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You can see the influence of many other works of literature in Moby-Dick-the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, Homer's Odyssey. But perhaps the book's real power comes from the doubts and fears of Melville's own life. Though not as literally autobiographical as Typee or Omoo, in many ways Moby-Dick more truly reflects its author. While other popular American writers saluted the nation's free-enterprise system, Melville had seen how cut-throat competition could destroy men like his father. And so in the memorable sermon of Fleece, the cook, men are compared to savage sharks. While other writers promoted the ideal of the self-reliant, strong-willed American hero, Melville saw how easily those qualities might make a man a dictator. And so he shows us, in Captain Ahab, how strong will and self-reliance become madness. And while other writers imagined a benign God smiling down upon mankind, Melville saw the universe as at best indifferent, at worst cruel-as indifferent and cruel as the great whale, Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick is a book crowded with doubts and short on reassurance, the fitting product of a man who, in Hawthorne's words, could neither believe in anything "nor be comfortable in his disbelief."
Moby-Dick is the greatest work of Melville's career and one of the finest-perhaps "the" finest-works of American literature. Tradition has it that this masterpiece was unjustly attacked by critics and readers of its day. In fact, many reviews were favorable, and sales were respectable, though nowhere near the level of Typee. But Moby-Dick did not sell well enough for Melville to support his wife and children, and he came under increasing financial pressure. Though his wife's family was wealthy, Melville hated taking money from richer relatives, as his widowed mother had been forced to do. "Dollars damn me," he told Hawthorne angrily. "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,- it will not pay. Yet altogether write the other way, I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."
The rest of Melville's career seemed to prove the truth of his complaint. His next novel, Pierre (1852)- his only novel set on land, not water-was a failure. Some critics openly doubted his sanity in writing it. None of the books that followed-Israel Potter (1855), The Piazza Tales (1856) and The Confidence-Man (1857)-though valued highly today, achieved anything like the success of his first efforts. Worn out by writing ten books in eleven years, disappointed in his hopes of finding financial security through his work, Melville seemed to be near a nervous breakdown. He tried, as other authors of the day did, to make a living as a public speaker but failed. Finally, in 1866, he did what his family had long been urging him to do-he took his first steady job, a secure government post as the Deputy Inspector of Customs of the Port of New York.
Melville held the post until retirement, sinking into near total obscurity. He continued to write, though at a slow pace. Most of his time was spent composing poetry. And then, in the last years of his life, Melville wrote the novel Billy Budd, a gripping tale of good and evil aboard ship, that today is ranked second only to Moby-Dick among his works. But it was not published until 1924, more than 30 years after his death. When Melville died, on September 28, 1891, the obituary in the New York Post probably spoke for most when it said, "even his own generation has long thought him dead, so quiet have been the later years of his life."
Only in the 1920s, with the publication of the first biography of Melville and the discovery of the manuscript of Billy Budd, was Melville's greatness appreciated. Today he is regarded not only as a skilled spinner of sea tales but as a brilliant, tormented seeker of truth-and nowhere more brilliant, or tormented, than in Moby-Dick. About this book, the Nobel Prize-winning American author William Faulkner said, "Moby-Dick is the book which I put down with the unqualified thought, 'I wish I had written that.'" And the distinguished English author D. H. Lawrence wrote, "It is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul."Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version