Kenneth Setzer

On this Day in Publishing History …

When I opened Google today, the Google doodle featured this beautiful scene from one of my favorite author’s magnum opus:

Google Moby Dick

Today’s the 161st anniversary of the publication of Moby Dick, and I happen to be about 80 pages into it as of last night! What a fantastic coincidence. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence at all. Moby Dick was not a commercial success for Herman Melville and was unappreciated until the early 20th century. Strange how his early successes are today not at all widely read. Typee, his first novel, is a semi-autobiographical account of a sailor who jumps ship in the South Pacific and “goes native,” a fantasy I’ve entertained many times. It’s a great read and was a strong seller for Melville; but who today can even name Melville’s first book? Everyone is familiar however with Moby Dick, if even from cartoons! This just adds to the book’s preternatural feel; it was way ahead of its time. Its incredible depth makes it enjoyable on many levels: literally interpreted as a nautical tale, rife with mid-19th century jargon and references, or interpreted on so many other levels and topics like man vs. nature, slavery, religion, madness, animal rights, and even the race relations on board a whaling vessel. It’s got it all.

Melville referred to Moby Dick as his “evil work,” and it does seem to have absolutely consumed him; it must certainly have felt like some force took him over, being so completely compelled to turn it from something marketable into the great work it is. Can you imagine what Melville would feel today, how redeemed and vindicated he’d feel? Just knowing how pervasive the whole story is throughout the world, the kids forced to read it and look up words like “paroxysm, bombazine,” and “spermaceti.”  Hopefully those begrudgingly reading the great work will come to appreciate it. I last read it about 10 years ago, and this time it’s much more accessible.

Scrimshaw Whaling Scene

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