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161 Years Ago Today Ahab First Battled the White Whale, and Critics Hated It

Today marks the 161st anniversary of Moby Dick, the epic seafaring tale by Herman Melville, and Google is celebrating with its own Doodle

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Today marks the 161st anniversary of Moby Dick, the epic seafaring tale by Herman Melville, and Google is celebrating with its own Doodle.

If you could never get into Moby Dick, you’re not alone. Like many masterpieces, when Moby Dick came out it wasn’t exactly popular. People weren’t really sure what to make of itLondon Britannia wrote:

The Whale is a most extraordinary work. There is so much eccentricity in its style and in its construction, in the original conception and in the gradual development of its strange and improbable story, that we are at a loss to determine in what category of works of amusement to place it….

Here’s London Morning Advisor:

To convey an adequate idea of a book of such various merits as that which the author of Typee and Omoo has here placed before the reading public, is impossible in the scope of a review. High philosophy, liberal feeling, abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme, yet always good, and often admirable; fertile fancy, ingenious construction, playful learning, and an unusual power of enchaining the interest, and rising to the verge of the sublime, without overpassing that narrow boundary which plunges the ambitious penman into the ridiculous; all these are possessed by Herman Melville, and exemplified in these volumes.

And London Anthenaeum:

This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed….

… The result is, at all events, a most provoking book, — neither so utterly extravagant as to be entirely comfortable, nor so instructively complete as to take place among documents on the subject of the Great Fish, his capabilities, his home and his capture.

Of course, some loved it immediately. New York Albion wrote:

This mere announcement of the book’s and the author’s name will prepare you in a measure for what follows; for you know just as well as we do that Herman Melville is a practical and practised sea-novelist, and that what comes from his pen will be worth the reading. And so indeed is Moby-Dick, and not lacking much of being a great work….

And if you want to hear everyone from Tilda Swinton to a real live ship captain reading Moby Dick chapter by chapter, head over to the Big Read. They’re tackling all 135 chapters, one a day.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Marine Archaeologists Find Shipwreck Linked to Moby Dick
During Melville’s lifetime, fame proved elusive for a literary giant

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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