Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

The first edition of Moby-Dick received a mixed reception. It was condemned for its unusual narrative style and for its irreverent tone. The proportion of positive to negative reviews was highest in England, where the book had been published in three volumes under the title The Whale. There were other differences between the American and English editions. The English publisher, Bentley, positioned the Extracts section at the end of the book and did not include the Epilogue at all. The main body of the text had also been abridged to cut out much of the overt blasphemy and sexual suggestiveness. One of the earliest and most expansive reviews appeared in the London Morning Advertiser, on October 24, 1851. In that review the rich, multi-faceted texture of the book was considered a strength. The novel was praised for its “High philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme.”

On the other hand, in America the book was enjoyed only in regard to those aspects in which it resembled Melville’s earlier sailing narrative, Typee. Readers liked its graphic accounts of whaling and ignored its soaring religious and philosophical ruminations. Where the speculation and abstruse metaphysics were taken note of, they were roundly deplored, especially in religious journals.

A critic for the Methodist Quarterly Review wrote in January, 1852: “We are bound to say … that the book contains a number of flings at religion, and even of vulgar immoralities that render it unfit for general circulation.” The most scathing review appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in January, 1852. It attacked Melville’s vanity and assumed hunger for fame. “From this morbid self-esteem, coupled with a most unbounded love of notoriety,” commented the reviewer, “spring all Mr. Melville’s efforts, all his rhetorical contortions, all his declamatory abuse of society, all his inflated sentiment, and all his insinuating licentiousness.”

Harper and Brothers, Melville’s publisher and a Methodist firm, were...

(The entire section is 898 words.)