Within a year after Melville's death, Moby-Dick, along with Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, was reprinted by Harper & Brothers, giving it a chance to be rediscovered. However, only New York's literary underground seemed to take much interest, just enough to keep Melville's name circulating for the next 25 years in the capital of American publishing. During this time, a few critics were willing to devote time, space, and a modicum of praise to Melville and his works, or at least those that could still be fairly easily obtained or remembered. Other works, especially the poetry, went largely forgotten.
Then came World War I and its consequences, particularly the shaking or destruction of faith in so many aspects of Western civilization, all of which caused people concerned with culture and its potential redemptive value to experiment with new aesthetic techniques. Melville's techniques resonate with those of Modernist aesthetics and American modernism: Moby-Dick is kaleidoscopic, hybrid in genre and tone, and monumentally ambitious in trying to unite so many disparate elements and loose ends. The stage was set for Melville's novel to find its place as something more than a sea-story.
In 1917, American author Carl Van Doren became the first of this period to proselytize about Melville's value. His 1921 study, The American Novel, called Moby-Dick a pinnacle of American Romanticism.
British literary critics began to take notice. In his 1923 idiosyncratic but influential Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence celebrated the originality and value of American authors, among them Melville. Perhaps surprisingly, Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the expurgated original English edition which also lacked the epilogue.
Publishers in search of unfamiliar American material made the book available to a wider readership. The Modern Library brought out Moby-Dick in 1926 and the Lakeside Press in Chicago commissioned Rockwell Kent to design and illustrate a striking three-volume edition which appeared in 1930. Random House then issued a one-volume trade version of Kent's edition, which in 1943 they re-printed as a less expensive Modern Library Giant.
The next great wave of Moby-Dick appraisal came with the publication of F. O. Matthiessen's 1941 American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Matthiessen proposed that Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville were the most prominent figures of a flowering of conflicted mid-19th century literature which celebrated democracy and explored its possibilities, successes, and failures. Critic Nick Selby argues that Matthiessen's book, published while Americans were debating entry into World War II showed that Moby-Dick was now read as a "text that reflected the power struggles of a world concerned to uphold democracy, and of a country seeking an identity for itself within that world."
In 2014 new evidence of the book's standing was scholar Lawrence Buell's The Dream of the Great American Novel. Though Buell does not indicate a preference for any candidate, the cover illustration of a whale leaves no doubt what book is meant. The Times Literary Supplement review concluded that "it is clear that Moby-Dick is the most likely contender, being a novel that needs 'no defense.'"
The novel has been adapted or represented in art, film, books, cartoons, television and more than a dozen versions in comic book format. The first adaptation was the 1926 silent movie The Sea Beast, starring John Barrymore, in which Ahab kills the whale and returns to marry his fiancée. The most famous adaptation was the John Huston 1956 film produced from a screenplay by author Ray Bradbury. The long list of adaptations, as Bryant and Springer put it, demonstrates that "the iconic image of an angry embittered American slaying a mythic beast seemed to capture the popular imagination", showing how "different readers in different periods of popular culture have rewritten Moby-Dick" to make it a "true cultural icon".