Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Today nearly everyone recognizes the famous first line of Moby-Dick—"Call me Ishmael"—but this was far from true for the first 70 years after the novel's publication. Considered a commercial flop and a literary failure, the publication of Moby-Dick proved devastating for author Herman Melville's writing career.

Published in 1851, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, as it is sometimes referred to, tells the story of the whaling Captain Ahab and his quest for revenge on the whale that destroyed his ship and took his leg. Readers either love or hate the highly detailed descriptions of whaling that pepper the storyline, but nobody can deny that Melville's posthumous success was well-earned.

English writer D.H. Lawrence called it "one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world," and American writer William Faulkner said he wished he had written it himself. Long after its quiet publication, Moby-Dick is now part of countless American literature courses throughout the world, and it has inspired dozens of film, television, radio, stage, and comic book adaptations.

1. Moby Dick was named after a real-life whale called Mocha Dick.

Herman Melville was inspired by an article in The Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839 called "Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific." This article recounted the true story of Mocha Dick, a 70-foot-long whale who lived near the Chilean island of Mocha and was infamous for its aggressive attacks on nearby boats. Nobody is sure why Melville chose "Moby" to replace "Mocha."

Cover of Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific, 1870, by Jeremiah Reynolds.

Cover of Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific, 1870, by Jeremiah Reynolds.

2. Moby-Dick was also inspired by another encounter with an 85-foot-long whale.

Melville was inspired by the troubles aboard the Essex, an 87-foot-long whaling ship that was attacked and sunk by an 85-foot-long whale in 1820. After the attack the ship's crew drifted for months aboard a few small rowboats. Many of them died during this time—and were cannibalized by their crewmates.

3. There were around 600 differences between the first American and British editions of Moby-Dick.

British editors heavily revised Moby-Dick (published as The Whale in the United Kingdom) without Melville's consent. They removed some passages they deemed politically offensive or overly sexual. The American edition contained 35 passages that were missing from the British edition, including—most importantly—the epilogue. Without the epilogue, which explains how Ishmael survived to tell his story, British readers were pretty confused.

4. Moby-Dick received awful reviews in the United Kingdom.

British reviewers were unimpressed with the pared-down version of Moby Dick they read. One reviewer, writing for The Athenaeum in London, called it "trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature." These reviews influenced American critical opinion, with many American newspapers simply reprinting reviews from Britain.

5. Melville earned a mere $556.37 from sales of Moby-Dick in the United States.

The unfortunate critical response to Moby-Dick led to its commercial failure. In Melville's lifetime, Moby-Dick sold only around 3,200 copies in the United States—and his total American earnings from the novel were a minuscule $556.37. A flat payment for the purchase of the copyright netted Melville about $700 for only about 500 sales in the United Kingdom.

6. Moby-Dick almost faded away into obscurity.

Melville's books had all gone out of print by 1876, and when he died 15 years later, his brief obituary was published in just one newspaper. Fortunately an 1891 posthumous reprint of several of his novels, including Moby-Dick, reignited interest in Melville among New York City's literary underground. It wasn't until the 1920s that Moby-Dick started to find widespread critical acclaim.

7. Science-fiction author Ray Bradbury wrote the script for the 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick.

After "eight long months of agonizing work" on the script, Bradbury woke up one morning and declared, "I am Herman Melville!" According to Bradbury, he then "sat down at the typewriter, and in eight hours of passionate, red-hot writing, [he] finished the screenplay of Moby Dick." The 1956 version is perhaps the most famous film adaptation of Moby-Dick.

Film poster for 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick.

Film poster for 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick.

8. The coffee chain Starbucks was named after a character in Moby-Dick.

Starbuck is one of the men on the ship's crew. On their website Starbucks explains they chose the name because it evokes "the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders."

9. The singer-songwriter Moby is the great-great-great-great-nephew of Herman Melville.

The American singer-songwriter Moby was born Richard Melville Hall in 1965, but his parents felt that his full name was too grand for such a small child. They decided to call him Moby, after the whale in Moby-Dick.

10. An extinct species of sperm whale was named after Melville.

The species was a highly aggressive 55-foot-long whale who may have preyed on other large whales. This 12-million-year-old sea creature was discovered in 2010 and named Leviathan melvillei. Why? Those who found it were great fans of Moby-Dick and wanted to dedicate their discovery to Herman Melville.

Reconstruction and comparison of Livyatan melvillei and Cetotherium | |

Reconstruction and comparison of Livyatan melvillei and Cetotherium. Apokryltaros CC BY-SA 3.0

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