Two Stray Notes On “Moby-Dick”

William Logan at The New Criterion:

The harsh criticism of Melville’s period may be almost as disconcerting to a modern reader as the shiftiness of publishers. Those who think critics should never criticize may find the treatment of his masterpiece, however acceptable by nineteenth-century standards, not edifying but shocking. The early critical reactions did not prevent Moby-Dick from being recognized as the Great American Novel, though that took most of a century—and neither did the positive reviews, nor the bits of possibly paid-for puffery, create a best-seller. The British edition never sold out. Though Moby-Dick did go through three more American printings over the next twenty years, the later ones were small and overall sales poor. Melville’s nine novels were published in an astonishing eleven years, the first seven in seven. After the last, The Confidence-Man (1857), an act of genius exceeded only by the tale of the whale, Melville abandoned fiction and fled to poetry, for which he possessed almost no gift. For two decades he was forced to make his living as a New York City customs-house inspector.

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