How Melville’s Moby-Dick Went From Flop to Literary Masterpiece

History Hit

2 mins

03 Jun 2019

Following its initial publication in Britain in October, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was published in America on 14 November 1851.

It’s hard to believe, given its status today as a literary masterpiece, that during Melville’s lifetime the book sold only 3,000 copies and actually signalled his decline as a popular writer.

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Plot

The novel is narrated by Ishmael, a sailor aboard the whaler Pequod, under the captaincy of Ahab.

Ishmael discovers that Captain Ahab is seeking one whale in particular, a whale that claimed his leg and his ship in their last meeting, the whale Moby-Dick.

But Ahab’s single-minded pursuit drives Ishmael and the crew to a climactic encounter with tragic consequences.

Life and career of Herman Melville

Melville was born in New York City in 1819 and spent his twenties as a sailor aboard merchant and whaling ships before turning to writing.

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His first book Typee, a romanticised account of his life in the Polynesian Islands, was published in 1845. It became a bestseller and spawned a sequel, Omoo in 1847.

However his subsequent efforts did not live up to this early success. By the time Moby-Dick was published, he had released a string of books to mixed reviews and a lacklustre readership.

Herman Melville

Moby-Dick did little to liven up his career and after several more flops, Melville got a job in New York as a customs inspector to pay the bills but continued to publish poetry.

It wasn’t until 1919, the centenary of his birth, that critics and scholars began to rediscover Melville’s work and to hail Moby-Dick as one of the finest works of literature in the English language.

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