Today In History: Moby Dick Is Published

November 14, 1851

Public Radio International

Today in 1851, Herman Melville published Moby-Dick, considered by many literary critics to be the finest novel ever written. The story centers around the whaling ship Pequod, captained by the revenge-hungry Ahab and his obsession with an enormous, white sperm whale.

Melville was born in 1819, in New York City. He was a member of the merchant marines in his youth. He was also in the U.S. Navy and spent time on a South Seas whaling ship.

Typee, his first novel, was published in 1846. It’s an adventure story, based on Melville’s personal experiences in Polynesia. It was a popular book, as was its sequel, Omoo, published in 1847.

Melville published three more novels to mixed reviews. Moby-Dick was then published in London, in 1851, and then the next month in America. The book was originally released as three volumes, titled “The Whale.”

Moby-Dick was originally written with a promise to Melville’s publisher that it was an adventure story. What the publisher got instead was a sweeping, melancholic epic that continues to fascinate scholars and casual readers.

At the time, Moby-Dick was met with a whimper from the reading public. Moby-Dick passed, along with the rest of Melville’s bibliography, into temporary obscurity. He published multiple other works after Moby-Dick, including his famous story Bartleby the Scrivener.

However, he wasn’t making enough as a writer to live, and went back to New York to work until his death as a customs inspector. He died in 1891 a marginal literary figure. This would, thankfully, change.

Melville was rediscovered in the 1920s by the academic world. Moby-Dick, in particular, caught the attention of scholars thoughtful enough to recognize it for the work of genius that it was. Melville was posthumously canonized as one of the greatest novelists in history, perhaps even the greatest.