Now, as we all know, Moby Dick, although one of the greatest American novels, was a commercial failure. It is with this fact that David Sugarman begins his essay on Melville in Tablet Magazine:
Herman Melville, the popular writer of adventure stories, all but lost his readership with the publication of Moby-Dick; or The Whale. “Mr. Melville has survived his reputation,” one critic wrote in 1851 of the “imposing” novel, with its diatribes, tangents, and verbosity. “If he had been contented with writing one or two books, he might have been famous, but his vanity has destroyed all his chances for immortality, or even of a good name with his own generation.” While some reviewers recognized the greatness of Moby-Dick, it failed to achieve the success Melville had hoped for, selling only a scant 3,100 copies during his lifetime. “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century,” he lamented to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I shall die in the gutter.”However, the "failure" of the novel is just the point of departure (no pun intended) for the real subject of the piece: the resultant trip that Melville took to the Middle East in 1857 as a sort of spiritual and psychological compensation. (And in the process, Sugarman gets to talk about Pittsfield and the Berkshires and the present-day Call Me Melville celebrations.)
There is quite a tradition of such trips to the "Holy Land" in the nineteenth century. Mark Twain undertook one, too, and didn't like it much better. As the subtitle of the essay puts it, "The Moby-Dick author sought spiritual connection on an 1857 Holy Land trip. He found dust and rocks instead." Sugarman sees Melville's frustration as a reaction to both the objective decrepitude of the scene and the particular disappointment that he felt as someone who, although neither observant nor orthodox in belief, nonetheless intellectually and psychologically identified with the Christian tradition.
Worth a read. And a look, just for the whimsical image of the white whale's tail by Rockwell Kent superimposed on a historic photograph of the Ottoman-era walls built by Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent.
David Sugarman, "Melville in Jerusalem: The Moby-Dick Author sought spiritual connection on an 1857 Holy Land Trip. He found dust and rocks instead." Tablet Magazine, 16 August 2012.