An American literary classic that was a failure

Considered an American literary classic, Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” was a failure when published and the story behind the failure is a writers nightmare.

For reasons I do not know the normal arrangement was Melville ‘s American proofs were sent to England where they would be set in print and have first publishing rights. Melville had no American publisher lined up, though in the past it had been Harpers. He had little money, had trouble paying rent and buying food. He was working at correcting proofs of the first part of the book and getting it set in type, while revising the second part. However, Melville already had plates for the American edition which would be costly to redo. So the English version, though published first, would be the revised edition. Herman could have used an agent.

The English edition, in addition to thousands of spelling and punctuation differences had over 700 changes in words and sentences. On October 18, 1851 a printing of 500 copies of a three volume set entitled “The Whale” was published. (Melville was able to change the title to “Moby Dick” for American publication). For some reason the English publisher, Richard Bentley, moved two sections of the book “Etymology” and “Extracts” that preceded chapter one to the end of the book and the epilogue was missing. Additionally the English version was heavily censored. Any sacrilegious passages like Ahab “stands with a crucifixion in his face” was changed to “an apparently eternal anguish.” God save us all. Also any references that may thought to shed bad light on British royalty were exorcised. So too was any discussion of the sex life of whales because as we all know England has many whale fetishists for whom such discussion may provoke impure thoughts on blubber. God save us all.

Since the book was first published in England, their reviews came first and they were brutal. They wondered how the tale could be told if no one survived. The missing epilogue would have resolved that. I have tried to read the book twice and get to a long dissertation on whaling, a strictly non-fictional account, that for me, interrupts the narrative flow and bores me no end. I suppose I could have skipped all that, but I just could not bring myself to finish this overlong epic. It was also a criticism of the book when published. Melville wanted to write both a romantic fiction and a factual account of whaling. But the book failed to sell.

Melville thought it would be his masterpiece, but at the time that was the last thing anyone considered. However, a year after Melville’s death in 1891, “Moby Dick” and other of his novels were reissued and slowly his reputation started to grow in basically and underground movement. By 1917 D.H. Lawrence, the great British writer, praised the book and the edition he read was the American edition, the one before the revisions.

Melville died thinking his book was a failure. In a way the whale did in both Ahab and Melville.



Filed under e-book publishing, humor, Uncategorized, writing

2 responses to “An American literary classic that was a failure

  1. I bet I die before the world catches on to how brilliant my writing is… sigh… I am going to call that ‘pulling a Melville’ from now on… until I die…


  2. Consolation: in one of the Greatest Letters Never Found, Hawthorne wrote to Melville about his reading of Moby Dick, and judging from Melville’s own enthusiastic response, it was clear that at least one reader knew the value of the work. It just happens that one reader was the most important one for Melville. Even though he did not receive critical (or retail) recognition of his achievement, he’d already bathed briefly in the limelight of literary celebrity (mid 19th century style, at any rate) with his first couple of published books, and writes about the relative crush of celebrity even in that time in the book published after Moby Dick, Pierre–that book’s titular main character finds himself running from a magazine editor (of “The Captain Kidd Monthly”) who is hounding the famous young author Pierre to sit for a daguerreotype…


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