Nova Scotia

Moby Dick's success partly due to championing by Dalhousie professor

Herman Melville died 124 years ago today, never knowing that a Dalhousie University professor of English would successfully spearhead an academic campaign to see Moby Dick recognized as a literary masterpiece.

Archibald MacMechan called Moby Dick the 'Best Sea Story Ever Written'

It is a classic whale of tale, but the resurrection of Moby Dick from a critical flop to a literary classic is a pretty compelling story, too, and with a Nova Scotian twist.

Sept. 28 marks the anniversary of the death of author Herman Melville in 1891, an underappreciated writer and poet at the time of his passing.

Moby Dick may also have languished, underappreciated and out of print, had it not been for the efforts of a Dalhousie University professor named Archibald MacMechan.

Bruce Greenfield, who teaches in the university's English Department, devotes an entire seminar to Melville and Moby Dick.

He acknowledges his past colleague's efforts to revive interest in Moby Dick, which was published in 1851, and panned by most reviewers of the day.

"[MacMechan] believed the book was unjustly forgotten," Greenfield says. "He contacted Melville, before he died, and tried unsuccessfully to convince him that it wasn't too late."

MacMechan, a well-regarded literary reviewer whose students included Lucy Maud Montgomery and Helen Creighton, wrote a piece about Moby Dick in 1899 called "The Best Sea Story Ever Written." 

Moby Dick revived

"It would be an exaggeration" to say Moby Dick would have remained a literary corpse if not for MacMechan's efforts, Greenfield said.

"But he spearheaded the campaign to revive the book, that is true. Not too long after, other American academics rediscovered Melville.

"He was the first academic to write something serious about Melville." 

Melville's initial publishing successes — two swashbuckling accounts of his early adventures at sea — fizzled after the publication of Moby Dick and other subsequent works.

Reviewers of the day found Moby Dick, a more serious and ambitious novel, bewildering with its unfamiliar style and composition. Melville mixed scientific description and poetic language in an epic tale populated by colourful characters of different cultures.

He continued to write, but supported his family by working as a New York Harbour customs inspector.

MacMechan, a prolific writer of essays, articles and books, is considered to be a Canadian man of letters. He remained a professor at Dalhousie until 1931. He died on Aug. 7, 1933.

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