“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

Order your copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick from an independent bookstore like this one: https://www.strandbooks.com/product/9780679783275?title=mobydick_or_the_whale

Return of the King: The Book of the Millennium

On October 20, 1955, the third volume of The Lord of the Rings, entitled Return of the King, was published. Following the publication of the first two volumes, Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, during the previous year, the third book was very popular. However, the series did not explode in notoriety until the 1960s when young adults latched onto the fantastical world and heroic adventures of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Lord of the Rings is the best-selling fantasy series of all time. It has even been considered by many as “the book of the millennium.”

J.R.R. Tolkien penned the famous The Lord of the Rings series while working as a professor at Oxford University. In 1937, Tolkien had released his first novel, The Hobbit, as a children’s story. It was incredibly popular, and his publishers looked to him for a sequel. Thus, was The Lord of the Rings born. The 1,100-page book was meant to be one story but was released in three volumes for logistical and financial reasons. Famous poet, W.H. Auden wrote of the series, “If one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A.D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy . . .”

The Lord of the Rings was the first fantasy book of its kind. It included detailed maps, original languages, unique creatures, and alternate history. This is, perhaps, why the books took off as they did. Readers could immerse themselves in a different world, even learning some of Tolkien’s made-up languages. This type of fantasy world has since become very popular, many modern fantasy novels include maps and family trees. The Chairman of the Tolkien Society said, in 2015, that Tolkien created “the archetypal fantasy story with Gandalf, Gollum, hobbits, the Ring now being all-pervasive in popular culture—it’s no wonder that so many authors have followed in his wake.”

Learn more here:

  1. https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/jrr-tolkien
  2. https://www.tolkiensociety.org/2015/10/60th-anniversary-of-the-return-of-the-king/#:~:text=The%20Return%20of%20the%20King%20was%20published%20on%20the%2020,on%2011th%20November%201954.
  3. https://www.tolkienestate.com/writing/the-lord-of-the-rings/
  4. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1954/10/31/96504978.html?pageNumber=163

June History Hits: The Father of Existentialism

On June 21, 1905, Jean-Paul Sartre, a towering figure in twentieth-century philosophy and literature, was born. His insights into human existence, freedom, and responsibility continue to challenge readers and thinkers to this day.

As a child, Sartre excelled academically and earned scholarships to prestigious institutions, the education from which allowed him to cultivate passions for philosophy and writing and be introduced to phenomenology, or the study of the consciousness as experienced from a first-person point of view. This shaped his philosophical perspective, leading him to reject the idea of predestination and assert that individuals create their own fate through their choices and actions.

One of Sartre’s most famous concepts is the idea of radical freedom. According to Sartre, humans are condemned to be free, meaning that we are fully responsible for our choices and their subsequent consequences. This type of freedom is both exhilarating and daunting, as it demands that individuals confront the weight of their decisions without the comfort of predetermined values or moral absolutes. Sartre’s existentialism also delves into what we call anguish, existential dread, or ennui, which arises from the realization of our freedom and attendant responsibility. Essentially, these are caused by the fear of making the wrong choices. However, Sartre also argued that embracing this feeling is key to living an authentic life.

Beyond his philosophy, Sartre was a prolific writer who penned plays, novels, and essays that explored his existential themes as they worked among human relationships. One of his most renowned works is the play “Huis clos” or “No Exit,” where he famously declared that “hell is other people.” In this play, Sartre addresses the complexities of human interactions and the consequences of our actions on others. Sartre was also a political advocate committed to social justice. He believed that intellectuals had a moral obligation to participate in public life and actively challenge oppressive structures.

Learn more here:





On This Day: Shaping Literary and Feminist History

On May 22, 1810, Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. She emerged as a groundbreaking journalist during a time when women’s voices were marginalized and opportunities limited. She dedicated herself to promoting social justice, profound literary achievements, and pioneering the feminist movement.

Margaret Fuller was raised in a family that valued education. From a young age, Fuller exhibited an insatiable curiosity and passion for learning. Her literary journey began when she started working as a contributor to The Dial, a transcendentalist journal, at the behest of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1). Her contributions showcased her formidable intellect and critical thinking skills, covering a wide range of subjects, including literature, philosophy, and social issues.

It was Fuller’s groundbreaking book, Women in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845, that propelled her to the forefront of the feminist movement. The book explored the theme of gender equality, challenging societal norms and advocating for women’s intellectual and social freedom. Women in the Nineteenth Century was referenced as inspiration for both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (2).   

As a journalist, Fuller exhibited exceptional talent, and her work often pushed the boundaries of conventional reporting. She became the first female book reviewer for the New York Tribune and later served as its first female foreign correspondent, reporting from Europe. Fuller’s most notable journalistic work was Summer on the Lakes, a collection of essays based on her journey through the Great Lakes region in 1843. The book not only chronicled her experiences but also provided keen insights into the culture, landscape, and social issues of the region.

Margaret Fuller’s legacy continues to inspire generations of journalists, feminists, and writers. Her life and career exemplify the power of perseverance, intellectual acumen, and unwavering dedication to social progress.

  1. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fuller-margaret/
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/books/review/margaret-fuller-by-megan-marshall.html
  3. https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/trailblazing-journalists/margaret-fuller-trailblazing-journalist-and-reformer/
  4. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002712183/