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Versions of Moby-Dick

Moby Dick American Edition Cover and Spine

Melville began Moby-Dick in 1850 as “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries” (Letter to Richard Bentley, 27 June 1850). Eighteen months later, after relocating his family to a Berkshire farm, befriending Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom the novel is dedicated), working his farm, and researching into whales and whaling, Melville had transformed his “romance” into an experiment in fiction that mixes drama and meditation; Homer, Shakespeare, and the Bible; as well as tragedy and comedy. When done, Melville told Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb” (Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 17? November 1851). 

In the summer of 1851, and while he was still composing additional “chapters and essays,” Melville hired Manhattan printer Robert Craighead to typeset his novel and Harper & Brothers to market it in the US. He acted as his own copyeditor.  To prevent the pirating of his text abroad, Melville followed the common practice of arranging for the near-simultaneous publication of his book in both the US and England.  To do this, he sent corrected page proofs of the American version—what we now call Moby-Dick; or, The Whale—to his British publisher Richard Bentley, who reset the text, adding Melville’s changes and making hundreds of other changes, including scores of lengthy expurgations of sexual, political, and religious content.  Bentley bound the novel in an elegant three-volume set, titled The Whale; or, Moby Dick, repositioning “Etymology” and “Extracts” at the end of volume three and, famously, dropping Melville’s “Epilogue.”  While the British edition was published in October 1851 and the American one month later, the American version is Melville’s earlier version.  Click on the “Moby-Dick: Two First Editions” link below to view a side-by-side display of both first editions. 

The differences between the two first editions of Moby-Dick range from minor to momentous. The British edition corrected typos—for instance, “fearfnlly” (Am Ed. p. 198, l. 25) or “warbrobe” (447.7)—but scores of more meaningful changes—visible only by comparing the American and British texts—reveal Melville’s nuanced revisions. For example, in his last encounter with Moby Dick, Ahab can “discover no sign” of the white whale (605.12), but Melville changes the verb to “perceive,” suggesting a blindness that prevents Ahab from being able to “read” the signs of his doom. Of course, a British editor might have initiated this and similar changes, and readers must offer convincing arguments, or “revision narratives,” to substantiate attributions of revision.  However, no one other than Melville would have had cause to add the footnote explaining the word “gallied” (428.3), which the author probably inscribed on the proofs he sent abroad.

The British expurgations of Moby-Dick allow us to measure cultural differences between antebellum America and Victorian England, or more precisely between an audacious Melville and his circumspect editor.  The removal of Ch. 25, which satirizes the pomp of monarchs, was too much teasing for Bentley, but perhaps the most devastating cut is of Ishmael’s line in his conclusion to “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Ch. 42) that manages to offend by combining the sexual and blasphemous in one blow:  “all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within” (217.5-6).  Rather than cut, Melville’s British editor—it can be argued—was responsible for revising Melville.  Where Ishmael uses slave diction to proclaim, “Who aint a slave? (5.5)” in the American Moby-Dick, the British Whale has him say, in absurdly proper grammar, “Who is not a slave?”

Highlighted differences between the American and British texts of Moby-Dick, and the revision narratives discussing them, can be viewed in MEL’s fluid-text edition by clicking the “Moby-Dick as Fluid Text” link below.

MEL’s images of the first American edition of Moby-Dick and of the first British edition of The Whale are digitally reproduced from copies—with the call numbers PS2384.M6 1851 and PS2384.M6 1851a v.1-3, respectively—in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Herman Melville Collection, in Special Collections of University of Virginia Library. The texts of each work have been transcribed by Aptara, Inc. from these two copies.