Herman Melville: Great White Whale
On 14 November 1851, Moby-Dick was published in the United States. (It came out a month earlier in London.) The story of Captain Ahab's fatal, monomaniacal hatred of the giant white whale that ate his leg was astonishing. The book was a simultaneous combination of an adventure story, a detailed account of the whaling industry, a cautionary tale, and a metaphor whose meaning scholars still argue over today. Literary critics were—mostly—enthusiastic. "Of all the extraordinary books from the pen of Herman Melville this is out and out the most extraordinary," a British reviewer wrote. "Few books which professedly deal in metaphysics, or claim the parentage of the muses, contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod's whaling expedition."13 Others seemed confused by Melville's experiment: "This is an odd book, professing to be a novel; wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic; in places charmingly and vividly descriptive,"14 declared the London Literary Gazette.
Unfortunately for Melville, readers tended to agree with the latter opinion. Unlike his previous novels, sales of Moby-Dick were weak and disappointing. The public's indifference toward the book caused Melville more problems than a bruised ego. He had bet too much on the book's prospective success. He had taken out a second mortgage on Arrowhead and was now having trouble making the payments. Debts began to pile up, and financial management was never Melville's strong suit. "Herman from his studious habits and tastes being unfitted for practical matters, all the financial management falls on me," his wife wrote to a friend.15 In spite of the book being a commercial flop, Melville was still pleased with what he'd accomplished—from a literary perspective - with Moby-Dick.
In 1852, Melville followed Moby-Dick with the novel Pierre. The book was controversial and difficult, delving into taboo subjects like incest. The public hated it, and criticism of Melville became hostile. "Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon," a reviewer wrote in 1852. "In bombast, in caricature, in rhetorical artifice—generally as clumsy as it is ineffectual—and in low attempts at humor, each one of his volumes has been an advance among its predecessors."16 Melville knew that readers were turning against his work, yet he refused to compromise his literary integrity for commercial gain. "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, -- it will not pay," he confessed to Hawthorne. "Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot."17
Discouraged by the failures of his novels, Melville turned to short stories. In 1853, he published his first story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener." The story was about an eccentric law clerk who makes everyone uneasy by refusing to behave as he should. The story made readers uncomfortable, precisely because it refused to behave as a story should. A century and a half after its publication, "Bartleby" still confounds readers and scholars, who attempt to decipher what Melville was trying to tell us with his mysterious character. Readers at the time had no patience for it.
Melville published fifteen short stories in three years, and in 1857 published The Confidence Man, a novel now considered an American classic. Readers at the time of the book's publication hated it, including his own family. "It belongs to that horribly uninteresting class of nonsensical books he is given to writing—where there are pages of crude theory & speculation to every line of narrative—& interspersed with strained & ineffectual attempts to be humorous,"18 his brother-in-law wrote to a relative. Melville realized that writing was no longer a reliable way to support his family, which now included two sons and two daughters. He quit trying to make a living from it. "For tho' we know what we ought to be; & what it would be very sweet & beautiful to be; yet we can't be it," he wrote to Hawthorne's wife Sophia. "That is most sad, too."19