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Herman Melville books: At first, 'Moby Dick' was a total flop

As Herman Melville books go, 'Moby Dick' is widely considered to be his magnum opus. But early reviews trashed the book. Why did the literary world change its mind?

Among Herman Melville books, "Moby Dick" had really crummy sales. Many reviewers at the time either ignored or insulted the novel. So why does everyone, including Google, revere "Moby Dick" today?


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Google celebrated the 161st anniversary of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" on Thursday. The book holds a very important place in English literature. A survey of 100 authors from 54 countries named "Moby Dick" as one of the 100 best books of all time, alongside Homer's "Odyssey" and Dante's "The Divine Comedy."

But public opinion was very different 161 years ago. When "Moby Dick" debuted in 1851, reviewers trashed it. Many argued that it wasn't even one of Melville's best books.

"Moby Dick" tells the story of a sailor – call him Ishmael. He finds himself aboard a whaling ship led by Captain Ahab, a peg-legged man with a single mission: Hunt down and kill the whale that took his leg. But as they chase the ferocious Moby Dick, Ahab's determination soon descends into madness.

Melville laced the book with intricate symbolism and complex themes. The book explores social status, the destructive power of obsession, the existence of God, good and evil, and whether animals can have human characteristics. At times, "Moby Dick" dives into these themes with long passages that have nothing to do with the central plot. Ahab, in particular, has a way of spinning off into lengthy speeches about life and the universe. 

Some universities spend entire semesters digging into this weighty novel – dissecting its metaphors and examining its layers of philosophy.

But when Melville debuted "Moby Dick" in the United Kingdom in October 1851 (the book reached American shores a month later), many British reviewers dismissed it.


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