The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Holmes's "Revelation"

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. -- the Supreme Court justice and son of the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table -- was among those readers who, in the 1920s, were delighted by a new discovery in American letters, a novel about whaling by an obscure 19th-century writer of travel narratives who had then been dead some 30 years:
Did I mention my revelation ... ? Herman Melville and Moby Dick -- an account of sperm whaling with a story superadded.  Anyhow I have finished it now and can say more certainly than ever that, with longueurs, it is, yet, I think, a mighty book.  Not Shakespeare had more feeling of the mystery of the world and of life.  There are mountain peaks and chasms -- and the whole is as thick with life at first hand now as the day it was written -- as Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter seemed to me thin, 20 years ago.  (W[illiam] James replied to me when I said so, Because it is an original book.)  Incidentally, it pleases me that he takes his fellow-sailors, a cannibal, an Indian, a negro and old Nantucket mates and captain with the same unconscious seriousness that common men would reserve for Presidents and Prime Ministers.  And my, but he nobly exalts the Nantucket Whalemen, the Macys, the Coffins and the rest.  I don't want to say too much but if you like George Borrow as I do I think this is a bigger man.  If I made a shelf of strong impressions of recent years it would be an odd lot.  Moby Dick beside Pearson's Grammar of Science or the best of Santayana or Lotze's Microcosmos
This comes from an April 14, 1921, letter from Holmes to Harold Laski, reprinted in part in Richard Posner's The Essential Holmes (1992).  Holmes, born in 1841, was thus about 79 or 80 years old when he read Moby-Dick, and had been on the U.S. Supreme Court for 19 years.  (He still had about 11 more years to go on the Court, clinging to his seat until his death in early 1932.) 

The worlds of publishing, academia, and literary criticism have changed so much since the 19th century that it's almost impossible to imagine a work from the 1950s as great as Moby-Dick lying forgotten and largely unavailable for 70 years.  English professors make careers out of burnishing the reputations of unjustly neglected authors (and even justly neglected ones; Peyton Place is now kept in print by Northeastern University Press, in a paperback edition with a scholarly introduction). 


  1. Say it ain't so, Northeastern University Press! I should reduce my alumna contributions.

  2. Well, I guess somebody had to reprint it. But it really is an irredeemably mediocre book.