Latest Issue. Past Issues. By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. A great herd of readers profess devotion to Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick , but novelists especially seem to love saying they love it.
What “Moby-Dick” Means to Me
Herman Melville Literary Criticism
Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course. Log in or Sign up. Chances are, you had heard of Moby-Dick before you were ever asked to read it. It is an instantly recognizable title and is always included in any list of ''Great American Novels.
The 100 best novels: No 17 – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
High philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme, yet always good, and often admirable; fertile fancy, ingenious construction, playful learning, and an unusual power of enchaining the interest, and rising to the verge of the sublime, without overpassing that narrow boundary which plunges the ambitious penman into the ridiculous; all these are possessed by Herman Melville, and exemplified in these volumes. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise… We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book … Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature—since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.
Though Herman Melville had published it in —scrounging together his own funds to do so, as he was so in debt that there was no other way to get the book printed—his novel felt at once of its time and almost like a book from the next century. At the time, many American books were first published in Britain, to take advantage of British copyright laws, as international copyright laws did not yet exist, but this meant that British editors often trimmed and bowdlerized manuscripts without even telling their authors. As if to add insult to injury, the edition featured pictures of right whales, rather than sperm whales—Moby Dick is the latter—on its gold-emblazoned spine. The American edition, though, arranged the book as Melville wanted it. It was the kind of text that could justify, as with the poems of Rimbaud or the paintings of the Impressionists, a long view of European and American Modernism beginning in the 19th century, rather than the 20th.