18 October 1851, Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale“ was first published in London.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed; and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equalled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness. But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.“ (D.H. Lawrence)
|Everett Henry’s (1893 – 1961) wonderful map of the Voyage of the Pequod (1956)|
Just a few weeks before the publication of the cetacean novel that hardly anyone felt compelled to read for the next 70 years, a huge sperm whale had attacked and sunk the good ship “Ann Alexander” out of New Bedford some 2,000 miles east of the coast of Peru. Melville was in London when he heard the news and he remarked: “Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster." It was one of the rare but not unheard of incidents when a bull sperm whale had attacked a ship three times his own size and while the monster was slain in January 1852 by the crew of another New Bedford whaler, the “Rebecca Sims”, off the Galapagos Islands, another whale of a tale was still told along the Eastern Seaboard, the story of the “Essex”, sunk by a sperm whale out in the open Pacific Ocean in 1820 along with the spine-crawling ordeal of her crew’s survival. It became one of the major inspirations for Melville, along with the account of “Mocha Dick”, a white bull sperm whale with his head covered in barnacles, his peculiar method of spouting and his ability to come out of the water completely when he breached in anger, recorded in the “Knickerbocker” magazine in 1839. And there was Melville’s own experience, gathered aboard the whaler “Acushnet” of Fairhaven, Mass., and the Australian whaleship “Lucy Ann”, a time 23 years old Melville found so unbearable that he felt compelled to jump ship twice. But even though “Moby Dick” comes in the guise of a fable about the harsh days of whaling, the gory business is but a background, almost a sideshow of America’s greatest novel.
|I.W. Taber's imagination of the "Final Chase" (1902)|
Melville’s audience expected something along the lines of “Typee” or “Omoo”, both best-selling novels inspired by the author’s adventures in the South Pacific and “Moby Dick” came as 200,000 word leviathan full of allusions and elaborations on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, the Scriptures, marine mammals, quotes from completely obscure sources and, of course, the sea. Unfortunately, the majority of the American readers’ tastes had turned westward to the Great Plains and California after gold had been found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, causing a period of migration in the Northern Hemisphere. Yarn of Nantucket sleigh rides, whales and sailors were no longer that interesting, but the attempt to capture the totality of human existence and cram it aboard a whaler, anticipating the great Russian novels of the late 19th century and the classical modernists, Joyce, Dos Passos and Döblin, was simply too much to stomach. It took the turmoil of the 20th century to ripe readers for “Moby Dick” and its baroque tour-de-force through the summary of literary experience of almost 3,000 years. In 1902, almost like a symbol for the change of the audience and the appreciation of the novel, a white sperm whale was killed off the Azores, a 90’ long scarred old bull, veteran of uncounted fights, allegedly a hundred years old. The modern whalemen brought him down with a modern harpoon tipped with an explosive device.
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