Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Saving the Whale

Moby-Dick turned 163 years old last week, since its first American publication in November, 1851.  That's a pretty long life span for a sperm whale, which typically live about 70 years, but who knows for sure.  These reclusive creatures haven't been studied thoroughly, even though their numbers have greatly rebounded since the whaling days Melville described.  You don't even have to go all the way to the Pacific to find one.  Sperm whales have been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico.

This Great White Whale was doomed to extinction until literary critics re-evaluated the novel in the 1920s and began to cite it as one of the great American novels.  It had been panned by British critics upon its initial release, with few copies sold in London.  It did slightly better in the States, enjoying a second printing, but lackluster sales left it on the back shelves.  That all changed with the Modern Library edition in 1926, which fetches a pretty good penny today.

Laurie Robertson-Lorant gets into the publishing history of the novel in her biography of Melville, noting that it was his wife, Elizabeth, who was instrumental in keeping his books in circulation after his death.  He had consigned himself to administrative work in the New York Customs office after publishers were no longer interested in his work, focusing on poetry in his later years.  He died in 1891, the same year as Walt Whitman, but there was no fanfare for him, like there was Whitman.  Most Americans no longer had any idea who he was.

It is hard to say how many times Moby-Dick has been reprinted since 1926.  It can be found in virtually every language and in every country around the world.  It's even been translated into Emoji.  It has been recast as a movie several times, the most memorable still being John Huston's 1956 film starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, but somehow these cinematic versions miss the boat, as Melville was striving for something far bigger than a whale's tale.  It is a book that demands to be read, not seen.

Melville was most notably influenced by Shakespeare.  Apparently Charles Olson was the first to recognize the profound influence the Stratford Bard had on Melville in his 1938 essay, Lear and Moby-Dick.  I would venture to say Melville was also influenced by Othello.  Olson felt that Melville saw Manifest Destiiny in Ahab's hunt for the great white whale, and would later use Moby as his own metaphor for the Cold War.

Whatever the case, there is no denying the power of this novel.  Happy Birthday, Moby!

1 comment:

  1. Great novel, sad that so much of its symbolism is lost on today's readership. But still a great read.