“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
― Herman Melville
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” ― Herman Melville,
On almost everyone’s 100 Must Read Books is Melville’s, “Moby-Dick.” (Original title: “The Whale.”) It was his third novel, another commercial failure for the author, and, like the rest of his work, nearly forgotten in the last 30 years of his life. This tale, sadly, is not an uncommon one in the history of the creative arts and artists. “A prophet is seldom recognized in his own (time or) hometown.” But the author stayed the course, and more importantly—true to himself.
Melville wrote 11 novels, numerous short stories, essays, articles and poetry. He was a Romantic who actually went to sea, spent time on a whaling ship, and lived on the exotic islands that he wrote about. From his experiences, he wrote a psychological thriller about an obsessed Captain Ahab bent for a final revenge; an exotic High Sea Adventure and a Shakespearean tragedy rolled into one. It was philosophical and allegorical. Melville’s prose was considered slightly abstract for even his day. His style was complicated; rich in vocabulary, and elaborately crafted. His vast knowledge of scripture, myth, and classic literature showed themselves unashamedly. He wrote about the sea— and the sea is vast. He wrote about hard men who conquer the sea and its denizens— or who were conquered by them.
In the midst of it all, his writing was repeatedly turned away by publishers leaving Melville a failure during his lifetime; a time that saw a mere 3,000 copies of The Whale sold and virtually all of his books fall out of print. He accepted a job as a Customs Inspector for the city of New York; a position he held for nearly 20 years.
On the centennial of his birth, a revival of his work began to take place.
His writing, that was too difficult and perhaps too big for its time— was finding its way to the surface.
His writing was big— like the whale. And the sea.
As an artist . . . he stayed true to himself.
Today, Melville is considered one of America’s Greatest Novelists.
“It is better,” he said, “to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
He lived and died by his creed.
And . . .
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” ― Herman Melville,