In his "Introduction" to the 1998 Oxford World's Classic edition of Moby-Dick, Tony Tanner suggests that the novel could only have been written in America and only in the mid-nineteenth century. The country then "seemed to stand at a new height, or new edge, of triumphant dominion and expansionary confidence in the western world." Tanner and others point out that, during Melville's life, the United States emerged from a colonial society to a world power with its own significant history and mythology. There were also tremendous advances in technology — the development of the railroad, telegraph, and telephone enabling easier travel and communication. Democracy was on the rise, and the country was ready to produce literary voices of its own.
At the time that the novel was published, the terrible destruction of the Civil War was not yet imagined. In fact, the Compromise of 1850, originated by Kentucky's Senator Henry Clay, effectively postponed the conflict eleven years by admitting one territory as a free state (California) while allowing slave owners to populate others (Utah and New Mexico). It was a prosperous, optimistic time in America, but some scholars argue that this very frame of mind kept many readers away from Melville's most interesting work because the novel was too dark or complicated for its time. In letters to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville himself discusses his difficulty in finding an adequate audience.
Tanner's salient point, though, is that America in the mid-nineteenth century was an ideal place and time to "generate its own epic and myth — in effect find its own Homer." A strong argument can be made for Moby-Dick's being the first great American epic in its length, its elevated style, and its treatment of the trials and achievements of democratic heroes or epic anti-heroes of national and cultural significance. Tanner treats this possibility in detail.
Perhaps more to the point, however, is the importance of time and place to the emergence of a great book about whaling. As Charles Olson points out (Call Me Ishmael, 1947; excerpted in Modern Critical Interpretations of Moby-Dick, edited by Harold Bloom), of 900 whaling vessels on the seas in 1846, 735 were American. Americans had been whaling since colonial days, but the industry peaked in the United States in the 1840s. Nantucket Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts, were the most important whaling ports in the world. Sperm oil alone was processed in excess of five million gallons per year.
Melville had served as a crewman on a whaler and knew the profession well. Among other accurate details, he discusses the length of a voyage (two to three years), life aboard ship, the number of open boats in a given chase, and the crews on those boats: usually one officer, one harpooner, and four oarsmen per boat. He is able to find comic relief in standard procedures such as the method of payment and the shore life of crewmen.
Just a few years later, kerosene became popular as a cheap fuel for lamps, and excessive hunting began to destroy the schools of whales. In Chapter 105 of the novel, Ishmael expresses certainty that the whale will never be eliminated to the degree that the American buffalo had been. It is, he thinks, too difficult to find whales in the world's vast oceans. In only a few years, he would be proven wrong. The whale has become even more endangered in subsequent years.
The historical setting of the novel was essential. It contributed to the creation of a great book about whaling and perhaps to the writing of the first American epic.