Herman Melville once wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne in these words:
In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “Whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, — I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, — that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, — I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.
I am not a writer and will never be. But I can identify with those words above. Melville was writing what posterity would consider to be a seminal work of 20th century literature. Yet Moby Dick sank him into a personal shipwreck. When the book appeared in 1851, Herman Melville’s literary career seemed secure. He was successful with his first two books. But he purchased a farm in Pittsfield which put him in debt. He hoped to resurface with the help of his Whale but it proved to be a cruel disappointment. Critics shunned it. Moby Dick was a flop and bad sales pushed Melville into the inevitable depths of bankruptcy. Pressed by his debtors, driven by a feeling of failure, even annihilation, he became a junior employee at the New York Customs, a job he loathed.
If Melville continued to write, it was now confidential, he wrote almost in secret. It is true that he committed the cardinal sin of writers: he gave neither the public nor the critics what they expected of him, in other words peaceful exotic cruises, harmless descriptions of sea voyages. With his metaphysical questions, his white whale took him far from the quiet shores of bourgeois notoriety, to oceans where it was then impossible, and even dangerous, to follow him. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. It just goes to show that it never feels good to be a visionary!