Politics, Moderate



Melville made a huge splash, but his critics left barely a ripple

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- There's no end to the awfulness we heap upon artists -- it happens to the best of them.

Beethoven himself was panned by John Ruskin -- one of the Victorian era's most famous art critics -- as composing music that "always sounds to me like the upsettings of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer."

Claude Monet's impressionist masterpiece "Sunrise" was trashed by French art critic Louis Leroy thusly: "A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape."

Look to the story of nearly any genius, trailblazer, big thinker or revolutionary and you're likely to find a number of people gleefully ripping their work, and their very intellect and character, to shreds.

It was no different for the master of the meticulously detailed "Moby-Dick," according to the exhibit "Melville: Finding America At Sea," at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The show details Herman Melville's failure to rise as a member in good standing of America's literary canon -- during his own lifetime, of course.

Melville was born a little over a year before an American whaling ship named "The Essex" was taken down by a giant whale in 1820. As a young man, Melville worked as a clerk, farmhand and teacher before setting off for his first sea voyage on a merchant ship.


On his travels, most people will be surprised to know, Melville became something of a political progressive during a time in which rich white people routinely landed on small islands and declared them the property of one or another empire.

Melville's first two books, "Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life" and "Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas," stirred controversy -- and not just for including details that had been swiped from source materials other than the author's own experiences.

His perspective was alarming to the establishment because "Melville criticized the Protestant missionaries in the islands for treating the Polynesians as menial servants and acting as agents of colonialism, introducing greed and the worst kinds of vice from their home countries and imposing moral standards with little regard for local practices," according to the exhibit, composed by Will Hansen, the Newberry's Curator of Americana. "Reviewers in religious periodicals took great exception, and the controversy set the pattern for Melville's reception as a somewhat dangerous author for pious readers."

Things only devolved from there. "Moby-Dick" didn't do well. It was neither a critical darling in the United Kingdom, where it was first published, nor a big moneymaker in the U.S.


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