11 Things You Might Not Know About Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick is considered a classic, but neither the genius of Herman Melville nor his grand masterpiece were fully recognized until well after the author’s death.
1. TWO WHALES HELPED INSPIRE THE STORY.
The character of Moby Dick is larger than life, but this is an instance where truth is as strange (if not stranger) than fiction. The white whale is based on a real-life cetacean called Mocha Dick. Named after the Chilean island of Mocha (near which the beast was first encountered), he was an albino sperm whale with a formidable reputation. Over 70 feet long, the mammal was famous for swimming gently next to the whaling boats. On the first sign of aggression, however, the whale would spring into action and try to destroy any boat that attacked him. When the notorious animal was finally brought down circa 1839, at least 19 harpoons were found lodged in his sides. The following year, The Knickerbocker Magazine ran an article entitled “Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific.” For his novel, Melville would replace the word “Mocha” with “Moby” (though no one is sure why). But the tale was also heavily influenced by an event that had taken place in the south Pacific over a decade before Mocha Dick’s demise.
On November 20, 1820, a Nantucket whaling ship called the Essex was rammed and sunk by a different angry sperm whale. The 20-man crew survived the assault by climbing onto three rowboats, but their troubles were just beginning. With minimal supplies, the men drifted for four months and over 3000 miles. Most of them died en route, and those who didn’t cannibalized the deceased before being rescued near Chile.
2. MELVILLE MOVED WHILE WRITING IT.
The author started penning Moby-Dick in 1850 while living at the family's New York City home. That summer, Melville relocated to Pittsfield, Massachusetts; he finished Moby-Dick in the spring of 1851.
3. A MINOR CHARACTER WAS AN HOMAGE TO MELVILLE’S UNCLE.
Captain John D’Wolf II—the husband of Melville's aunt Mary—was a seagoing merchant whose numerous stories had a big influence on young Melville (among other things, the man claimed to have sailed to Russia and crossed Siberia on a dogsled). In his honor, Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick introduces a New Englander named Captain D’Wolf. Coincidentally, the mysterious seaman is said to be the uncle of Ishmael, our narrator.
4. THE BOOK IS DEDICATED TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.
The two literary titans, who lived just six miles apart in Massachusetts, met in 1850. Despite having almost finished Moby-Dick by late 1850, Melville felt compelled to essentially rewrite it from scratch after meeting the man behind The Scarlet Letter; it’s likely that Hawthorne’s influence completely changed the direction and tone of Moby Dick. The two writers greatly admired each other: They’d go on to write glowing reviews of each other’s novels, and on more than one occasion, Melville even compared his fellow author to Shakespeare himself.
5. ANOTHER SPERM WHALE ATTACK OCCURRED THE SAME YEAR MOBY-DICK WAS PUBLISHED.
On August 20, 1851, a New Bedford, Massachusetts whaling vessel called the Ann Alexander met a similar end to the Essex. According to the 1902 book Sunk by a Whale, "The whale struck the ship about two feet from the keel ... knocking a great whole entirely through her bottom, through which the water roared and rushed in impetuously. ... The ship sank rapidly, all effort to keep her afloat proving futile."
Just three months later, on November 14, Moby-Dick was released in the U.S. “It is really & truly a surprising coincidence—to say the least,” Melville wrote in a reply to an acquaintance's letter about the Ann Alexander not long before the book made its stateside debut. “I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod … 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.”
6. THE ORIGINAL BRITISH EDITION WAS PUBLISHED WITHOUT THE EPILOGUE.
A month before making its American debut, Moby-Dick was published in the UK, where Victorian editors heavily revised the manuscript without Melville’s consent. There were about 600 differences between the original American and British editions. Thirty-five passages were completely omitted from the latter—including the epilogue, in which Ishmael explains how he, the sole survivor of the Pequod's sinking, lived to tell the tale. Without that key segment, the novel makes little sense.
Through no fault of Melville’s, critics were quick to pounce on a plot hole that hadn’t previously existed. “How does it happen that the narrator survived to tell the story?” Dublin University Magazine asked. Over in the U.S., the situation worsened: Rather than review Moby-Dick for themselves, many American newspapers simply reprinted scathing comments from abroad—even though the stateside edition actually retained Melville’s epilogue. Melville’s greatest work became both a critical and financial flop.
During the 1920s, various reprints popped up in the UK, but these also axed Moby-Dick’s final chapter. Gradually, however, Ishmael’s fate became widely known across the pond as newer and more complete editions—such as Hendricks House’s “definitive” 1952 re-release—were released.
7. ONLY 3715 COPIES WERE EVER PURCHASED DURING MELVILLE’S LIFETIME.
By comparison, Typee—his first novel—sold three times as many. In the states, Melville’s total earnings from Moby-Dick amounted to a paltry $556.37. His literary career more or less over, the writer returned to New York, where he became a customs inspector in 1863.
8. A POSTHUMOUS REPRINTING SAVED MOBY-DICK FROM OBSCURITY.
When Melville passed away on September 28, 1891, his The New York Times obituary cited him as the author of “Mobie Dick” [PDF]. Readers had to work hard to track down his novels, all of which had gone out of print by 1876.
Then, in late 1891, Moby-Dick was reprinted and, this time around, critics started to take it more seriously. Leading the charge was acclaimed author Carl Van Doren, who’d found a copy at a used book store in 1916 (presumably, this volume included the epilogue) and called it “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world” in a 1921 essay. Within the next few decades, Moby-Dick became universally recognized as an American classic.
9. RAY BRADBURY WROTE THE SCREENPLAY FOR THE 1956 MOVIE ADAPTATION.
Though Moby-Dick has been adapted into several films, the 1956 version is the most famous. In 1953 (the same year as Fahrenheit 451’s publication), Ray Bradbury spent eight months hammering out the script for director John Huston. For awhile, he progressed at a snail’s pace. During a 2007 ceremony in which he was awarded a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize jury, Bradbury said: “Finally, in the eighth month, I got out of bed one morning in London, looked in the mirror, and said ‘I am Herman Melville!” Following what he described as “eight hours of passionate, red-hot writing,” Bradbury finished the job, raced over to Huston, and threw the screenplay onto his lap. Upon reading it, the director asked “My god, what happened?” “Behold,” Bradbury shouted, “Herman Melville!”
10. STARBUCKS COFFEE IS NAMED AFTER ONE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS.
In honor of Captain Ahab’s vessel, the world’s largest coffeehouse company was almost named Pequod. Co-founder Gordon Bowker really liked this idea, but his creative partner Terry Heckler was much less enthusiastic. “No one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod,” he said. Instead, the company christened itself after Mr. Starbuck, Ahab’s first mate and an oft-ignored voice of reason.
11. A PREHISTORIC SPERM WHALE WAS DUBBED LIVYATAN MELVILLEI IN 2010.
Even Ahab might think twice before messing with this thing. Though roughly the same length as a modern sperm whale, the creature had a far more powerful bite with a nightmarish set of teeth. “Some of the biggest ones are 36 centimeters long and 12 centimeters wide, and are probably the biggest predatory teeth ever discovered,” paleontologist Olivier Lambert told New Scientist. Twelve to 13 million years ago, it likely dined on smaller whales. Fittingly, Lambert and his colleagues gave Moby-Dick’s creator a posthumous shout-out by calling their monster Livyatan melvillei.