Little Bits of History

Not the Essex

Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 18, 2013
Herman Melville

Herman Melville

October 18, 1851: The Whale is published by Richard Bentley. The classic tale is said to be the “embodiment of American Romanticism.” The stylized language employs symbolism and metaphors to explore many deep and complex issues. The author emulated Shakespeare and used soliloquies and asides. The tale is based on the sinking of the Essex, a Nantucket whaling ship which sunk in 1820 and the event recorded in 1821. It has one of the most famous opening lines. The book has become a classic and is often read (often unwillingly) by high school students. It is better known by its other name – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

The Dark Romantic novelist, short story writer, and essayist Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. Melvill Senior (the second E was added by his widow) was a businessman and often abroad. He was not an astute businessman and when he died, the family was left penniless. Herman was 12 at the time and became self-supporting. He eventually got a job as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool and the experience proved useful. He was highly successful writing in the 1840s. By mid-1850s his popularity had waned. He was nearly forgotten by the American public by the time he died in 1891 at the age of 72.

Moby-Dick was first published in London and came to America a month later. Harper & Brothers published on November 14, 1851. The Epilogue had been inadvertently omitted from the British version but was included by Harper. Without the Epilogue, there seemed to be no survivors to tell the first-person narrative. Ishmael did survive and come home to relate the tale.

Moby-Dick is a very long story taking 822 pages to tell. There are 135 chapters plus the Epilogue. Ishmael decided to go whaling, which took 13 chapters. The ship finally left port by chapter 22 with the young sailor warned about the sinister Captain Ahab. There were a lot of “observations about whales” covering chapters of text. The Pequod pursued the whale, Moby Dick, while the great white whale pursued the ship. The whale won and only Ishmael survived. The Essex had eight survivors, two of whom wrote about their harrowing experiences.

“Call me Ishmael.”

“I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.”

“Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.”

“Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.” – all from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Herman Melville gained considerable fame and attention with his first three novels. His first, Typee, was a bestseller. He was forgotten and nearly unknown at his death. In the early 20th century, there was a “Melville Revival” and once again, his writings were acclaimed both inside and outside the US. Raymond M. Weaver was his first biographer and while doing research in 1919, he stumbled on an unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd. The novella was published first in 1924 and was once again deemed a literary masterpiece. Melville was the first writer to have his oeuvre collected and published by the Library of America. After his writing career collapsed, Melville went on the lecture circuit and poetry writing, both without much success. He spent several years writing a 16,000 line epic poem. His uncle paid for a printing, but it was not well received. His popularity was revived 33 years after his death with the publication of Billy Budd.

Also on this day: Le Bateau – In 1961, Henri Matisse’s painting was hung at the Museum of Modern Art – upside down.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre – In 1009, the church was destroyed.
Terrorism – In 2007, a suicide bomber attacked Benazir Bhutto.


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