“Call Me Ishmael”

On November 14, 1851, the now acclaimed novel Moby Dick was published by Harper Collins in the United States. Its author, Herman Melville, had previously published several novels which all received mixed reviews and didn’t make him much money. He hoped Moby Dick, or The Whale, as it was titled in England, would catapult him to literary fame.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. Reviews of the novel published immediately after its release concluded that “it is a crazy sort of affair, stuffed with conceits and oddities of all kinds . . .” and “extravagance is the bane of the book, and the stumbling block of the author. He allows his fancy to not only run riot, but absolutely to run amuck, in which poor defenceless Common Sense is hustled and belaboured in a manner melancholy to contemplate.” Moby Dick did not bring Herman Melville great success as a writer. It wasn’t until after his death in the 1920s and 30s that Moby Dick was declared one of the great American novels.

Herman Melville spent the years 1841 to 1844 having adventures across the sea that would provide the inspiration for his writing. He originally joined a whaling ship but abandoned it a year later only to be captured by cannibals on the Marquesas Islands. From there he traveled to Tahiti and Eimeo, became a harpooner on another whaling ship, and ended up in Honolulu, where he became a bookkeeper. In 1844, Melville returned to New England a member of the US Navy.

Upon his return, Melville wrote several novels, including Typee, Omoo, and Redburn. He also drafted Moby Dick. These writings were detailed, first-hand descriptions of life aboard a whaling ship and life on remote islands. Upon meeting famed American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hawthorne encouraged Melville to consider a more allegorical approach to writing. Melville rewrote Moby Dick, dedicating it to Hawthorne in gratitude for his advice. It was published in 1851.

Moby Dick never gained popularity during Melville’s life. However, in 1924, over 70 years after its original debut, Works of Herman Melville was published and Moby Dick finally got its proper due. It is considered one of the greatest American novels ever written and its vague allegorical nature has opened it up to over a century of interpretation and admiration.

Learn more here:

  1. https://zsr.wfu.edu/2015/moby-dick-by-herman-melville-1851/
  2. https://library.tc.columbia.edu/blog/content/2022/october/today-in-history-moby-dick-is-published.php
  3. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Moby-Dick-novel
  4. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/whaling-biography-herman-melville/
  5. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/01/books/herman-melville-moby-dick.html

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