If Melville Did Research Too

I would be lying if I said that this research process hasn’t frustrated me. I’ve contemplated abandoning my project and looking at something more modern where data is far more readily available. That may still be the outcome, but I am interested in the topic of Romanticism and the rise of the Great American Novel, and I want to know more about it. This class is about book history, so I think it makes the most sense to write a paper about our own history of literature. I chose Moby Dick because I thought their would be an absurd amount of data on it. After hours of looking, I decided to look at the Wikipedia page for The Great American Novel,” because that is what Moby Dick is, after all. The first novel ever published to be considered “The Great American Novel,” was indeed Moby Dick. The page defines this as the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representation of the spirit of the age in the United States at the time of its writing or in the time it is set. If this book was the first book to establish this standard that nearly every American author aspires to reach, there has to be something that works as a starting point. So I naturally took the easy way out and clicked the endnote for Moby Dick.

This took me to Oxford Online Journals, even logged in through U-M they still asked me to pay for it, of course. Next source.

This is what makes researching the Great American Novel so difficult. It’s not the relevance of it and how it completely summarized the feelings of a people who died long ago, it’s not the failure to keep records on books sales or popular books of the time, it’s not the amount of publishing firms visited or pages Melville had to write to make this novel complete, it’s the unavailability of scholarly articles.

I figured then that my best starting point would to be to read anything on Moby Dick that would give me a starting point, so I searched in Google “Moby Dick Great American Novel,” one result was an essay, a free one at that, on what made the novel so American. This was written by Joyce Carol Oates, a prominent living American author. In her most strong and important point with regards to my research on its influence on American literature, she says–

“Like all great works of art, Moby Dick will support many readings, many interpretations. Yet, chapter by chapter, its meanings are not at all obscure; if Fedallah and the other members of Ahab’s “shadow crew” have a symbolic significance, for instance, Ishmael will tell us what it is, just as he will tell us what Pip’s terrible madness means, and how it relates to us all. Indeed, repeated readings of Moby Dick confirm one’s sense of Ishmael/Melville as a voice of remarkable subtlety, intelligence, and variety; and though it has often been charged against Melville that his narrator “disappears” into the narration, one might argue that the novel’s innumerable voices (in the dramatized sections, for instance) are but ingenious manifestations, recollected after the fact, of the novel’s central voice. (By which I mean that, as Ishmael has escaped the catastrophe and is, indeed, the sole survivor, the “authentic” chronicle he tells us is purely his.)” [1]

This is also fundamental to understanding the genre of romanticism. When Melville goes into such depth about fisheries, it’s hard to understand why this novel is considered to be a masterpiece, let alone good. But that is the very nature of romanticism and the reason why it became such a popular novel. The freedom of writing a romantic novel is why eventually this story became so American. This was a time during which every standard for art was being challenged and perhaps that explains why Melville was largely forgotten after his death. Was it too challenging a novel? Was it not challenging enough? This is the goal of my research. To find the initial reaction to the novel, the period of which it went largely ignored, its resurgence into relevancy, and ultimately its boom and status as the first “Great American Novel.” I can only hope my research gets easier.

[1] – Oates, Joyce C. “Moby Dick: An American Book of Wonders.” University of San Francisco. N.p., 1988. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.


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