November 2010 | Steve Alburty

A toast to "Moby Dick's" American Publication

On the evening of November 14, 1851, one of Pittsfield, Massachusetts', great recluses sat alone at a table in Curtis's hotel in Lenox awaiting his sole guest. The occasion was supposed to be a celebration.

The reclusive Herman Melville was celebrating the American publication of his newest novel, "Moby-Dick." The one guest Melville had invited to his "publication party" was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who agreed to come even though he and his family were busy packing to leave Lenox.

Neither could afford to host the other, so dinner at the hotel had been arranged so each could pay for their own bill within the limits of their individual penury.
Only death and the many re-considerations that critics gave to Melville's great effort in generations to come would finally bestow upon the book the great fame Melville and Hawthorne toasted to that night. An initial printing of 2915 copies proved optimistic. Hundreds of copies were returned to Melville's home, where many succumbed to rot.

Melville died in 1891, convinced that had been a failure as a writer. It was not until the 1920s when literary critics started taking notice of "Moby Dick," and it was not until the 1940s before the critical establishment finally realized what Melville had accomplished.

But it was too late, of course. Melville had died practically penniless, a lowly customs inspector on Gansevoort Street in Greenwich Village.

Today, celebrity and fame are often awarded on a nightly basis thanks to television and the Internet. So it seems fitting that those of us who love great literature go back and pay respects to those who turned out to be American idols long after they had the opportunity to know they eventually would be.

Melville's home, dubbed "Arrowhead," in Pittsfield, MA, has been perfectly maintained and is a wonderful addendum to a visit which may also include Walden Pond, Lenox, and Concord.

From the home's second floor study, where Melville wrote, you can see how his gaze could easily rise from his manuscript to the magnificent vista of Mount Greylock, which bears a coincidental resemblance to a very large whale.
The home, which is preserved under the auspices of The Berkshire Historical Society, is open from Memorial Day through October. Yes, it closed right now, which gives you a perfect opportunity to start reading "Moby Dick" now and therefore be prepared to pay homage to the place of its conception.

Patience, dear reader. The opportunity to pay respect to a work of genius is commensurate with the time it took in the middle of Melville's century, for him to hope for it. He has waited, so can you.

Photo of Melville's study courtesy of the Berskshire Historical Society