moby_first_edition.jpgSpeaking of Moby-Dick . . . Barack Obama’s favorite novel was published one hundred-fifty-seven years ago today — November 14, 1851 — by Harper & Brothers. The book had been published a month earlier in London with the title The Whale (the book’s working title). Melville had found the proofs for the British edition to be riddled with errors, some of which he chose to correct and others of which he left alone, allowing them (as he later put it in Pierre) to provide “a rich harvest” for future “entomological critics” poring over the book.

Unfortunately, many of Melville’s revisions to the proofs were ignored and other, unsanctioned changes were made. For example, the Extracts (intended to serve as a kind of overture to the novel) were placed at the end, and the Epilogue, which tells us how Ishmael survived the wreck of the Pequod, was omitted altogether. Many British reviewers were puzzled, therefore, by the fact that the novel was being narrated by someone who was ostensibly dead; many cried foul.

The edition that Harper & Brothers published had the Extracts and Epilogue properly in place, but by then American readers had already learned about the negative British reviews and were predisposed to find fault with the (correct) ending that they read.

Melville gave Hawthorne a copy of the book right away, and the older author read it immediately. He wrote a letter, now lost, praising the book. Melville responded:

Your letter was handed me last night . . . I felt pantheistic . . . A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb. . . . I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality

Hawthorne offered to write a review of the novel, but for some reason Melville asked him to keep his praise private. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake: when the reviews began to appear about two months later, many of them were scathing, although there were some positive notices (in contrast to the reception of Mardi two years earlier, which was universally panned.)

The poor notices cast a pall over Melville’s career, and he never got over them. He inserted sections into his next novel, Pierre, lambasting the literary establishment. He even proposed to Harpers, who had reduced his royalty arrangement in the aftermath of Moby-Dick‘s poor sales, that the new novel might do better if it were published anonymously. By the end of 1852 (according to a letter written by one of Hawthorne’s cousins) the Harpers came to think of Melville as “a little crazy.”

When I teach Moby-Dick, I often contrast its strategies to those of
Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as a way of explaining the
idea that every new literary work is greeted by a horizon of
(a term first used by the literary theorist Hans Robert
). The horizon of expectations for a text is determined by many things — historical and ideological context, generic history, literary history, and readers’ experience, among others — and texts can either meet the horizon of expectations or challenge it.

Writers write with at least a vague awareness of this horizon in mind. Stowe, for example, knowing that antislavery fiction did not sell well, deployed the strategies of sentimentalism and Christian teaching to hook her readers. Melville, in contrast, flouted conventions and sought to challenge the horizon of expectations with Moby-Dick — and lost.

Until the 1920s and the “Melville Revival,” which took place as the horizon of expectations for a serious literary novel were changing. Sentimentalism was out; modernist difficulty was beginning to be in. And Moby-Dick looked like a modernist novel avant la lettre.

Melville, of course, never lived to see his reputation change and died in relative obscurity. I often wonder which I would choose: achieving popular success during my lifetime but having my books be unread fifty years later, or a difficult, tortured life like Melville’s followed by a posthumous immortality. Which would you choose?