Melville Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick was a unique literary achievement. The adventure novel was also a philosophical treatise and a whaling miscellany, packaged within a single text. Although praised on both sides of the Atlantic, sales were mediocre, and many readers and critics failed to appreciate the depth and breadth of Melville’s accomplishment.

Summary of Event

The October 18, 1851, publication of Moby Dick: Or, The Whale occurred in the middle of a remarkable period of productivity for Herman Melville. (The novel had been published first as The Whale one month earlier in London.) Melville had published eight of his nine novels and virtually all of his short stories. In the novel, the characters of Ishmael and Ahab, and the multiple understandings of the possible significance of Moby Dick, the white (as opposed to gray) whale, have entered into the popular imagination and remain referents even for those who have never read the novel. The novel, which balances the adventure literature of Melville’s popular earlier novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), with the somewhat confused philosophies in Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849), is a work of major scope and effect that has assumed its rightful place as one of the best and most famous novels in all of American literature. Moby Dick (Melville) Melville, Herman Literature;American [kw]Melville Publishes Moby Dick (1851) [kw]Publishes Moby Dick, Melville (1851) [kw]Moby Dick, Melville Publishes (1851) Moby Dick (Melville) Melville, Herman Literature;American [g]United States;1851: Melville Publishes Moby Dick[2790] [g]Great Britain;1851: Melville Publishes Moby Dick[2790] [c]Literature;1851: Melville Publishes Moby Dick[2790] Hawthorne, Nathaniel [p]Hawthorne, Nathaniel;and Herman Melville[Melville] Duyckinck, Evert Augustus Duyckinck, George Long

In a propitious development that could not have been better orchestrated by modern marketing, the publication of Moby Dick in the fall of 1851 coincided with an actual event covered in many newspapers that paralleled the events at the end of the novel: the destruction in August, 1851, of the whale ship Ann Alexander off the Galapagos Islands Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean by a sperm whale. In a letter to Evert Augustus Duyckinck Duyckinck, Evert Augustus on or around November 7, 1851 (quoted by Jay Leyda in The Melville Logbook, vol. 1, p. 432), Melville wrote,

I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod about fourteen years ago. —Ye Gods! What a Commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.

Scholars generally agree that a number of circumstances combined to provide Melville with both the intent and the creative power to compose a novel that was a quantum leap above any of his previous, or indeed subsequent, literary productions. During the winter of 1850-1851, Melville acquired and read the complete works of William Shakespeare Shakespeare, William [p]Shakespeare, William;and Herman Melville[Herman Melville] , and literary critics of the past century and a half have noted the Elizabethan language and posturing that Captain Ahab, among others, assume in the text.

Melville’s treasured but short-lived friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne Hawthorne, Nathaniel [p]Hawthorne, Nathaniel;and Herman Melville[Melville] was at its apex at the time of the publication of Moby Dick, as both the Melville and Hawthorne families were living in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts: The Hawthornes were living in Lenox, and Melville had recently purchased Arrowhead Farm near Pittsfield, where he and his family would live from 1850 to 1863. The combined effect of reading Shakespeare, socializing with Hawthorne, and writing about the American whaling industry at the height of its commercial importance all coalesced in the composition of a novel of literary quality and timely social import. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, writing, in the book’s frontispiece,

In token of my admiration for his genius this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

As is the case with many works of complex, even esoteric literature, readers’ responses to Moby Dick often reveal more about the reader than about the text itself. Not only Hawthorne but also perhaps the leading public litterateur of the day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, read the text within the first month of its American publication and wrote in his journal on November 15, 1851, that he found the novel to be “Very wild, strange, and interesting.”

Other major writers and critics seem to have appreciated the novel’s importance at first publication, including William Ellery Channing Channing, William Ellery in The New Bedford Mercury and Horace Greeley Greeley, Horace in The New York Daily Tribune. However, Melville’s friends and magazine editors, the Duyckinck brothers Duyckinck, George Long Duyckinck, Evert Augustus Evert Augustus and George Long, did not understand the overall, symphonic coalescence of the work and put their criticism in writing, extending their review over two installments of The Literary World, in which they complained about a number of features in the novel, including characterizations of Captain Ahab, criticism of religion, non sequitur philosophizing, and what they saw to be conceits and preoccupations influenced by Thomas Carlyle Carlyle, Thomas or Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo . The two-installment review by the Duyckincks, and subsequent letters to friends and comments within New York literary circles, destroyed what had been a developing professional friendship with Melville.

Modern critical commentary has noticed some significant differences between the English publication of The Whale and the subsequent American publication of Moby Dick the following month. (Because international copyright law was not established until the 1890’s, it had been customary for American authors before the end of the century to secure European publication first; North American copyright would follow.) Melville noted that the American title is more name-specific rather than generic, and there is the obvious addition of a one-page “Epilogue” in the American edition that explains the details of Ishmael’s survival after the destruction of the Pequod by Moby Dick.

U.S. sales of the Harper edition of the text reached 2,400 copies by 1854, three years after publication, while the English edition published by Bentley had a single run of 500 copies. A fire at the New York warehouse of Harper & Company in December, 1853, justified a second American printing of 250 copies in 1855, followed by three more printings in the next several decades. The text sold out of the fifth printing in 1887 and was not reprinted; therefore, one of the most significant novels in the history of American literature was out of print for the last four years of Melville’s life and remained so until the Melville revival of the 1920’s.


Herman Melville could not have known that he was documenting a major American industry at the height of its importance, but after the discovery of vast crude oil reserves near what is now Oil City, Pennsylvania, in 1859, the need for sperm-whale oil declined precipitously, and the American whaling industry faded quickly in subsequent decades. Crude oil burned cleaner than smelly spermaceti, and crude oil manufacturing and refining was much more predictable than the dangers and vagaries involved in a three-year, round-the-world whaling expedition.

In terms of literary impact, although there were isolated examples of critical response that appreciated the novel even in the 1850’s, Moby Dick and most of Melville’s work diminished in notice by the time of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and did not come back into prominence until the Melville revival of the 1920’s. Since that time, virtually every decade has seen an increase in the reading and teaching of the novel, which has become a standard work in advanced high school and college American literature courses.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. This was the first scholarly critical biography of note concerning Melville, first published in 1951.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Robert S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Critical introduction to Melville’s work for both general and scholarly readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. 2 vols. New York: Gordian, 1969. This revised edition provides primary source material concerning Melville’s published texts in chronological order throughout his lifetime.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Edited by Harrison Hayford. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. This revised edition of the premier critical edition of the text includes relevant letters, critical essays, and textual apparatus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Edwin Havilland. Melville: A Biography. New York: Persea, 1975. Provides close readings of Melville’s texts in chronological order, paralleling the biographical narrative of his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olson, Charles. Call Me Ishmael. 1947. Reprint. San Francisco, Calif.: City Lights Books, 1958. Insightful and creative use of primary source materials to make compelling arguments concerning the sources and intents of the novel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville, 1819-1851. Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Herman Melville, 1851-1891. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Parker’s two-volume biography supersedes earlier biographies and has become the standard, definitive work on the life of Melville.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weaver, Raymond. Herman Melville, Mariner and Mystic. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1921. Although fraught with errors, this first full-length biography of Melville, combined with the posthumous publication of Billy Budd in 1924, is credited with creating the revived interest in Melville during the 1920’s.

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Thomas Carlyle; William Ellery Channing; James Fenimore Cooper; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Margaret Fuller; Horace Greeley; Sarah Josepha Hale; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Washington Irving; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Herman Melville; Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Louis Stevenson; Henry David Thoreau; Mark Twain; Walt Whitman. Moby Dick (Melville) Melville, Herman Literature;American

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