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Monday, August 27, 2012

Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Moby Dick
by Herman Melville
published 1851

  Herman Melville is the second major Author on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list to obtain his canonical status from a Revival.   The first example of the Revival phenomenon is the well-documented revival of Jane Austen in late 19th century.  Although published in 1851, Herman Melville was ignored for decades after his death except by a small circle of writers and critics in New York City who "kept the flame arrive."

 The conventional explanation for the revival of Herman Melville is that he was "before his time" in using Modernist literary techniques.   Fair enough.  It is true that successors didn't start truly arguing for the enduring value of Moby Dick until 1917.

Moby Dick the White Whales

  Much of the "blame" for the failure upon initial publications came from the harsh response that London based critics gave to Moby Dick.  The story goes that the less-sophisticated American critics followed their lead.   That is a weak explanation for why Moby Dick failed.

 The best way to illustrate this is by looking at the reception by American critics of books Charles Dickens published in the 1840s. The American critics expressed negative opinions of works like The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby that were "America specific" and independent of those expressed by English critics.

 I would argue that the key to understanding the initial commercial failure of Moby Dick by Herman Melville is held by looking at Herman Melville's popularity BEFORE Moby Dick was published.

 Specifically, he had popularity, and an Audience, based on Audience familiarity with his travel narratives. I think what went wrong when Moby Dick was published was specifically that he confused his Audience.  That Audience included both the folks who actually bought and read his earlier books, and liked them, as well as critics who were only interested in Moby Dick because it was by someone who had sold books in the past and had an existing Audience.

 That existing Audience- wasn't dissuaded from critics from not liking Moby Dick- they themselves did not like Moby Dick because it was so out there.  If the people who bought and read 500+ Novels in the mid 19th century- and that would have been everyone who read Novels, period- had liked Moby Dick, the critics would have come around.  If Moby Dick had been serialized, and the Audience for printed matters had glommed on to Moby Dick for whatever reason, the critics would have come around.

 A "blame the critics" approach to describing the failed initial reception of Moby Dick is wrong, one might as well blame the Audience for existing.

  It is also worth comparing the eventual popularity of Herman Melville and Moby Dick to Charles Dickens and his crowning achievement,  David Copperfield.  They were published almost within a year of one another in London, so it's a good comparison.  If you look at a Google Ngram comparing the frequency of mention of the two Authors names between 1840 and 2000,  Charles Dickens "takes off" in the mid 1860s and Herman Melville is flat well into the 20th century.  Since the 1960s both Authors have been flat, with Charles Dickens reasonably more popular then Herman Melville, but with both in the same league.

 If you add Jane Austen to the mix (another "revived" Author) you can see that she has blown both men out of the water in the late 20th century.   In the Dickens/Melville/Austen graph you can also see the impact of the earlier Austen revival during a time when Melville was essentially dormant.

 You can also add the names of the works: David Copperfield & Moby Dick, to the Ngram that contains the names of the Authors, Herman Melville and Charles Dickens.  This Ngram shows that Moby Dick the work is almost more popular or as popular as the Author, whereas David Copperfield is only a fraction of the popularity of Charles Dickens.

  I think the irony of the initial failure/eventual success of Moby Dick by Herman Melville is that it has literally inspired a hundred years of writers to write books people don't want to read.  Think about it, think about the later impact of literary modernism on the Novel and the shape that the Novel takes as an Art form during the 20th century.  Moby Dick has inspired a century of terrible writers to actually be terrible on the theory that after they are dead some egg head will finally "get" their brilliance.  Personally, I'd rather throw in with Charles Dickens then Herman Melville.

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