The Emergence of Moby Dick

I am having a difficult time deciding what I want my research project to focus on, but I have a general idea. After the readings we have done on the colonization of India, I wondered if America underwent a similar experience. Since both countries were colonized by Great Britain, I suspect that our own history of literature underwent a similar experience. In another class I am taking this semester, my teacher said that after colonization, the US was not taken seriously as a literary nation. As we have seen in readings, the texts the people enjoyed were probably all religious related– with a small few reading non-secular publications. It was not until the mid 19th century that American literature began to form an identity. During this time, romanticism was becoming a popular and respected genre that garnered the attention of not just the American people, but a significant portion of the world.

One of the most popular books in American literature and a leading work in Romanticism, Moby Dick, was a commercial failure and not well received. Eventually, it became the book it is today– widely read and widely bought. I would like to further explore its publication history, its failure to sell, and ultimately how it became such a staple for the average reader. Its popularity is still questionable– the long detailed pages on the anatomy of whales, the chapters on the process of removing the fat– not particularly accessible or open to the average reader. But because of its popularity, information on the text and its infamous failure to sell are certainly available.

My first thought was to use the Michigan Library catalog. Mirlyn and JSTOR both have plenty of academic journals on Moby Dick. I have had trouble finding some one its publication history and the general, but I think the internet would have plenty on it, likely more than academic journals. The journals could be better for the history surrounding the novel and how it established itself among literature. The wikipedia page for Moby Dick has a lengthy section on the publication history of the novel, so it would not be difficult to find how the book was put into print.

Ultimately the most difficult thing to find will be records of what books were popular at the time during its publication. I looked at the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and could not find anything on book records of the time, but it had a good amount on Moby Dick itself. Finding out more on how Moby Dick became a popular novel probably will not be terribly difficult, but records on what non-secular books were popular are going to be difficult to come by.


2 thoughts on “The Emergence of Moby Dick

  1. This is very interesting, and I found myself thinking about the same concepts when developing my own topic. Looking a little farther ahead from Moby Dick and examining why we choose to make certain books popular instead of others we can find another example in the late 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is currently revered for it’s context and prose, but Fitzgerald died thinking that he had been a failure due to his books not being bestsellers. It is interesting to see why not then and what changed now and how that affects the book industry.

  2. There is a great edition of Melville’s works, edited by Hershel Parker and Thomas Tanselle, that would be the right starting point for the research of the publication history of Moby-Dick, as well as its reception history.

    As we discussed in class, if you’re interested in figuring out how Moby-Dick became a classic work of American literature, you’ll want to work in materials from the late nineteenth century through the 1940s, or so, which is when American literature established itself as a legitimate scholarly field. There are some good books on the general history of the development of American literature as a field. I’m thinking especially of Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature and Graff and Warner’s The Origin of Literary Studies in America. Both of these may be some help in getting a general sense of how the study of American literature evolved.

    This is my dissertation field, so I can be of some help on this topic. And I’m really excited to see what you discover. Lots of this ground has been covered, so we’ll want to find a little niche where you can make an original contribution. Let’s talk!

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