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I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

11 Things You Might Not Know About Moby-Dick

I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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 DickThe 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.

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10 Facts About Charlotte Brontë
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. And though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.

1. BRONTË WAS JUST 5 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE LOST HER MOTHER.

Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."

2. BRONTË HAD BEEN WRITING POETRY AND STORIES SINCE HER YOUTH.

Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.

3. SHE WORKED AS A TEACHER AND GOVERNESS BUT DISLIKED IT.

portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.

4. BRONTË DEALT WITH A LOT OF LITERARY REJECTION.

When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.

5. SHE USED THE MALE PSEUDONYM CURRER BELL.

English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre—her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!

6. JANE EYRE WAS AN INSTANT SUCCESS.

The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.

7. BRONTË WAS LUCKY TO AVOID TUBERCULOSIS …

Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.

8. … BUT SHE DIED AT 38 YEARS OLD—WHILE PREGNANT.

In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.

9. ZEALOUS BRONTË FANS TRAVEL TO HER HOME IN ENGLAND.

Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.

10. SHE HELPED MAKE THE NAME 'SHIRLEY' MORE POPULAR FOR GIRLS.

Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

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From A Game Of Thrones to War and Peace: These are America's 100 Favorite Books
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
Denis De Marney, Getty Images

Die-hard classic literature lovers might quibble over Fifty Shades of Grey being placed on the same list as Jane Eyre, but alas, the people have spoken. Both are among America’s 100 favorite novels, according to a national survey conducted by YouGov.

The list was compiled in support of The Great American Read, an upcoming PBS series about the joys of reading. Set to premiere on May 22, the eight-part series will introduce the "100 best-loved novels" and feature interviews with famous authors, comedians, actors, athletes, and more. A few of the featured guests will include George Lopez, Seth Meyers, Venus Williams, and James Patterson. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao author Junot Díaz, all of whom have books on the list, will also make appearances.

On the day of the series premiere, PBS will launch a round of voting to determine "America’s Best-Loved Novel." Viewers across the country will have the chance to choose their favorite book from the list of 100 and place their vote online, or through Facebook or Twitter using the #GreatReadPBS hashtag. The winner will be announced this fall.

The oldest book on the list is Don Quixote, a classic Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes (1603), while the newest is Ghost (2016), a young adult book by Jason Reynolds. The list includes authors from 15 different countries, and the books span several genres. Many of the novels are staples on high school summer reading lists, including 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scroll down for the full list of America's favorite books, arranged in alphabetical order.

1984
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Game of Thrones
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Separate Peace
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Alchemist
Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Americanah
And Then There Were None
Anne of Green Gables
Another Country
Atlas Shrugged
Beloved
Bless Me, Ultima
The Book Thief
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Call of the Wild
Catch-22
The Catcher in the Rye
Charlotte's Web
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Coldest Winter Ever
The Color Purple
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Da Vinci Code
Don Quixote
Doña Barbara
Dune
Fifty Shades of Grey
Flowers in the Attic
Foundation
Frankenstein
Ghost
Gilead
The Giver
The Godfather
Gone Girl
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations
The Great Gatsby
Gulliver's Travels
The Handmaid's Tale
Harry Potter (series)
Hatchet
Heart of Darkness
The Help
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hunger Games
The Hunt for Red October
The Intuitionist
Invisible Man
Jane Eyre
The Joy Luck Club
Jurassic Park
Left Behind
The Little Prince
Little Women
Lonesome Dove
Looking for Alaska
The Lord of the Rings (series)
The Lovely Bones
The Martian
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mind Invaders
Moby Dick
The Notebook
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Outlander
The Outsiders
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Pilgrim's Progress
The Pillars of the Earth
Pride and Prejudice
Ready Player One
Rebecca
The Shack
Siddhartha
The Sirens of Titan
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises
Swan Song
Tales of the City
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Things Fall Apart
This Present Darkness
To Kill a Mockingbird
Twilight
War and Peace
Watchers
The Wheel of Time (series)
Where the Red Fern Grows
White Teeth
Wuthering Heights

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