Following its initial publication in Britain, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was published in America on 14 November 1851. The book tells the tale of Captain Ahab, who sails his ship, the Pequod, in search of a white whale that had bitten off his leg.
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. So why is this novel now seen in such a different light, and why is it relevant over 200 years after the birth of its author?
Herman Melville’s early literary career
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. His father’s death in 1832 left the family in dire financial straits and in 1839, after a failed teaching career, he became a sailor on a merchant ship, then on a whaling vessel (the Acushnet).
He left this ship in the Marquesas Islands, and it was his encounters with those he met there that helped shape Melville’s first book, Typee – a romanticised account of his life in the Polynesian Islands, published in 1845. It became a bestseller and spawned a sequel, Omoo in 1847. The success of these books gave Melville financial security, and were encouraging enough to initially make him believe that he had a future as a professional writer.
More books followed, with those based on his own experiences faring slightly better than those that did not. However his literary efforts did not live up to his early success, and by the time Moby-Dick was published in 1851, Melville had released a string of books to mixed reviews and a lacklustre readership.
Melville used his firsthand experiences in whaling from his time aboard the Acushnet to write Moby-Dick, and did lots of research, consulting scientific sources and accounts of historical events to incorporate. The story of the Essex whaling ship fascinated Melville. The Essex was attacked by a sperm whale in 1820, causing it to sink, and many of its crew members were either lost immediately or died later of starvation after awaiting rescue for nearly eight months.
This event no doubt provided Melville with plenty of inspiration, as did the story of Mocha Dick, a famed whale who like Moby Dick, was very white and aggressive and whose name was clearly an inspiration.
The plot of Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick famously begins with the narratorial invocation “Call me Ishmael”. Ishmael is an outcast who turns to the sea for meaning as a sailor aboard the whaler Pequod, under the captaincy of Ahab. The Pequod’s misfit crew sets out on a dangerous three-year round the world voyage to make their fortunes hunting and killing sperm whales for the oil that lights America and Europe’s way into the Industrial Age.
Ishmael (and his friend Queequeg) soon learn that Captain Ahab is losing his mind, and discover that Ahab is seeking one whale in particular, a whale that claimed his leg and his ship in their last meeting, the whale Moby-Dick.
Ahab intends to hunt and kill Moby-Dick no matter the cost, but his single-minded pursuit drives Ishmael and the crew to a climactic encounter, with tragic consequences.
An initial flop
Only a few critics recognised the genius of Moby-Dick at the time, and the public were also unimpressed. The book sold fewer than 4,000 copies in total (fewer than 600 in the UK), prompting Melville to have serious doubts about his future writing career. Casual readers were turned off Melville’s novels, realising they were shrouded in dark philosophical and spiritual thoughts, rather than being simple adventure tales.
After several more flops, Melville instead found work in New York as a customs inspector, but continued to publish poetry. Despite being thought of as one of the finer young writers in America at the end of the 1840s, by the time of his death in 1891, Melville was nearly forgotten.
It wasn’t until 1919, the centenary of his birth, that critics and scholars began to rediscover Melville’s work and hailed Moby-Dick as one of the finest works of American literature.
Despite its seemingly extraneous chapters, asides and tangents – and its strangeness – the book’s themes of defiance, diversity, friendship, duty and death facilitate discussion and debate. This is furthered by the symbolism of various items throughout the book (such as the White Whale, Queequeg’s coffin, and Father Mapple’s pulpit). These factors all helped make Moby-Dick an ideal book for being widely included in the syllabus for study in many universities throughout America, increasing its fame.
Moby-Dick’s characters and plot also appeal to interpretations by successive generations. Readers have found representations of imperialism, criticism of slavery, and indeed same-sex marriage when Ishmael gets married to the Pacific islander, Queequeg.
Melville’s reflections on humans also still ring true, and many see Melville’s writing as having uncanny insight into the concerns of the modern world regarding sexual identity, animal welfare, mental health and the climate crisis. Even the whaling industry detailed in the book serves to act as an omen of a globalised state, with its pursuit of a finite resource.
These factors have all helped Moby-Dick to inspire a wide array of artists, writers, performers and film-makers – including Led Zeppelin, Orson Welles, Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock, Stanley Kubrick – as well as the makers of Tom and Jerry and The Simpsons. Many famous figures have also cited the novel as one of their favourite books, including Barack Obama and Bob Dylan, furthering the book’s reputation as a classic of American literature.