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Why are we reading Moby Dick? If the novel's plot has be recycled for decades, adapted to films, cartoons, and tv-series As a potential reader, you think you probably already know the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale.Reading the book you will get the opportunity to experience, and embark on voyage that unfolds an epic story of adventure.This site is to give you a different perspective on Melville's great novel and appreciate the art of literature as you keep reading.






Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: the Greatest American Whaling Story


Herman Melville (1819-1891)
On December 30, 1840, at the age of 21 years, Herman Melville signed the shipping articles for a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean aboard the ship Acushnet of Fairhaven, MA, Valentine Pease, master. The vessel set sail down the Acushnet River estuary on January 3, 1841, past the great wharves of New Bedford, the then whaling capitol of the world, and out into the North Atlantic. This author of genius was being carried off on the voyage that would inspire one of the greatest works of literature in the American language.

He endured eighteen months at sea. He had little formal education but a background rich in adventure. As the character Ishmael says in Moby-Dick, ". . . a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." In writing his novel, Melville drew primarily on what he had learned at sea. While on the Acushnet, he met Owen Chase during a gam (exchange of visits between whaleships). Chase gave him a written account of his father's experiences on the Ship Essex, which was sunk by a whale. "The reading of this wondrous story on the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect upon me," Melville later wrote.

The Book Itself: Moby-Dick
was first published in London under a different title before its publication in New York. The following bibliographic descriptions of the first editions are quoted directly from G. Thomas Tanselle, A Checklist of Editions of Moby-Dick, 1851-1976 (Evanston and Chicago, 1976), p. 8.

1. The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851 3 vols. (viii, 312; iv, 303; iv, 328 pp.) Published October 18, 1851; at a guinea and a half, in an edition of 500 copies. Bentley, the foremost publisher of the "three-decker," gave The Whale an unusually elaborate physical dress: deep-blue cloth covers, and white spines decorated with gold whales (unfortunately they were right whales, not sperm whales like Moby Dick). It is difficult to understand why he gave such lavish treatment to a work which was so different from typical three-decker fiction and for which he expected small sales. Probably about a third of the edition was bound this way, for Bentley later covered some sets with ordinary brown and purple cloth and still had sheets available in 1853 for his one-volume issue. All copies of the Bentley edition are thus from the same impression, but they can occur (1) in three volumes with blue and white cloth and gold-stamped whales on the spines, (2) in three volumes with brown or purple cloth and no whales on the spines, and (3) in one volume with red cloth and cancel title pages dated 1853.

2. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851. xxiii, 635 pages. Published probably on November 14, 1851, at $1.50, in an impression of 2, 915 copies. The Harpers presented the work as a single bulky volume, covered with various colors of cloth (red, blue, green, purple, brown or black) and bearing a blind-stamped life preserver device on the front and back covers. Although the Harper volumes were much less attractive than Bentley's three-deckers, it is possible that Melville preferred them, for he believed that "books should be appropriatly apparelled" (as he said in his review of Cooper's The Red Rover), and at least the reviewer of Moby-Dick for the New Bedford Daily Mercury thought that the Harper volumes were "in some respects 'very like a whale' even in outward appearance." Some first impression sheets were later (about mid-1852) cased in cloth that was blind-stamped with an arabesque pattern on the front and back. A second printing (250 copies) appeared in 1855, a third (253 copies) in 1863, and a fourth (277 copies) in 1871, each with a dated title page.

All told Tanselle lists 115 editions of Moby-Dick.

American Whaling Literature
Before the publication of Moby-Dick, the subject of whaling had a limited but significant representation in American literature. The most famous early American accounts had more to do with sensations in the whale fishery such as Owen Chase Narrative of the most extraordinary and distressing shipwreck of the whale-ship Essex of Nantucket; which was attacked and finally destroyed by a large spermaceti-whale, in the Pacific Ocean... (New York 1821) and William Comstock The life of Samuel Comstock, the bloody mutineer (Boston, 1845) outlining the infamous mutiny on the ship Globe of Nantucket in 1824. Other such titles include William Lay and Cyrus Hussey’s account of the Globe mutiny, A Narrative of the mutiny on board the ship Globe, of Nantucket, in the Pacific Ocean, Jan. 1824 (New London, 1828) and Horace Holden, Narrative of the shipwreck, captivity, and sufferings of Horace Holden and Benj. H. Nute; who were cast away in the American ship Mentor, on the Pelew Islands, in the year 1832 (Boston, 1836). Previous to Moby-Dick there were three major American non-fiction works relating to the whale fishery. They were Francis Allyn Olmsted Incidents of a whaling voyage... (New York, 1841); J. Ross Browne Etchings of a whaling cruise...(New York, 1846) and the Reverend Henry Cheever, The whale and his captors... (New York, 1849). Additionally there were Herman Melville's two other whaling related works of fiction, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life... (New York, 1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas... (New York, 1847). Although additional minor titles, such as Reuben Delano, Wanderings and Adventures of Reuben Delano, being a narrative of twelve years’ life in a whale ship (New York, Boston and Worcester, 1846) were published the above list represents the bulk of popular American writing on the subject before 1851. After 1851 a wide variety of works of fiction and non-fiction including dime novels, temperance pamphlets, reminiscences and additional primary accounts came increasingly into the public sphere.


Was There a Real Moby Dick?


Moby Dick, the sperm whale in Herman Melville’s novel by the same name had several distinguishing characteristics. The first was that it was an albino – a white whale. He was also unusually large, had a peculiar spout and was covered in the remains of broken harpoons from past encounters with whalers.

Portrait of Amos Smalley, circa 1900. ODHS # 1996.37.12

Melville was an American whaleman. He sailed on a voyage to the Pacific in 1841 and this voyage was undoubtedly an inspiration for his great novel. He read enormously and many of the sources for his ideas can be traced back to his reading. Among them was adventurer Jeremiah N. Reynold’s (1799-1858) story “Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal, of the Pacific,” a tale that Reynolds allegedly heard during his travels. Reynolds claims to have heard the tale from the first mate of a Nantucket whaler and in the story he gives a good description of the animal:

"But to return to Mocha Dick – which, it may be observed, few were solicitous to do, who had once escaped from him. This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool! Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, he flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar… he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of Nantucket, “a genuine old sog,” of the first water."

There was an actual white sperm whale that, like Tashtego, the Gay Head Indian harpooner on Melville’s Pequod, a real-life Gay Head Indian harpooner killed.

Bark Platina of New Bedford outward bound, circa 1906. ODHS # 2000.100.915

In 1902, the same year that the Kathleen was sunk, Amos Smalley, a harpooner from Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard onboard the bark Platina of New Bedford using a darting gun struck a white sperm whale on the “Western Grounds” in the North Atlantic and killed it with a bomb lance.

The whale was spotted by Walter Thompson, a boy at the time, from the masthead of the Platina but the Platina’s master, Thomas McKenzie, was incredulous that the all-white creature was a sperm whale but other crew members confirmed the spout and the boats were lowered away. Smalley later described the whale as being very large and old.






































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