Once Upon a Time, 'Classics' Were Flops

Time has a transformative effect on public and critical tastes for creative efforts. Many works that were poorly regarded upon release are now considered classics. Two vivid examples: Melville's Moby-Dick and the King James Bible.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week we're examining flops, movies, Broadway shows, even video games that fail to live up to expectations. Today, NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on flops that flipped, specifically two books that began as failures.

(Soundbite of "Moby Dick")

Mr. GREGORY PECK (Actor): Call me Ishmael.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

It's arguably the most famous first line in American literature, but the book it opens was nearly as woeful a disaster as Ishmael's ill-fated voyage with Captain Ahab.

(Soundbite from "Moby Dick")

Mr. PECK: Eyes now ye white whale. Show us your crooked jaw.

ULABY: The 1956 Gregory Peck movie is just one of many versions, including actor Christopher Moore's. He performs his one-man, one-hour adaptation of "Moby Dick" around the country, last weekend in the house where "Moby Dick" was written. Moore spent seven years researching the book and its author.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER MOORE (Actor): From his letters, you get a sense of incredible passion, incredible energy. He talks about having reams of paper flowing across his desk. He says, `I have a billion ideas.' To read about him at this time, you see an artist who really seems to be invincible, feeling invincible and wanting to challenge himself and stretch himself as an artist.

ULABY: Herman Melville was already a literary celebrity when "Moby Dick," first known as "The Whale," was published in 1851. Moore says Melville experimented fearlessly with storytelling.

Mr. MOORE: He's playing with form, he's playing with language. There are long passages that seem to not relate at all to the narrative. It's a very mad book, in a way. It's a messy book.

ULABY: The first edition was made messier by a printer who left off the epilogue. Without it, the ending doesn't really make sense, and that influenced the first wave of overwhelmingly negative reviews.

Mr. MOORE: One of the reviewers said Melville tries to convey not only the incidence of a three-year's voyage but also the tedium of it.

ULABY: Christopher Moore says "Moby Dick's" first readers were bored, bewildered and even shocked by its mosaic of myths, science and poetry. Even Melville's friends disliked it.

Mr. MOORE: He still continues to write, but you get a sense that he's really quite crushed. And ultimately, when he dies, they misspell his name in The New York Times obituary and nobody really remembers him.

ULABY: Melville died at age 72, having sold only about 3,000 copies of "Moby Dick." But in the 1920s, the discovery of his unpublished novel "Billy Budd" kicked off a Melville revival. William Faulkner championed "Moby Dick" in a 1927 newspaper essay. Since then, the novel has infiltrated just about every corner of American popular culture...

(Soundbite of theme song to "Jaws")

ULABY: ...from the movie "Jaws" to a certain coffee chain with a mermaid logo. It's named for Captain Ahab's first mate.

(Soundbite from "Moby Dick")

Mr. PECK: Starbuck, new orders.

ULABY: Shortly before writing "Moby Dick," Herman Melville was given a brand-new copy of the King James Bible. He read it feverishly, underlining key passages.

Unidentified Man #1: In that day, the Lord, with his sword and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan, the piercing serpent.

Mr. ADAM NICOLSON (Historian): This great book, this great central defining book, was a complete disaster when it was produced.

ULABY: Historian Adam Nicolson is talking about the King James Bible, that spiritual and literary wellspring from which innumerable masterpieces have drawn.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singers: (Foreign language sung)

ULABY: George Frideric Handel set portions of the King James Bible to music over a century after its publication. James had hoped to unite a divided England with one Bible that would speak to Protestants and Catholics alike, but a grain of self-interest was buried in that noble mission. The popular Bible proceeding the King James version was written in the Calvinist hotbed of Geneva.

Mr. NICOLSON: The Geneva Bible is set against the idea of monarchy and there's only really one king on Earth and that king is Christ Jesus the Lord, and any other king is just a sort of pretentious imposter.

ULABY: Nicolson says the word `King' appears not once in the Old Testament of the Geneva Bible. Instead, it used the world tyrant.

Mr. NICOLSON: So James had to get rid of the Geneva Bible.

ULABY: Nicolson wrote, "God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible." He says dozens of scholars spent almost a decade painstakingly retranslating the Bible. They read aloud to each other as they worked, fine-tuning each phrase to ring richly to the ear.

Unidentified Man #2: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth, and the Earth was without form and void and the darkness was upon the face of of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

ULABY: The extreme care of the scholars devoted to the King James Bible was undone, says Adam Nicolson, once again by a printer who botched the first editions.

Mr. NICOLSON: Words wrong, mistranslations, just the wrong letter in places, I mean, an incredible number of mistakes. I think there were meant to be 24,000 odd mistakes in those first printings.

ULABY: Upon publication, the King James Bible was virtually ignored, although one critic announced he would rather wild animals tear him apart than endorse it. He suggested it be burnt. Meanwhile, James himself had apparently moved on.

Mr. NICOLSON: By the time the Bible was published in 1611, King James was pretty well losing it. He'd spent so much money on his boyfriends and his palaces and his parties and had alienated such wide tranches of puritan opinion, and he was drinking so much. His star was waning anyway.

ULABY: Then came a bloody civil war. In its wake, Adam Nicolson says, the King James Bible seemed an embodiment of something lost.

Mr. NICOLSON: It simply becomes an object of consolation for the English in the late 17th century and remains that. In America, it's slightly different.

ULABY: The colonists embraced the King James Bible despite its royalist origins and because of its spirit of nation building and inclusivity. Adam Nicolson says the King James Bible perseveres because it was, for its translators, a labor of love.

Mr. NICOLSON: If it flops, well, that simply doesn't matter. It's absolutely irrelevant if something that you've really cared for is then thought to be ridiculous, because it isn't.

ULABY: Nicolson says a thing loved in its doing and beautifully done will somehow, some day be cherished.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

INSKEEP: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

(Credits)

INSKEEP: Hey, Renee Montagne is back on Monday. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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