(Un)Popularity: Moby-Dick and Pierre
TWO MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY critical debates that raged in British and American journals provide a central context for gauging the popularity of Melville's novels. During the antebellum period and particularly at midcentury, reviewers argued vehemently over the "proper" form of the novel. This critical debate, gone largely unnoticed by later scholars, is central to recovering the popularity in Melville's day of Moby-Dick and Pierre, or, The Ambiguities. As we have already discovered in assessing the reception of the earlier novels, especially Typee and Omoo, different readerships reacted strongly to the presence of certain forms and perspectives, and this is particularly true in the cases of Moby-Dick and Pierre. Like the responses to Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, which were decidedly mixed depending on whether readers perceived Melville to be following or challenging cherished conventions and themes, the reception of Moby-Dick and Pierre is more complex than previously thought. The author's use of specific narrative forms aligns him with particular sides of the debate and provides insight into the types of audiences that he intended for his two works. Our recovery of the heterogeneity of midcentury critical appraisals is contingent on placing the reviews of these individual works into their cultural and ideological contexts.
Failure to recognize the split in critical appreciation between reviewers supportive, on the one hand, of realistic novels or, on the other, of metaphysical novels has distorted our understanding of the narrative