'It Repels the Reader': Tech Glitches Led Moby-Dick's First Critics to Pan It

The "most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer" was first published with entire sections missing. 
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The Asylum

Here is one of the first reviews of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, published in the London Spectator in October 1851 and re-reprinted, a month later, in the New York International magazine

This sea novel is a singular medley of naval observation, magazine article writing, satiric reflection upon the conventionalisms of civilized life, and rhapsody run mad.... The rhapsody belongs to wordmongering where ideas are the staple; where it takes the shape of narrative or dramatic fiction, it is phantasmal—an attempted description of what is impossible in nature and without probability in art; it repels the reader instead of attracting him.

The review concluded by ridiculing the novel for its employment of a first-person narrative—a peculiar choice, the reviewer scoffed, since "not only is Ahab, with his boat's-crew, destroyed in his last desperate attack upon the white whale, but the Pequod herself sinks with all on board into the depths of the illimitable ocean."

Except, of course, not every member of the boat's-crew iMoby-Dick  sinks with the Pequod. There is—spoiler!—a significant survivor of the wreck. And he goes on to tell the tale. Call him Ishmael. 

"The Voyage of the Pequod," illustrated by Everett Henry (Wikimedia Commons)

At least, Ishmael survives in the American version of Moby-Dick—which is also to say, in Melville's own version of his book. The Moby-Dick we know today ends with an Epilogue that, among other things, explains why Ishmael is alive and able to tell his whale of a tale tale of a whale. The Epilogue is, in other words, essential. 

But the first printings of Moby-Dick didn't have the Epilogue. The first editions of that most classic of classics were incomplete. This is the story of how one of the leading contenders for The Great American Novel—"the most ambitious book ever conceived by an American writer," "arguably the greatest single work in American literature"—started life as a critical mockery. It is the story of what can happen when literature, as an artifact, is what it has to be: mediated both by technology and by extremely fallible humans.

***

It started with copyright laws. In the mid-19th century, international copyright didn't yet exist. The British had their copyright; their former subjects had printing presses that would happily replicate British newspapers and novels. (The result of this discrepancy was delightfully Darwinian: American printers would "haunt the docks," awaiting the latest proofs from the United Kingdom so they could rush them to print before their competitors.)

By the 1840s, American authors had figured out a way to doubly exploit this state of affairs: If they published their works in Britain first, they realized, they could benefit—in Britain, at least—from the protection of British copyright laws. And then, if they could arrange for the same work to be printed in America at almost the same time as the British version was released, they could avoid the costly irony of having their work pirated in their own country. 

Melville, for his first five novels, used that scheme fairly successfully. His books were printed in Britain; less than six weeks later, the American editions appeared. Which was a legal hack that benefited the author, the printer, and the public fairly nicely.

A first (American) edition of Moby-Dick, 1851, bound in unrestored original cloth (book-aesthete)

Moby-Dick, or, The Whale—Melville's sixth novel—would have a similar bicontinental birth. On October 18, 1851, the London printer Richard Bentley published the book under the relatively un-evocative title of The Whale. Bentley created 500 editions that emphasized the aesthetics of the book: The Whale, as the Library of America describes it, featured a cloth cover and a cloth spine, both appropriately sea-blue in color. That binding was "emblazoned in gold from top to bottom with diving right whales."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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