Instead of bringing critical acclaim, Moby-Dick started Melville's slide toward literary obscurity. This was partially because the book was first published in England, and the American literary establishment took note of what the English critics said, especially critics who wrote in the more prestigious journals. Many reviews praised Moby-Dick for its unique style, interesting characters, and poetic language, but others agreed with a review in the highly regarded London Athenaeum, which described it as
[A]n ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.
The unfavorable reviews from across the ocean made American readers skittish. Still, a handful of American critics saw value in it. Hawthorne said of the book:
What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones.
One problem was that since the English edition omitted the epilogue, British reviewers read a book with a first-person narrator who apparently did not survive to tell the tale. The reviewer in the Spectator objected that "nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish."" The Dublin University Magazine asked "how does it happen that the author is alive to tell the story?" and the Literary Gazette declared that how the writer, "who appears to have been drowned with the rest, communicated his notes for publication to Mr. Bentley is not explained."
It has also been argued the novel was unsuccessful because whaling and maritime adventuring were no longer of topical interest to the American public. The Gold Rush had shifted focus to the West, and lengthy novels with long factual passages about the brutal technology of the whaling industry seemed less relevant to an American audience.