— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
MOBY-DICK was published on this day in 1851. Herman Melville’s novel is about a ship captain named Ahab who is obsessed with hunting the great white sperm whale that took his leg.
The book had been published in Britain in October as The Whale. (Melville’s decision to change the title didn’t get there in time.) The reviews from Britain were harsh, and many American newspaper editors reprinted reviews from Britain without actually reading the American version of the novel with the proper ending.
Melville had just bought a farm in Massachusetts, his debts were piling up, he was hiding them from his wife, and he was counting on Moby-Dick to bring in enough money to pay off his creditors. The book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. Melville never fully recovered from the disappointment.
On the birthday of Herman Melville…
When he was 20, he worked as a cabin boy on a ship that went to Liverpool and back, the first of his many voyages. In 1841, he joined the crew of the whaler Acushnet.
Inspired by his adventures at sea, Melville returned to New York and settled down to write about his travels. After Melville got married, had four children, and moved to a farm in Massachusetts, he became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne and went to work on Moby-Dick.
Hawthorne encouraged him to make the novel an allegory, not just another adventure story. Melville became consumed with writing Moby-Dick. When he finished the novel he wrote to Hawthorne (to whom he also dedicated the book), “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.”
He thought it was his best book yet. But when Moby-Dick came out in 1851, the public did not agree. It was too psychological. His American publisher only printed a few thousand copies, and most of those never even sold.