Melville’s Moby Dick – Contemporary Reviews and Sales Figures

Herman Melville

Yesterday we posted about the Google Doodle honoring Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick on the anniversary of its publication.  The reviews of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick when it was published in 1851 were decidedly mixed. There were indeed positive reviews to balance the negative. Like some of the reviewers, many readers expected another adventure tale like Melville’s Typee or Omoo and didn’t quite understand Melville’s brooding masterpiece, Moby Dick. Sales were disappointing.  While  Typee and Omoo sold 16,320 and 13,325, respectively, Moby Dick only sold 3,715.  It is only a modest exaggeration to say that Melville’s greatest work, Moby Dick, was also the book that ruined his career as a writer.

Here are excerpts of contemporary reviews collected at – The Life and Works of Herman Melville.

The Good

To convey an adequate idea of a book of such various merits as that which the author of Typee and Omoo has here placed before the reading public, is impossible in the scope of a review. High philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme, yet always good, and often admirable; fertile fancy, ingenious construction, playful learning, and an unusual power of enchaining the interest, and rising to the verge of the sublime, without overpassing that narrow boundary which plunges the ambitious penman into the ridiculous; all these are possessed by Herman Melville, and exemplified in these volumes. —London Morning Advertiser, October 24 1851

Of all the extraordinary books from the pen of Herman Melville this is out and out the most extraordinary. Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber.Yet few books which professedly deal in metaphysics, or claim the parentage of the muses, contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod’s whaling expedition….[T]he artist has succeeded in investing objects apparently the most unattractive with an absorbing fascination. The flashes of truth, too, which sparkle on the surface of the foaming sea of thought through which the author pulls his readers in the wake of the whale-ship, — the profound reflections uttered by the actors in the wild watery chase in their own quaint forms of thought and speech, — and the graphic representations of human nature in the startling disguises under which it appears on the deck of the Pequod, — all these things combine to raise The Whale far beyond the level of an ordinary work of fiction. It is not a mere tale of adventures, but a whole philosophy of life, that it unfolds. –London John Bull, October 25 1851

The Bad

This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed…  Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist. —Henry F. Chorley, in London Athenaeum, October 25 1851

In all those portions of this volume which relate directly to the whale … the interest of the reader will be kept alive, and his attention fully rewarded…. In all the scenes where the whale is the performer or the sufferer, the delineation and action are highly vivid and exciting. In all other aspects, the book is sad stuff, dull and dreary, or ridiculous. Mr. Melville’s Quakers are the wretchedest dolts and drivellers, and his Mad Captain … is a monstrous bore…. His ravings, and the ravings of some of the tributary characters, and the ravings of Mr. Melville himself, meant for eloquent declamation, are such as would justify a writ de lunatico against all the parties. –Charleston Southern Quarterly Review, January 1852

Mr. Melville is evidently trying to ascertain how far the public will consent to be imposed upon. …. We have no intention of quoting any passages just now from Moby Dick. The London journals, we understand, “have bestowed upon the work many flattering notices,” and we should be loth to combat such high authority. But if there are any of our readers who wish to find examples of bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment and incoherent English, we will take the liberty of recommending to them this precious volume of Mr. Melville’s.–New York United States Magazine and Democratic Review, January 1852

The Mixed

… Herman Melville’s last and best and most wildly imaginative story, The Whale…. will worthily support his reputation for singularly vivid and reckless imaginative power — great aptitude for quaint and original philosophical speculation, degenerating, however, too often into rhapsody and purposeless extravagance — an almost unparalled power over the capabilities of the language…. –“A.B.R.,” in Illustrated London News, November 1 1851

The Whale is a most extraordinary work. There is so much eccentricity in its style and in its construction, in the original conception and in the gradual development of its strange and improbable story, that we are at a loss to determine in what category of works of amusement to place it….
… The plot is meagre beyond comparison, as the whole of the incident might very conveniently have been comprised in half of one of these three interminable volumes. Nevertheless, in his descriptions of character, in his analysis of the motives of actions, and in the novelty of the details of a whaling expedition, the author has evinced not only a considerable knowledge of the human heart, combined with a thorough acquaintance with the subject he is handling, but a rare versatility of talent…. In describing the idiosyncrasies of all these different castes of men our author has evinced acuteness of observation and powers of discrimination, which would alone render his work a valuable addition to the literature of the day….
… Bating a few Americanisms, which sometimes mar the perspicuity and the purity of the style, the language of the work is appropriate and impressive; and the stirring scenes with which the author concludes are abundant evidence of the power he possesses of making his narrative intensely interesting. –London Britannia, November 8 1851


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2 Responses to Melville’s Moby Dick – Contemporary Reviews and Sales Figures

  1. I’m currently enjoying Melville’s White Jacket.

  2. Katherine says:

    i want to know how to find the origination of Henry F. Chorley’s critical words, in London Athenaeum, October 25 1851