Reviews were initially mixed when Herman Melville published this now-classic of American literature. His friend Nathanial Hawthorne liked it, but many responses went more along these lines: “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”
Melville was a known and respected writer, and was devastated at the reception of what he considered – and what we now recognize – as his magnum opus. But such is the world of writers and readers. Ain’t no telling. Indeed, while his first few books were well-received, the flop that was Moby Dick did a number on his career and reputation. By the 1870s, none of Melville’s works were in print any longer, and his name had largely been forgotten. But in 1921, someone wrote up a biography of the writer. And in 1924, that same someone dusted off, completed, and edited an old-manuscript titled Billy Budd. And thanks to a guy named Raymond Weaver, Melville was back. And Melville became a giant.
Ishmael, the sailor; Ahab, obsessed captain of the whaling ship Pequod; and Moby Dick, the great white whale, the great obsession, nature, perhaps even God. It’s about drive and compulsion and madness, about the human drive to master and control. Ahab’s had his run-ins with the great whale before, and lost a boat and a leg in the encounter. Now he’s determined to have his revenge, to win, to prove his dominance. Everything he ascribes to Moby Dick – willful destructiveness, cruelty, ruthlessness – is him, man, would-be-master. Class, good and evil, God and nature, the place of humanity in the universe – Moby Dick is a reflection on the human condition in general and the nineteenth century American condition in particular, combining narrative, soliloquy, asides and stage-directions more generally associated with the theatre. There’s not much can touch it, in the canon of US literature.