Herman Melville’s Literary Evolution by Bill Urich

On this day in 1851, Herman Melville publishes Moby-Dick in the US, unleashing literary forces which would torment, vex and flunk countless confused high school students for generations. While Melville earned some praise with the work, even being compared to Shakespeare, others were not so forgiving. “The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed,” said the London Athenaeum.

Melville himself was a terribly colorful fellow, at least in his vigor. At age 19, he became a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool. He later sailed to the South Seas on a whaler, the Acushnet, which anchored in Polynesia. He took part in a mutiny, was thrown in jail in Tahiti, escaped, and wandered around the South Sea islands from 1841 to 1844.

In 1846, he published his first novel, Typee, based on his Polynesian adventures. His second book, Omoo (1847), also dealt with the South Seas. The two novels became popular, although his third, Mardi (1849), more experimental in nature, failed to catch on with the public.

Moby Dick itself, which still causes American Lit students to go fetal, underwent a great re-appreciation in the post-WW1 era US. The novel has been adapted or represented in art, film, books, cartoons, television, and more than a dozen versions in comic-book format. The first adaptation was the 1926 silent movie The Sea Beast, starring John Barrymore, in which Ahab kills the whale and returns to marry his fiancée. The most famous adaptation was the John Huston 1956 film produced from a screenplay by author Ray Bradbury.

The long list of treatments, as Bryant and Springer put it, demonstrate that “the iconic image of an angry embittered American slaying a mythic beast seemed to capture the popular imagination,” showing how “different readers in different periods of popular culture have rewritten Moby-Dick” to make it a “true cultural icon.” Whatever that means.

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