from these travels in his works. For Moby-Dick, he
was partially inspired by a real-life albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick, who was usually found around the waters of Mocha, an island off the coast of Chile. This whale was particularly violent and had captured the attention of the public. It's believed he had over 100 confrontations with ships, and killed around 30 men, and perhaps sunk two merchant ships. Even for a whale, he was gigantic, and his white color made him stand out even more. Eventually, sailors knew him by the dozens of harpoons sticking out him, remnants from previous battles. Although he must have been a terrifying sight, many of captains wanted to kill him. Another true story inspired Melville as he wrote - that of the sinking of the Essex, a whaleship from Nantucket. A sperm whale destroyed the vessel off the coast of South America, leaving only 8 survivors. Melville drew heavily from the first mate's account of the story as he wrote Moby-Dick.

Even after the failure of this novel, Melville continued to write. His subsequent books were rejected by critics and audiences alike, until even his published rejected him. One of the novels he wrote during that time has been lost entirely. Rumors circulated that he had gone mad, only continuing to hurt his reputation. Finally, he was forced to take a job as a customs inspector in order to support his family. He held it for almost twenty years and earned a reputation as the only honest worker at his custom house, but his writings nearly came to an end. But English readers began to rediscover his work, prompting him to write some poems and prose, and a novel unfinished at the time of his death that would later be published - Billy Budd, Sailor. When Melville finally passed away in 1891, American audiences had all but forgotten him, and his name was even printed incorrectly in his obituary. The works which won him no acclaim in his own time, however, would soon be recognized as breaking new ground in the literary world.

It was in the 1920's that readers began to rediscover Melville's work and realize his genius. Biographies began to be published about his life, and Billy Budd, Sailor was finally published. Interest in American literature was growing during these times, and writers were actively bringing Melville to the public. World War I had changed the mindset of the public, and they were more willing to embrace his eloquent exploration of violence and vengeance. From this time on, Melville's notoriety grew and Moby-Dick worked its way into the American consciousness. It has been developed into films many times, and talented actors such as John Barrymore, Gregory Peck, and Patrick Stewart have all tackled the role of Captain Ahab. The novel has even inspired the name of coffee giant Starbucks. One of the two founders wanted to name the original shop after the Peqoud, Ahab's ship, but his partner argued that was not a name that would inspire people to drink coffee, and they were able to compromise on the name of the ship's first mate. In 2008, a bill was passed naming Moby-Dick "Massachusetts' official epic novel." Clearly, Herman Melville has been redeemed. He was a truly man ahead of his time and, at least in his case, the public now recognizes him a literary master, although the man himself was never able to know that his efforts would one day be rewarded.

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