Herman Melville books: At first, 'Moby Dick' was a total flop

As Herman Melville books go, 'Moby Dick' is widely considered to be his magnum opus. But early reviews trashed the book. Why did the literary world change its mind?

Among Herman Melville books, "Moby Dick" had really crummy sales. Many reviewers at the time either ignored or insulted the novel. So why does everyone, including Google, revere "Moby Dick" today?

Google celebrated the 161st anniversary of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" on Thursday. The book holds a very important place in English literature. A survey of 100 authors from 54 countries named "Moby Dick" as one of the 100 best books of all time, alongside Homer's "Odyssey" and Dante's "The Divine Comedy."

But public opinion was very different 161 years ago. When "Moby Dick" debuted in 1851, reviewers trashed it. Many argued that it wasn't even one of Melville's best books.

"Moby Dick" tells the story of a sailor – call him Ishmael. He finds himself aboard a whaling ship led by Captain Ahab, a peg-legged man with a single mission: Hunt down and kill the whale that took his leg. But as they chase the ferocious Moby Dick, Ahab's determination soon descends into madness.

Melville laced the book with intricate symbolism and complex themes. The book explores social status, the destructive power of obsession, the existence of God, good and evil, and whether animals can have human characteristics. At times, "Moby Dick" dives into these themes with long passages that have nothing to do with the central plot. Ahab, in particular, has a way of spinning off into lengthy speeches about life and the universe. 

Some universities spend entire semesters digging into this weighty novel – dissecting its metaphors and examining its layers of philosophy.

But when Melville debuted "Moby Dick" in the United Kingdom in October 1851 (the book reached American shores a month later), many British reviewers dismissed it.

"This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact," wrote the London Athenaeum at the time. "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."

The London Spectator wrote that Ahab's long soliloquies "induce weariness or skipping."


Sales bombed. "Moby Dick" sold only 500 copies in the United Kingdom, compared to 6,700 for Melville's first book, "Typee." 

The book faired better in the US, where reviewers appreciated Melville's originality and complexity. Still, "Moby Dick" sold fewer copies during Melville's life than any of his five previous books.

So why do we now revere "Moby Dick"? 

Shortly after Melville's death in 1891, his publisher reprinted several of his novels, including "Moby Dick." These new editions excited New York's literary scene. Like long-smoldering embers, this underground movement kept Melville's name alive. Eventually, the flame spread. So much discussion surrounded "Moby Dick" that many people gave the book a second chance. 

"The 1920s marked the start of a Melville revival among critics and readers," says PBS in its history of Melville. "By the 1940s, Americans at last recognized his genius. His reputation has since spread throughout the world."

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

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