Title page of the first edition
Moby-Dick (full title: Moby-Dick, or, the Whale,) a novel by Herman Melville published November 14, 1851, is considered one of the finest novels in the English language. Initially a sales flop, it wasn't recognized as a literary great until the 1920's.
The facts (which take up about 1/3 of the text, the remaining 2/3 of the book is more of an encyclopedia of the American whaling industry) concern an obsession by one Captain Ahab to hunt and kill an albino whale named Moby-Dick, in revenge for the whale's prior attack on Ahab leaving him with only one leg. The novel addresses the human struggle for meaning, happiness, and salvation. Historians view Moby-Dick as the epitome of American Romanticism. "Call me Ishmael" is the famous beginning of the book, and it cites other biblical figures and themes throughout its story.
The story begins with a lengthy onshore prelude. The narrator decides to enlist as a sailor:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
He leaves Manhattan for Nantucket, then the whaling center of America. He takes lodging in an inn where he must share a bed with another sailor. Significantly, he chooses not to object to his bedmate's race or religion.
The initial reviews of the novel were critical. It sank into obscurity until the 1920s, when the "rediscovery" of Moby-Dick took place. It was led by scholar and critic Raymond Weaver, who published a scholarly biography of Melville in 1921. The publication of a 1930 edition with illustrations by Rockwell Kent was a major event, which boosted the popularity of the work.
Now, more than 150 years after its publication, it is less popular among teachers. The shifting popularity of the novel may reflect the shifting views toward Christianity in American schools, as the novel's invocation of religion was perhaps too superficial for schools in the 1850s but too much for schools today.
Melville and Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville were contemporaries, and in 1850, they lived near each other in the Massachusetts Berkshires. They met for the first time for a hike up Monument Mountain, leading to a brief friendship, but later had a falling out (the cause of which is unknown). Hawthorne was an early admirer of Melville's writing, and Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. In one of Hawthorne's books, a story-teller talking to children in the Tanglewood area, tells them about all the distinguished literati living in the area, and says:
- But, here in Lenox, I should find our most truthful novelist, who has made the scenery and life of Berkshire all her own. On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his 'White Whale,' while the gigantic shape of Graylock[sic] looms upon him from his study-window.
Melville called his house in the Berkshires "Arrowhead." He lived there from 1850 to 1862. It has been preserved by the Berkshire Historical Society, which offers tours to visitors. The Society has managed to preserve not only the house, but the view of Mount Greylock from his study window. From this angle of view, the mountain resembles the profile of a sperm whale, and was one of the inspirations for his story.
The story was also suggested by the true story of the whaleship Essex, which Melville himself describes within the novel:
- In the year 1820 the ship Essex, Captain Pollard, of Nantucket, was cruising in the Pacific Ocean. One day she saw spouts, lowered her boats, and gave chase to a shoal of sperm whales. Ere long, several of the whales were wounded; when, suddenly, a very large whale escaping from the boats, issued from the shoal, and bore directly down upon the ship. Dashing his forehead against her hull, he so stove her in, that in less than "ten minutes" she settled down and fell over.
- The Starbucks coffee chain is, indeed, named after Starbuck, Captain Ahab's first mate in Moby-Dick.
- In 2007, a fifth-grade elementary school class in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, petitioned the state legislature to designate Moby-Dick the official state book.
- Progressive heavy metal band Mastodon's 2004 album Leviathan was based loosely on the story of Moby-Dick
A famous 1956 screen adaptation was directed by John Huston and starred Gregory Peck, with a skillful screenplay by Ray Bradbury. When it was released, New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther devoutly recommended it as "one of the great motion pictures of our times." He said it was "composed like a symphony" and that "Space does not possibly permit us to cite all the things about this film that are brilliantly done or developed."
- Hawthorne, Nathaniel (1852), A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys: "Bald-Summit. After the Story." Online
- Herman Melville's Arrowhead (Berkshire Historical Society website); Mt. Greylock as viewed today from Arrowhead.
- Melville, Herman, Moby-Dick, chapter 45
- Starbucks company factsheet (PDF)
- In Pittsfield, a Mighty Hope for a Great Tale, The Boston Globe, May 1, 2007
- Crowther, Bosley (1956), "Screen: John Huston and Melville's White Whale, The New York Times, July 5, 1956, p. 18