Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is a novel by Herman Melville considered an outstanding work of Romanticism and the American Renaissance. A sailor called Ishmael narrates the monomaniacal quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, a white whale which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab’s ship and severed his leg at the knee. Although the novel was a commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891, its reputation as a Great American Novel grew during the 20th century. “Call me Ishmael” is one of world literature’s most famous opening sentences.
The work was first published as The Whale in London in October 1851 and then under its definitive title Moby-Dick in New York in November. There were hundreds of slight but important differences between the two editions. The London publisher censored or changed sensitive passages and Melville made revisions as well, including the last-minute change in the title for the New York edition. The whale, however, appears in both editions as “Moby Dick”, with no hyphen. About 3,200 copies were sold during the author’s life, earning him a little more than $1,200.
Tips On Writing
Herman Melville’s writing routine as described in a letter to a friend in December 1850, mere months before the publication of The Whale/Moby Dick:
“Do you want to know how I pass my time? — I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. [manuscripts] on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.”
Did You Know?..
Moby Dick was inspired by real-life events.
Two thousand miles from the nearest land, the crew of the Essex watched in horror as the enormous bull whale headed for their mother ship. Marooned in small, open boats the 20 men stood, powerless, as the creature struck their vessel at full speed.
Wood splintered, the whole structure of the ship shook. Then, after swimming off to leeward, the whale gathered its strength and came thundering towards the Essex again, even faster than before. As the crew floundered in the middle of the Pacific they knew their lives were in danger. None, though, was prepared for the appalling choices they were going to have to make in the days and weeks that followed.
The story of the Essex and the lengths to which its crew went in order to survive is part of maritime lore and the subject of the real-life voyage that inspired Herman Melville to write his novel Moby-Dick.