'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.

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 in Moby-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."

Moby-Dick, of course, is a sperm whale. Which might have been the first indication that things were going awry.

The book's first edition, however, had more substantial problems than its cover. This was Victorian England; publishers regularly—and heavily—edited the manuscripts they were printing to remove content they deemed vulgar and/or "politically suspect." They would generally make these changes, moreover, without authorial approval. And even if they tried to confer with the author, the attempt would slow up the printing process when the author was an ocean away. Two days after he sent his novel's final proofs to Bentley, Melville decided to dedicate the book to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. The author informed Bentley of this, along with his last-minute decision to change the novel's title from The Whale to Moby-Dick. By the time he received the update, Bentley was able to insert the dedication into the book; he was not able, however, to change the book's title. The Whale would remain unnamed.

That the novel went to print with a title its author had not intended was appropriate. Bentley had taken the book's Extracts, which Melville had intended as a kind of overture to the novel, and made them into an Appendix. Worse, though, he had taken the Epilogue—again, the crucial section of the book in which Ishmael recounts how he survived to tell his story—out of the book completely. When Brits read The Whale, they were understandably a bit confused. What's going on here? Wasn't the narrator dead?


Which is, in part, how the book that is today regarded as one of the best novels ever written became, to many of its contemporary readers, something of a disappointment. (London Examiner, November 1851: "We cannot say that we recognize in this writer any advance on the admirable qualities displayed in his earlier books—we do not see that he even greatly cares to put forth the strength of which he has shown himself undoubtedly possessed.") Later on, after the Melville Revival brought new critical and popular attention to Moby-Dick, scholars compared the differences between the British and American editions. They counted around 600 of them. The American editions, furthermore, contained 35 passages that were missing from the British.

Google Doodle's celebration of Moby-Dick, 2012 (Google)

For Melville and his masterpiece, the insult of all this was doubly injurious: The results of Bentley's meddling affected Moby-Dick's critical reception in the States as well as Britain. And this was despite the fact that the American edition, published in November 1851, was true to Melville's manuscript. For one thing—loose copyright laws again—American newspapers and journals were in the habit of simply reprinting reviews from British periodicals. But even when the reviews weren't copied, American critics tended to be heavily influenced by their British counterparts. Which led to reviews like this one:

We have read nearly one-half of this book and are satisfied that the London Athenaeum is right in calling it: "an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact."

Not all the reviews were negative. Not all the negative reviews had to do with the missing pages. Still, though: Imagine being Herman Melville. Imagine writing Moby-Dick. And imagine, then, reading that dismissive assessment of your work. Nearly one-half of this book! Imagine being confused, indignant, furious, worried. (Melville had hoped Moby-Dick would get him out of debt; its sales ended up earning him $556.37—a sum whose insult no past-to-present exchange rate could erase.) Imagine receiving copies of your book months after those copies had been released into the world. Imagine flipping through the pages. Imagine realizing they were wrong.

Via Library of America and Writer's Almanac