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How 'Moby-Dick' anticipated modernist writing

Jochen Kürten sh
July 31, 2019

He was born 200 years ago, yet Melville is still one of the world's most celebrated authors. His best-known book was so far ahead of its time that it was largely forgotten for almost a century before being rediscovered.

Bildergalerie zum 200. Geburstag des amerikanischen Schriftstellers Herman Melville
Image: picture-alliance/CPA Media Co. Ltd

"A book in a man's brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safe from criticism."

Herman Melville wrote these lines a few months before his novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was published in London. Shortly thereafter, it was also released in his hometown of New York. Maybe Melville had a feeling that Moby-Dick would be a commercial flop: Only about 3,000 copies were sold during his lifetime.

It took years before Melville's talent would be celebrated to the extent it is today.

Thanks to his novel Moby-Dick, the US author is considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 19th century, as well as a monument of literary history and a pioneer of the modern novel. Now, as the celebrated author's 200th birthday rolls around — Melville was born August 1, 1819 in New York City — it's important to remember that for almost a century, his work was largely forgotten.  

A late literature discovery 

It wasn’t until the 1920s that Melville's literary talent was truly discovered when Moby-Dick came into the spotlight. "The language, complexity and ambiguity of this book were very impressive at the time… and it was never really appreciated in the 19th century," says Alexander Pechmann, author, publisher, translator of English-language literature and a Melville connoisseur.

Today, many people think of Moby-Dick as a novel for kids and young adults, as it was shortened to include only the most exciting elements — or as a Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck.

Few people have likely read the several hundred pages that make up the original novel. Unlike the shortened version, the original Moby-Dick tells much more than the story of the fanatical Captain Ahab, who, on the verge of madness, sets out in search of the legendary white whale.

Actor Gregory Peck
Actor Gregory Peck plays Melville's captain Ahab in the Hollywood adaptation of the bookImage: picture-alliance/United Archives

Read more: Herman Melville in the Berkshires 
Experimental, playful and without boundaries

The original book is composed of many different elements, wrapped up into a multi-chapter novel. "What distinguishes it from the (abridged) adventure story are these insertions of Melville, who used very different stylistic devices," explains Pechmann: "There are chapters that seem as if they have been taken out of the script of a play, as well as articles, essays and even encyclopedia texts about different varieties of whales, about whaling."

With this work, Melville broke away from traditional storytelling methods of the day and "created something much bigger," said Pechmann. "Starting with a simple adventure story, he created an increasingly metaphysical narrative, which was full of allusions." What resulted was an incredibly complex work. "The story was used as a way to bring in different interpretive possibilities."

Bildergalerie zum 200. Geburstag des amerikanischen Schriftstellers Herman Melville
Melville based 'Moby-Dick' on his own experiences at seaImage: imago images / UIG

The story that Melville put on paper in 1850-51 was the result of a wide variety of literary influences, as well as experiences from his own life. Born the third of eight children of Scottish immigrants, Melville was only 13 when his father died, and was forced to leave school to earn money.

He went to sea for the first time at the age of 20. Two years later, he was hired on a whaling ship. Finding the conditions on the ship to be inhumane, Melville eventually deserted. Escape and imprisonment in the South Pacific followed, then another escape, then prison again, before he was hired on a US Navy ship.

In 1844, Melville returned home to the USA. Three years later, he married Elizabeth Shaw and became the father of four children. The couple moved to a small farm in Massachusetts. He brought his experiences at sea, as well as his time in present-day French Polynesia to paper in his novels Typee and Omoo, which both sold well.

Moby-Dick, however, would not have the same success. The book was "very difficult to classify within the literature of that time, and perhaps that's why it wasn't so well received," says Pechmann.

Melville was hired on this whaling ship and traveled the world on it
Melville was hired on this whaling ship and traveled the world on it Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

In the 20th century, modernist writers saw Melville as one of their own

In literary history, Moby-Dick seems to have anticipated a modernist writing style. "These are techniques that emerged in the 1920s," says Pechmann referring to the collage-like texts, and how Melville played with different stylistic devices. The fact that these stylistic and aesthetic applications were found in a novel from the 19th century was "a sensation" and led modern authors to consider Melville one of their own, he says.

Moby-Dick isn't the only work that brought Melville his present-day celebrity. Among his later works, novellas, novels and lyrical writings, the narrative Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) stands out. It is the story of Bartleby, a clerk at a law firm on Wall Street who suddenly refuses to work for some inexplicable reason.

Kafkaesque before Kafka

"I would prefer not to" is the mysterious mantra-like response of Bartleby when asked to do his work. "The book was written at a time when Melville was reluctant to fulfill his ambitions of becoming a great and well-known writer," says Pechmann, particularly after Moby-Dick and another novel, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, had been commercial flops. Melville thought of suicide and experienced depression. At the same time, however, the book also has a sense of humor, says Pechmann: "It is actually quite a contradictory book: on the one hand, it is incomprehensibly modern, yet also anchored in this era."

What made Bartleby so modern? "This figure of refusal," says Pechmann. "The office clerk is already a modern figure and this idea of total refusal is something that did not exist in 19th-century literature at all." With Bartleby, Melville anticipated Franz Kafka's prose and the existentialist currents in philosophy and literature of later periods.