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Posts Tagged ‘Moby-Dick’

“Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.“
Ishmael in Moby-Dick (Chapter 17)
Written by Herman Melville

“I can assure you, Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he said that American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. It begins with Moby-Dick.”
—Novelist E. L. Doctorow
(More than 150 years after Moby-Dick failed to make a ripple when initially released.)

While I was on Nantucket at the end of June, I picked up the book Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick at Nantucket Bookworks.

Philbrick wastes no time in dropping some surprising facts about Melville that were unknown to me:

Page 6:

“By the time of Melville’s death in 1891, Moby-Dick had sold a grand total of 3,715 copies.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Page 2:
”In December 1850, Melville was just thirty-one years old. A few months earlier he’d decided to move his family from New York City to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, the temporary home of his new literary idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne. . . . From the second-floor study of the farmhouse he purchased and renovated with loans from his father-in-law and a family friend, he could see nearby Mount Greylock.”
–Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathanial Hawthrone’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850. He moved to a farmhouse near Lennox, MA in March of that year, and a few months later met Melville at a picnic. Melville had already had success with his novel Typee. The house he bought in 1850 is known as Arrowhead and located in Pittsfield, MA. I took a tour of the house during the last week of June.

The furniture and other items in the room are not authentic, and there have been some modifications to the house, but the room where Melville wrote Moby-Dick is essentially the same.

And you can see the view that Melville had when he looked out over Mt. Greylock. When Melville finished Moby-Dick, he thought he’d written a story that would be considered one of the best American novels. He arguably did, though it would take about 80 years for the book to be discovered and appreciated. When he died, Moby-Dick wasn’t even mentioned in some of his obituaries. Unable to make a living as a writer, he sold Arrowhead 1863 and moved to New York City where he died 1891.

Though Melville was landlocked when he wrote Moby-Dick, he did spend four years at sea living a great adventure in his early 20s. (He said that was his Harvard and his Yale.) Melville was inspired by the tragic true story of the Essex whaling ship.

Philbrick’s modern retelling of the Essex story is the book In the Heart of the Sea, which became the Ron Howard directed movie In the Heart of the Sea.

P.S. Part of my short time in Nantucket was spent at the Whaling Museum which was quite fascinating, and gave a great overview of how the small island for a time was a hub of international trade due to the islanders success in the whaling industry. And though Melville has a chapter on Nantucket in Moby-Dick, he did not actually visit the island until after his book was published.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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