Today is the one hundred and sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
It is one of the great achievements in human endeavors.
In honor of this anniversary I would like to offer three things: The first paragraph of a notice of Melville’s death, from the October 2, 1891 New York Times, an excerpt from Nathaniel’s Philbrick’s new book, Why Read Moby Dick?, and a portion of the great book itself, chosen at random.
From the New York Times, October 2, 1891
There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event, not only throughout his own country, but so far as the English-speaking race extended. To the ponderous and quarterly British reviews of that time, the author of Typee was about the most interesting of literary Americans, and men who made few exceptions to the British rule of not reading an American book not only made Melville one of them, but paid him the further compliment of discussing him as an unquestionable literary force. Yet when a visiting British writer a few years ago inquired at a gathering in New-York of distinctly literary Americans what had become of Herman Melville, not only was there not one among them who was able to tell him, but there was scarcely one among them who had ever heard of the man concerning whom he inquired, albeit that man was then living within a half mile of the place of the conversation. Years ago the books by which Melville’s reputation had been made had long been out of print and out of demand. The latest book, now about a quarter of a century old, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, fell flat, and he has died an absolutely forgotten man.
From the beginning of Chapter 13, “A Mighty Messy Book” from Why Read Moby-Dick?, by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Hawthorne had a lot to do with the making of Moby-Dick, but the novel truly began in February 1849 when Melville purchased a large-type edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The eyes that would become so inflamed during the composition of Moby-Dick were already beginning to bother him. “[C]hancing to fall in with this glorious edition,” he wrote to a friend of the large-type volumes, “I now exult over it, page after page.”
Melville’s example demonstrates the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference. For Melville, the timing could not have been better, and in the flyleaf of the last volume of his seven-volume set of Shakespeare’s plays are notes written during the composition of Moby-Dick about Ahab, Pip, and other characters.
From Melville’s Moby-Dick, Chapter 113, page 1315, Library of America edition (passage chosen at random):
At last the shank, in one complete rod, received its final heat; and as Perth, to temper it, plunged it all hissing into the cask of water near by, the scalding steam shot up into Ahab’s bent face.
“Would’st thou brand me, Perth!” wincing for a moment with the pain; “have I been forging my own branding-iron then?”
“Pray God, not that; yet I fear something, Captain Ahab. Is not this harpoon for the White Whale?”
“For the white fiend! But now for the barbs; thou must make them thyself, man. Here are the razors–the best of steel; here, and make the barbs sharp as the needle-sleet of the Icy Sea.”
For a moment, the old blacksmith eyed the razors as though he would fain not use them.
“Take them, man, I have no need for them; for now I neither shave, sup, nor pray till–but here–to work!”
Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape, and welded by Perth to the shank, the steel soon pointed the end of the iron; and as the blacksmith was about giving the barbs their final heat, prior to tempering them, he cried to Ahab to place the water-cask near.
“No, no–no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?” holding it up high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered.
“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.