On this Day:
In 1851, “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, was first published by Harper and Brothers in the USA.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is an 1851 novel by American writer Herman Melville. The book is the sailor Ishmael’s narrative of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, the giant white sperm whale that on the ship’s previous voyage bit off Ahab’s leg at the knee. A contribution to the literature of the American Renaissance, Moby-Dick was published to mixed reviews, was a commercial failure, and was out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891. Its reputation as a “Great American Novel” was established only in the 20th century, after the centennial of its author’s birth. William Faulkner said he wished he had written the book himself, and D. H. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written”. Its opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael”, is among world literature’s most famous.
Melville began writing Moby-Dick in February 1850, and finished 18 months later, a year longer than he had anticipated. Melville drew on his experience as a common sailor from 1841 to 1844, including several years on whalers, and on wide reading in whaling literature. The white whale is modeled on the notoriously hard-to-catch albino whale Mocha Dick, and the book’s ending is based on the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820. His literary influences include Shakespeare and the Bible. The detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting and of extracting whale oil, as well as life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew, are mixed with exploration of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. In addition to narrative prose, Melville uses styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry, and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides. In August 1850, with the manuscript perhaps half finished, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne and was deeply moved by his Mosses from an Old Manse, which he compared to Shakespeare in its cosmic ambitions. This encounter may have inspired him to revise and expand Moby-Dick, which is dedicated to Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius”.
The book was first published (in three volumes) as The Whale in London in October 1851, and under its definitive title in a single-volume edition in New York in November. The London publisher, Richard Bentley, censored or changed sensitive passages; Melville made revisions as well, including a last-minute change to the title for the New York edition. The whale, however, appears in the text of both editions as “Moby Dick”, without the hyphen. Reviewers in Britain were largely favorable, though some objected that the tale seemed to be told by a narrator who perished with the ship, as the British edition lacked the Epilogue recounting Ishmael’s survival. American reviewers were more hostile.
Within a year after Melville’s death in 1891, Moby-Dick, along with Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, was reprinted by Harper & Brothers, giving it a chance to be rediscovered. However, only New York’s literary underground showed interest, just enough to keep Melville’s name circulating for the next 25 years in the capital of American publishing. During this time, a few critics were willing to devote time, space, and a modicum of praise to Melville and his works, or at least those that could still be easily obtained or remembered. Other works, especially the poetry, went largely forgotten.
In 1917, American author Carl Van Doren became the first of this period to proselytize about Melville’s value in his 1921 study, The American Novel, calling Moby-Dick a pinnacle of American Romanticism.
In his 1923 idiosyncratic but influential Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence celebrated the originality and value of American authors, among them Melville. Perhaps surprisingly, Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the expurgated original English edition which also lacked the epilogue.
The Modern Library brought out Moby-Dick in 1926, and the Lakeside Press in Chicago commissioned Rockwell Kent to design and illustrate a striking three-volume edition which appeared in 1930. Random House then issued a one-volume trade version of Kent’s edition, which in 1943 they reprinted as a less expensive Modern Library Giant.
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 returns to marry his fiancée after killing the whale. The most famous adaptation was the John Huston 1956 film produced from a screenplay by author Ray Bradbury. The long list of adaptations, as Bryant and Springer put it, demonstrates that “the iconic image of an angry embittered American slaying a mythic beast seemed to capture the popular imagination.” They conclude that “different readers in different periods of popular culture have rewritten Moby-Dick” to make it a “true cultural icon.” American artist David Klamen has cited the novel as an important influence on his dark, slow-to-disclose paintings, noting a passage in the book in which a mysterious, undecipherable painting in a bar is gradually revealed to depict a whale.
American author Ralph Ellison wrote a tribute to the book in the prologue of his 1952 novel Invisible Man. The narrator remembers a moment of truth under the influence of marijuana and evokes a church service: “Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the ‘Blackness of Blackness.’ And the congregation answers: ‘That blackness is most black, brother, most black … ‘” This scene, Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad observes, “reprises a moment in the second chapter of Moby-Dick,” where Ishmael wanders around New Bedford looking for a place to spend the night, and momentarily joins a congregation: “It was a ‘Negro’ church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.” According to Rampersad, it was Melville who “empowered Ellison to insist on a place in the American literary tradition” by his example of “representing the complexity of race and racism so acutely and generously in his text.” Rampersad also believes Ellison’s choice of a first-person narrator was inspired above all by Moby-Dick, and the novel even has a similar opening sentence with the narrator introducing himself (“I am an invisible man”). The oration by Ellison’s blind preacher Barbee resembles Father Mapple’s sermon in that both prepare the reader for what is to come.
American songwriter Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech of 2017 cited Moby-Dick as one of the three books that influenced him most. Dylan’s description ends with an acknowledgment: “That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”
First, a Story:
What do you call a bunch of tourists who hope to see a giant sperm whale?
Second, a Song:
Moby Dick is a 1956 color film adaptation of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. It was directed by John Huston with a screenplay by Huston and Ray Bradbury. The film starred Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, and Leo Genn.
The music score was written by Philip Sainton.
n 1841, a sailor named Ishmael wanders to the New England town of New Bedford, Massachusetts to sign on a whaling ship. In the inn where he is staying for the night, he is forced to share his room with a Pacific Islander and harponeer named Queequeg, whom he befriends after a tense first meeting. The next morning, the two of them hire onto a whaling ship named Pequod, which is commanded by grim Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with hunting and killing a legendary white-skinned whale named Moby Dick, who was responsible for severing Ahab’s left leg. Just before their departure, Ishmael and Queequeg encounter a man named Elijah, who delivers an ominous warning about Ahab and that all but one of the crew who follow him will find their deaths on this voyage.
As the ship casts off, and for some time afterwards, Ahab remains unseen until he finally appears to align his crew to the hunt for Moby Dick and sets course for the Bikini Atoll, where the whale is said to dwell. While the crew reaps a fair bounty of oil on their journey, Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick remains foremost in his mind. When the captain of a passing ship, who recently lost his hand to the white whale, informs Ahab on Moby Dick’s latest whereabouts near the coast of Madagascar, Ahab immediately breaks off a particularly successful hunt, unsettling his crew, particularly his chief mate Starbuck. Starbuck suggests to his fellow officers Stubb and Flask to wrest command of the Pequod from Ahab, which the two refuse.
As the Pequod nears the atoll, a man falls from the ship’s mast into the sea and disappears. Right afterwards, the Pequod is stuck in slack water for days. Casting bones to read his future, Queequeg foresees his death and orders the ship’s carpenter to make him a coffin, before he sits down to await his demise. When one of the crew prepares to cut Queequeg’s skin for fun, Ishmael rises to his friend’s defense, prompting Queequeg to break his death reverie and defend Ishmael. Just then, Moby Dick briefly appears before the ship and escapes before the Pequod crew can attack him.
After rowing the ship out of the becalmed area, Ahab resumes the hunt. They encounter the Rachel, another whaler from New Bedford, whose captain, Gardiner, asks Ahab to help search for his son, who was carried off by Moby Dick; Ahab refuses his aid and departs. When the Pequod hits a typhoon, Ahab uses the gale to speed the chase, endangering the ship. Starbuck decided to depose Ahab by force, but relents when in a rare humane moment Ahab reminisces about his self-destructive obsession for revenge.
Right after this conversation, a strange omen portends the fulfillment of Elijah’s baleful prophecy. Moby Dick reappears, and the Pequod crew sets out in their boats to bring him down. In the chaotic altercation, Moby Dick destroys Ahab’s boat, but Ahab climbs onto the whale’s back and stabs him until Moby Dick submerges, entangling Ahab in the harpoon lines on his back and drowning him. Instead of calling off the hunt, Starbuck orders the men to continue. Moby Dick attacks the boats, smashing them and killing the men; he then rams and sinks the Pequod before disappearing. Ishmael, the only survivor, manages to cling onto Queequeg’s coffin until he is found and picked up by the Rachel.
Eldred Gregory Peck (April 5, 1916 – June 12, 2003) was an American actor and one of the most popular film stars from the 1940s to the 1960s. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Peck among 25 Greatest Male Stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema, ranking him at No. 12.
After studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse with Sanford Meisner, Peck began appearing in stage productions, acting in over fifty plays and three Broadway productions. He first gained critical success in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), a John M. Stahl-directed drama which earned him his first Academy Award nomination. He starred in a series of successful films, including romantic-drama The Valley of Decision (1944), Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), and family film The Yearling (1946). He encountered lukewarm commercial reviews at the end of the 1940s, his performances including The Paradine Case (1947) and The Great Sinner (1948). Peck reached global recognition in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing back-to-back in the book-to-film adaptation of Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) and biblical drama David and Bathsheba (1951). He starred alongside Ava Gardner in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953), which earned Peck a Golden Globe award.
Other notable films in which he appeared include Moby Dick (1956, and its 1998 mini-series), The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cape Fear (1962, and its 1991 remake), The Omen (1976), and The Boys from Brazil (1978). Throughout his career, he often portrayed protagonists with “fiber” within a moral setting. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) centered on topics of antisemitism, while Peck’s character in Twelve O’Clock High (1949) dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder during World War II. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), an adaptation of the modern classic of the same name which revolved around racial inequality, for which he received universal acclaim. In 1983, he starred opposite Christopher Plummer in The Scarlet and The Black as Hugh O’Flaherty, a Catholic priest who saved thousands of escaped Allied POWs and Jewish people in Rome during the Second World War.
Peck was also active in politics, challenging the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and was regarded as a political opponent by President Richard Nixon. President Lyndon B. Johnson honored Peck with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 for his lifetime humanitarian efforts. Peck died in his sleep from bronchopneumonia at the age of 87.
Here is Gregory Peck’s best scene (per TheGreat Gambino on YouTube.com) playing Captain Ahab in his encounter with Moby Dick. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“A smile is the chosen vehicle of all ambiguities.” – Herman Melville
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky