Saturday, September 19, 2009

Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel

Moby-Dick a cult book? Surely not! Ah, but if one looks at its publishing history, it becomes apparent that it meets all the criteria for cult fiction. It was not always considered “the great American novel,” the quintessence of American letters. Herman Melville’s novel was published in 1851, but it didn’t even sell the total number of copies in its first print run of 3000 copies. Melville made exactly $556.32 on American sales, and he died almost penniless in 1891 while working as an inspector at a New York City custom house.

Upon the novel’s publication, critics regarded the work most unfavorably. The book deviates numerous times from its essential plot of Ahab’s search for the white whale as the author describes details of the whaling industry and how blubber was cut away from dead whales at sea and melted down into the precious oil lighting the lamps of New England. Melville, a seasoned seaman, was determined to be thorough in the telling of his tale, although Melville scholars have noted that the author himself was aware that the book seemed a bit odd during its composition.

Also contributing to the novel’s initial failure was the fact that the plot of Ahab’s obsession for vengeance was highly symbolic and filled with Biblical imagery, strange names, and sub-plots on religion, politics, tribal customs, New England culture, man’s relationship with God, the morality of the Pequod’s voyage, and Starbuck’s definition of the nineteenth century American work ethic. To make matters worse, the American edition was compromised because the novel’s epilogue, in which narrator Ishmael explains that he alone was left to tell the tale, was omitted. Readers were baffled. Who had told the story?

Shortly after Melville’s death, Moby-Dick, as well as Melville’s other fiction, was of interest only to New York City’s literary underground. Yes, for many years, Moby-Dick was an underground novel with a small readership! A renewed interest in the book developed between 1920 and 1940 thanks to writers such as D. H. Lawrence, who believed the novel to be an epic.

Today, the novel’s central themes of obsession and evil resonate strongly with readers, who view Melville’s magnum opus as a marvelously textured work, complex yet brilliant in its quest to define mankind’s duty to an inscrutable God. Its very language has found its way into pop culture, as when the obsessive Khan quotes Ahab’s final curses to the whale in Star Trek II. It is without doubt a work of cult fiction at the apex of American literature.

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What Is Cult Fiction?
Is Cult Fiction the Same as Underground Fiction?
Cult Fiction and Genre
Cult Fiction and ON THE ROAD
Cult Fiction and A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Moby-Dick: The Ultimate Cult Novel
John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe: Cult Fiction in the Making?
The Next Wave of Cult Fiction
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