Nov 182012

If writers are ever discouraged, they should perhaps take a crumb of comfort in the fate of the seminal nineteenth century novel by Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

Though Melville had enjoyed a degree of critical and commercial success with his earlier novels, his largest and most ambitious work, Moby Dick, received poor reviews in his lifetime, especially from early reviewers in England who shunned it and found the novel “ill conceived”, “in places disfigured by mad English” and unsatisfactory in most other regards too. Their early and negative perceptions influenced the later American reviewers who were similarly perplexed and unhelpful to the author. Few if any had a good thing to say about the work.

Interestingly, Melville confided to his great friend Nathaniel Hawthorn that he was not surprised by the critical mauling his new book had received. He conceded its very size and scope made such criticism easy – and the author drew various analogies to the complex and diverse work of God and man in his defence, to make himself feel better and less affronted. But it still hurt.

It would be true to say that the negative press speeded his slide into obscurity from that point on, his literary life becoming an ever diminishing footnote in American Life as he watched from the side lines, earning a living from non-literary pursuits for many years afterwards.

Whale meat may be hard to swallow, being neither ordinary fish nor common meat. But the genesis of the novel started in fact and not fiction. Records show that in 1820 the Nantucket ship Essex was rammed by a whale, with only eight survivors, one of whom wrote an account of the event that Melville must have known. Added to this, in the 1830s, there were reports of an albino whale being killed off the coast of Chile, found to have over a score of harpoons in his sides as he was hauled aboard for processing. So the 1851 novel was a curious mix of fact and fantasy for which few at that time had the stomach.

The American author Carl Van Doren more or less rediscovered Melville’s great work in 1917, blowing the dust off its covers. He was able to place it more accurately in the American canon of Romantic fiction. To his praise was added a creditable biography of Melville by Raymond Weaver a few years later. Since that time it has grown in stature while being subject to the vagaries of literary fashion too.

Thus, I suppose the good news is that a fine novel may eventually find its place in our consciousness. The bad news is that it may take the lifetime of a whale to do so…

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