Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Rare appreciation of Moby-Dick, early and late

Contrary to confident pronouncements by otherwise smart people, the idea that Moby-Dick ruined Melville's life and literary career is factually wrong and sooo twentieth century.
It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick.
--Writer's Almanac
"... Melville went to his grave feeling he was a failure."  --Garrison Keillor
After the disappointment of Moby Dick's reception, Melville faced a battle against obscurity and financial ruin for the remainder of his life.--PBS, American Experience
... The story of Melville writing a book that just fails utterly, that destroyed his life and destroyed his career — I think it's fascinating that someone would create a masterpiece and, yet, the world would take 70 years to find that out. --Michael Shelden interview, October 2014
Leaving aside the issue of Melville's questionable regard for fame in his own lifetime, when did our present aesthetic sensibilities become so fine? As a general thing, people seem to be about as worldly and indifferent to literary greatness now as they were in Melville's time.

Truly discerning appreciation of Moby-Dick is rare as ever, and always welcome.

At least back then newspapers still printed poetry on the front page! In St. Louis, The Daily Missouri Republican (December 4, 1851) published a long excerpt from THE CHASE--FIRST DAY. Other papers extracted whole chapters from Moby-Dick. Chapter 61 was a favorite, honored with numerous re-printings in the early 1850's.

So let's take a moment to celebrate those critical readers who did get it. Right away, some of them, and entirely without the benefit of any Melville Revival or later approving scholarship. For example:

New York Daily Tribune, November 22, 1851
"Remarkable," is the adjective which, by general consent, is applied to all of Herman Melville's books.  They deserve the epithet, and others less vague and satisfactory.  Melville is a true genius, and impresses himself upon all that he writes.  We do not know that he indulges himself in verse, but he is a poet and a dramatist, as well as a novelist and historiographer; and somehow in everything that he gives to the public, he illustrates his wonderful versatility,--so that the reader hardly knows whether to admire him most as poet, dramatist, novelist or philosopher....
... In richness and boldness of coloring, whether he is portraying scenery or men, describing a chase for a whale, the revel in the forecastle, or the self-communion of a strong spirit marked and wrenched by fate or circumstance, the author of “Moby-Dick” has scarcely an equal and no superior. We venture to predict, that among the prolific issues of the American press, this year, none will take hold of a wider and more speedy popularity, or more successfully maintain its place in the affections of the reading public, than this last production of Herman Melville.”
--Syracuse Daily Standard, November 24, 1851
"The high reputation attained by Mr. Melville as the author of those admirable works, Typee, Omoo, Redburn, Mardi, and White Jacket, is fully sustained...."  
--Washington Union, November 30, 1851

“… a prose Epic on Whaling. In whatever light it may be viewed, no one can deny it to be the production of a man of genius… Mr. Melville has a strange power to reach the sinuosities of a thought, if we may so express ourselves; he touches with his lead and line depths of pathos that few can fathom, and by a single word can set a whole chime of sweet or wild emotions into a pealing concert. His delineation of character is actually Shakespearean...." --Washington National Intelligencer, December 16, 1851
There is much that is incredible and a little that is incomprehensible in this latest effort of Mr. Melville’s wayward and romantic pen; but despite its occasional extravagancies, it is a book of extraordinary merit, and one which will do great things for the literary reputation of its author. “Take it fore and aft,” as the sailors say, it is a work of great power and beauty, and our remembrance cannot fellow it with any other modern work of a similar class, equally clever and equally entertaining. 
--London Morning Post, November 14, 1851
"We have not read a book of more absorbing interest for some time. There is something grand and poetical in the vow of the terrible old Ahab that seizes upon one by main force; and the power and vigour of the author in his descriptive passages are solemnly conspicuous. He has great command of character too....But we have no space to enter into minutiae, for which we must refer the reader to the book itself. We can only once more express our hearty admiration of the performance as a work of interest and art."
--London Daily News, January 12, 1852
At his death in 1891, Melville was indeed described as "forgotten" (in newspaper stories which prove he wasn't, really), sometimes alongside insightful criticism like this:
"He was undoubtedly an original thinker, and boldly and unreservedly expressed his opinions, often in a way that irresistibly startles and enchains the interest of the reader. He possessed marked powers of expression. He could be terse, copious, eloquent, brilliant, imaginative, poetical, satirical, pathetic, at will. Though never stupid or dull, yet he was often mystical and unintelligible, though not from any inability to express himself. His death removes a noted figure in American literature."   
--Mortuary Notice, Boston Journal, September 29, 1891 (repeating language from the 1856 assessment in the Dublin University Magazine)
and high tributes like this [update: by Charles Goodrich Whiting]:
He had long been forgotten, and was no doubt unknown to the most of those who are reading the magazine literature and the novels of the day. Nevertheless, it is probable that no work of imagination more powerful and often poetic has been written by an American than Melville’s romance of “Moby Dick; or the Whale,” …. 
--"Books, Authors And Art. The Literary Wayside" in the Springfield [Massachusetts] Republican, October 4, 1891
To these moldy old pre-Revival views, compare Garrison Keillor's fresh take in this National Geographic Interview:
Novels tend to be too long, and they sink under their own weight—has anyone ever finished Moby Dick? Anyone? They're lying.
or the virtual pages of Newsweek:
A classic you revisited with disappointment: "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville. Why did it take Melville so looooooonnnng to get to the story? I couldn't make it more than halfway through.
A book that parents should read to their kids: "Moby-Dick." Two minutes and they'll be asleep.  --A Life in Books

"Filed under Culture" (in case you were wondering). 

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1 comment:

  1. I couldn't get through "Lake Wobegon Days" and I'm NOT lying!