Was American Literature (with a capital A and L) born with the November 14, 1851 publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or The Whale? Possibly. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published the following year, and sold vastly better, so maybe… let’s just charitably call it a twin birth.)
Certainly, its all-over-the-place narrative, told from the point of view of an unreliable second-hand account, and interspersed with sermons, songs, asides and half-remembrances sprinkled through the central tale is something that feels very “American” in the way we now know it, through writers like Fitzgerald, Delillo, Acker, Pynchon, Fran Lebowitz, & David Foster Wallace*.
Melville’s whale story was culled from his own experiences on boats in the early 19th century, as well as the tales told of a couple of whales that seemed to capture the national imagination: Timor Tom, a whale that became famous sailors for multiple encounters in the Pacific…
Was it not so, O Timor Tom! thou famed Leviathan, scarred like an iceberg, who so long did’st lurk in the Oriental Straits of that name, whose spout was oft seen from the palmy beach of Ombay?
…and Mocha Dick, who (despite the name) was, like Timor Tom, an albino whale that terrorized sailors off the coast of Chile from about 1810 through 1838, when (it is suspected) he was finally killed, yielding a hundred barrels of oil, and a goodly amount of ambergris, which at the time was as valuable per ounce as anything on Earth.
The whaling industry was a large part of the global economy in the 19th century, though it waned fairly quickly in the post-industrial age, and an international moratorium on whaling (except for certain aboriginal societies) went into effect in 1986. (Even the Hartford Whalers moved down the coast 20 years ago.)
Little Irvy was a whale that died in 1997, and was bought by Jerry Malone, a trucker who spent the next 25 years showing it off at county and state fairs around the country.
*This was just off the top of my head; I’m sure there are dozens more that fit this list, maybe better. Which I think kind of proves the point.