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.
Moby Dick has often been called The Great American Novel and that’s true for every wrong reason. Published in London on October 18th in 1851, Melville’s heart soared with confidence that the public would embrace his masterpiece. This was not to be.
The version released in England had a botched ending and the reviewing critics were merciless. The book was corrected before its US release, but the reviews preceded it and the die was cast. The reception was horrific and Melville never recovered.
Today, decades later Moby Dick is recognized as an epic masterwork, but still, very few people have actually read it. Truthfully, that’s partly Melville’s fault.
The book is a mule choker, both long and descriptively detailed in the technicalities of nineteenth century whaling. Yes, the story is textured and timeless but the reader is often burdened with unnecessary commentary. Sure, it proves he knew what he was talking about, but it takes a real toll on the story’s momentum.
It’s a little like trying to read the Bible and getting bogged down in the Book of Numbers.
If America wasn’t ready for Moby Dick when it came out, America is less so now. Our attention spans are short and we want fast action in big screen high-definition. Moby Dick exceeds all of that in the theater of the mind, but only yields its treasure to patient lovers of lore and language.
All that said, I’m glad I read every word.