Why America’s great American novel was published first in Great Britain under a different name is a tale of pirates and misadventure—and ends by having a considerable impact on the fate of the novel’s reception in America.
In Melville’s day, there was no international copyright. American publishers competed by being first on the docks. When proofs from Great Britain arrived they rushed new books into print before others could. By the 1840s American authors discovered that if they published their work first in Great Britain they could get the benefit of British copyright—and if they could arrange for a near-simultaneous American publication they could avoid pirated editions. For his first five novels, this is exactly what Melville did, the American edition appearing no later than six weeks after the British.
However, this plan had drawbacks. London’s Victorian publishers removed anything obscene or politically suspect—and did so without conferring with the author. Melville tried to exert control over his new novel by having the text set in type and plated on his own. This probably helped the accuracy of the American edition but the British edition was going to be reset anyway. Two days after sending the corrected proofs to London, he decided to change the name of the book from The Whale to Moby-Dick and to dedicate it to his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Bentley received these changes in time to insert the dedication, but not to change the title. Hence, the British edition is called The Whale. Harper & Brothers published the American edition as Moby-Dick, or, The Whale on November 14.
Opinions in British media had a strong influence on American readers. The first review of Moby-Dick in The Boston Post of November 20 began: “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.’” The October 25 Athenaeum review went on to remark on the “assortment of curious quotations” in the appendix. But Melville had not included an appendix. The Athenaeum review was reprinted in full in the November 22 Boston Statesman and cited with excerpts in the December New York Eclectic Magazine and the December North American Miscellany.
At the end of November the New York International magazine reprinted a rather savage October 25 London Spectator review: “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 . . . it repels the reader instead of attracting him.” The review ended by ridiculing the book for using a first-person narrative when everyone on the Pequod perishes.
What Melville discovered when his copies of the British edition arrived months later was that Bentley had left out the Epilogue in which Ishmael recounts how he survived. The opening Extracts, intended as a kind of overture, had been moved to an appendix. Scholars have found some six hundred differences in wording between the American and English editions and thirty-five passages in the American edition not in the British.
No American reviewer bothered to discover that the difficulties the London reviewers had with the British edition probably did not apply to the American edition. Melville’s total earnings from Moby-Dick: $556.37.
Of related interest:
- Read about Melville’s first meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne in a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- Melville.org includes links to historical information and contemporary reviews of Melville’s works
- Caleb Crain has recently been researching the history and significance of “sperm squeezing” as described in Moby-Dick
- The bloggers at Southern Fried Science are engaged in a yearlong reading of Moby-Dick in the context of current marine science