Iliad (c. 800 BCE)

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The Iliad is the beginning of the Western Canon of imaginative literature, and we know virtually nothing about its author (we know perhaps a scintilla more than we know about whoever authored, say, The Cloud of Unknowing). But perhaps this is a good thing; as William Gaddis’s elusive Wyatt Gwyon puts it in The Recognitions, “‘What is the artist but the shambles that follows his work around?'” The imagination abounds much more in the lack of information. All we really know is what has come down to us from Herodotus in his Histories, and that the archaic Greek for Homer means “the blind one.”

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Moby-Dick (1851)

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And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

Melville employs a fragment of Job 1:15 for the epigram of the epilogue: “…and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” In the same way, the reader, after 625 pages of pure sublime masterwork, escapes alone to tell others of the experience. And it is a large, profound experience. As Melville says himself, through his surrogate Ishmael, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme” (497). Having found success with his first two novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, and then failure with his third, Mardi and a Voyage Thither, a dense philosophical work, Melville seems to have found the Aristotelian golden mean in the Genesis of American literature: the mighty Moby-Dick or, The Whale.

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