On this date in 1851, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was published. The book, considered by modern scholars to be one of the great American novels, was dismissed by Melville’s contemporaries and belittled by reviewers as “so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature.”
Melville took bad reviews pretty hard and gave up writing fiction a few years later. He died in New York on September 28, 1891, at the age of 72, almost completely forgotten.
In the week after his death, the New York Times wrote:
There has died and been buried in this city . . . a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines.
That reminds me: Many years ago, I read a lengthy slam of another masterpiece — Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass — originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in January 1882, and concluding with the following sentence:
Fortunately, however, the chief damage done will be to the author himself, who thus dishonors his own physical nature; for imperfect though the race is, it still remains so much purer than the stained and distorted reflection of its animalism in Leaves of Grass, that the book cannot attain to any very wide influence.
So what can we learn from this?
Obviously, great work is frequently not recognized as great work until many years later, often after the death of the person who did the work, but if people are taking the time to vilify your work at length, you’re probably doing something right . . .