Moby-Dick received a chilly reception during Herman Melville’s lifetime that lasted for decades after his death. Why did Americans warm up to the novel slowly? They didn’t know how to read it, the author Clifton Fadiman argues in his introduction to the 1977 Easton Press edition shown, left.
“We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form and is often mistaken for true narrative. Tom Jones is a true narrative; Moby Dick is a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it.”
Follow #classicschat on Twitter to learn about Moby-Dick and other classics
Want to learn more about classics you have — or haven’t — read? I’ll be co-hosting a Twitter chat about Moby-Dick on Friday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. ET/9 p.m. GMT with Kevin Smokler, author of the forthcoming essay collection, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. We’ll be joined by Christopher Routledge, who is working with the editor of Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation to produce a handsome, annotated limited edition of Herman Melville’s novel as part of a marathon reading event at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, in May 2013. The Moby-Dick chat this week is the first in a series of monthly Twitter conversations about fiction and nonfiction classics at #classicschat.
“Early in the composition of Moby-Dick Melville wrote to a friend that it was hard to get poetry from blubber.”
From The Reader’s Companion to World Literature: Second Edition (New American Library, 1973), revised and updated by Lillian Herlands Hornstein, editor, and Leon Edel and Horst Frenz. An expanded second edition was published by Signet in 2002.
Comment by Janice Harayda:
This is my favorite quote about Moby-Dick. Who knew that Melville had a sense of humor? The Reader’s Companion to Literature is an excellent guide that has hundreds of A-to-Z listings on books, authors, and literary terms and movements. Its brief, well-written entries offer much livelier writing and sharper commentary than you find in most literary encyclopedias or dictionaries.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.