Although it is difficult if not impossible to judge any work as the "best" of its kind, Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville (1819–1891) is often considered the greatest American novel. An adventure that takes place on the high seas, it tells the story of a sea captain's search for the whale that ripped off his leg. In Moby Dick Melville also gives a penetrating critique of American class and racist prejudices, provides a volume of information on whale behavior, and presents his ideas about the nature of good and evil. The author was himself an experienced sailor, having left school at the age of fifteen to work on a ship and later returning to the sea at the age of twenty-one when he was employed on a whaling boat. During the eighteen months he spent on the whaler he was severely mistreated, so he jumped ship and escaped to an island where he was captured by local people. They treated him well and released him shortly thereafter. Melville then went back to the United States, where he wrote Moby Dick. The book was not well received, and the author died in obscurity and poverty. Moby Dick began to gain an admiring audience of scholars, critics, and students after the 1920s, when it was "rediscovered."
Further Information: Gilmore, Michael T. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Moby Dick. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1977; Herman Melville. [Online] Available http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/melville.htm, October 23, 2000; Herman Melville. [Online] Available http://www.robinsonresearch. com/LITERATE/AUTHORS/Melville.htm, October 23, 2000; Herman Melville. [Online] Available http://www.poets.org/LIT/poet/hmelvill.htm, October 23, 2000; Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Random House, 1988; Stafford, William T. Melville's Billy Budd and the Critics. Belmont, Calf.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1968.