When Herman Melville died in New York City in 1891, few people noticed and even fewer cared. One of the handful of obituaries to appear observed that, such was the obscurity of his later years, most had thought him already dead. Melville enjoyed a brief moment of fame following the publication of his first two novels, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), romantic accounts of his seafaring adventures in the South Seas. But his major work, Moby-Dick (1851), met with a lukewarm, confused reception; the first edition never came close to selling out. Later novels then met not so much with incomprehension as with derision. One reviewer called Pierre (1852) ‘the craziest fiction extant’; another dismissed The Confidence-Man (1857) as ‘decidedly the worst of Melville’s books’. A fellow writer, William Gilmore Simms, even saw fit to announce that Melville had ‘gone “clean daft”’, adding, ‘the sooner this author is put in the ward the better’. By 1857, Melville’s career as a writer of prose fiction that actually got published was over. So was his fame. A British admirer who came to visit Melville in the 1880s complained that in New York ‘no one seemed to know anything about him’, while, looking back on the 1880s from the 1930s, Melville’s literary New York neighbour Edith Wharton confessed that, as a girl, she ‘never heard his name mentioned, or saw one of his books’.
All this changed in the 1920s. Melville was resurrected, and his literary reputation rehabilitated, so that gradually he became, in the words of Andrew Delbanco, ‘an American icon’. His masterwork, Moby-Dick, assumed a unique status as (to quote one critic) ‘the unavoidable centrepiece of the American tradition’. And its central