November 14, 2011

Moby-Dick: I have written a wicked book

In his home at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Herman Melville received the first copies of Moby-Dick on November 14, 1851. It was in that home, Arrowhead, that he wrote the book, partly inspired by his own whaling trip a decade earlier. The book's opening lines, "Call me Ishmael," have become among the most famous in American literature.

The book was dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, in "admiration for his genius." The two authors had met only recently and instantly formed a friendship. The night he received his book, Melville visited Hawthorne (who was then living nearby in the town of Lenox). Though he was in the midst of packing in preparation for his move back to Concord, Hawthorne did not hesitate to read Moby-Dick. Only two days later, he wrote a letter of appreciation to Melville (now lost). Melville was pleased that Hawthorne "understood the book." As he wrote, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb."

The book itself follows now-iconic characters like the exotic Queequeg, the mates Starbuck and Flask, and, of course, the vengeful Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest for the white whale named Moby-Dick. It has also become the bane of students of American literature who find the detailed chapters on whaling tedious. Among its memorable scenes are the first meeting between Ishmael and Queequeg (who share a bed that night) and the fiery and foreboding sermon by Father Mapple. My personal favorite is the scene where Ahab nails a valuable doubloon to the mast to tempt his crewmen:

"I see nothing here, but a round thing made of gold, and whoever raises a certain whale, this round thing belongs to him. So, what's all this staring been about? It is worth sixteen dollars, that's true; and at two cents the cigar, that's nine hundred and sixty cigars. I won't smoke dirty pipes like Stubb, but I like cigars, and here's nine hundred and sixty of them; so here goes Flask aloft to spy 'em out."


  1. Melville greatly admired the writings of the 17th century physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne enough to describe him as a 'cracked archangel'. Browne's description of a beached spermaceti whale on the Norfolk coast in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, in particular his observation of the smallness of its eye in contrast to its colossal size influence Melville in his description of Moby Dick.

  2. To be precise according to C.A. Patrides Melville's description of Browne occurs in a letter to Evert A. Duyckinck dated 18th March 1848.

    C.A. Patrides also notes in his edition of Browne's Major Works (Penguin'77) that Melville quotes Browne's statement, 'Nescio quid sit' (I do not know what is in) in his extracts prefixed to Moby Dick.

  3. Sorry, mea culpa, I made a typo error here - 'Nescio quid sit', cited by Melville in his extracts prefacing 'Moby Dick' to define the spermaceti whale means -

    'I do not know what it is'.

  4. Oooh. I am so glad to find this! Love Melville and this blog! I will try to post something in the next month about Moby Dick. One of the greatest books of all time- I still can't believe he wrote it so fast, even though I have heard that much of it was probably "borrowed" from a few different sources. The writing just makes you think.

  5. Also, do you mind if I add you to my blog list for 19th century resources?