Today In History: Moby-Dick Published
Today in 1851, Herman Melville published Moby-Dick, considered by many literary critics to be the single finest novel ever written in English. The story concerns the whaling ship Pequod, captained by the revenge-hungry Ahab, obsessed with an enormous, white sperm whale.
Melville was born in 1819, in New York City. He was a member of the merchant marines in his youth. He was also in the U.S. Navy and spent time on a South Seas whaling ship.
Typee, his first novel, was published in 1846. It’s an adventure story, based on Melville’s personal experiences in Polynesia. It was a popular book, as was its sequel, Omoo, published in 1847.
Melville published three more novels to mixed reviews. Moby-Dick was then published in London, in 1851, and then the next month in America. The book was originally released as three volumes, titled “The Whale.”
Moby-Dick was originally written with a promise to Melville’s publisher that was an adventure story. What the publisher, and the world, got instead was a sweeping, melancholic epic that was so metaphorically and thematically rich that it would become a subject of near-biblical study among scholars and readers. The story, interestingly, was largely inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was Melville’s friend, as well as his neighbor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
At the time, like many great works of art, Moby-Dick was met with a whimper from the reading public. Moby-Dick passed, along with the rest of Melville’s bibliography, into temporary obscurity. He published multiple other works after Moby-Dick, including his famous story Bartleby the Scrivener.
However, he wasn’t making enough as a writer to live, and went back to New York to work until his death as a customs inspector. He died in 1891 a marginal literary figure. This would, thankfully, change.
Melville was rediscovered in the 1920s by the academic world. Moby-Dick, in particular, caught the attention of scholars thoughtful enough to recognize it for the work of genius that it was. Melville was posthumously canonized as one of the greatest novelists in history, perhaps even the greatest.
Moby-Dick has served as the source material for many movies, television episodes, metal albums, literary works, comic books and virtually everything else. It exerts an influence on the world of literature that is immeasurable. The novel is still widely read today, as is a wide-ranging body of scholarship regarding it. It is generally considered to be a religious allegory, though interpretations of the book’s symbolism vary.