16th June 2021
In the Spring of 1850, five novels behind him, Herman Melville began work on ‘Moby Dick’. He had promised his publisher a romantic adventure, or adventurous romance, much in the style of his earlier work. However, this novel was going to be greater, without doubt his greatest. He felt it.
After moving to a farm in Massachusetts, Melville met and became close friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Discussions with the older writer, and copious reading of The Bard, encouraged Melville to expand the scope of his novel into something quite different.
From Spring to the Autumn of the following year, Melville worked with a fervour of creative energy, often going without food or rest until late afternoon, crying out, “Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand.”
Finally … it was finished, and sent over the ocean, to Richard Bently in England, his publisher, as his books premiered there, before becoming available in his native land.
Melville was a confident man, and was sure that this monumental achievement would establish his literary reputation for all time.
But the reviews, from England, were rather mixed. While some praised the work, its originality, characters and plot, others were vociferous in their damnation.
To compound the situation, the British edition, named ‘The Whale’, had been edited by Bently, so as not to cause offence to political or social sensibilities. Bently also, for some unfathomable reason, omitted the epilogue. It was published without the final page.
Unfortunately, the American critics preferred to read their British counterparts, and not their compatriot author, and the novel sold poorly, the initial pressing of 3 000 copies not selling in Melville’s lifetime.
The drama’s done. Instead of elevating Melville to the Parthenon of genius, he was cast adrift in waters of increasing turbulence.
The following book, ‘Pierre, or The Ambiguities’ of 1852 was both a critical and financial disaster, with Bently even refusing to publish it. Melville’s family had also noticed a change come over him. Writing this darker novel, the disillusioned author would lock himself away, only emerging at night.
He turned to the more accessible form of the short story, desperate for the income generated by magazines, as he was unable to support his family and had to depend on handouts from his father-in-law.
After 1857, he wrote no more prose, exclusively composing poetry.
He undertook lecture tours from 1857 – 1860, but these were also unsuccessful. He was forced to leave his farm, and return to New York to work.
He got a job in the New York Custom’s House, but was prone to ill health and financial worries.
He died in 1891, almost forgotten. His passing was noticed in just one obituary.