Literary daybook, Nov. 14

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published November 14, 2002 3:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Nov. 14, Anthony James Marston murders John and Lucy Combes.
-- "And Then There Were None" (1939)
by Agatha Christie

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1851, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" was published. The British edition, entitled "The Whale," had appeared the previous month but, through a sequence of error, poor judgment and bad timing, with a rearranged and incomplete ending. This set off another sequence of error, poor judgment and bad timing, this time involving not the publishers but the critics, the upshot being that Melville's masterpiece, the book he was counting on to rescue his reputation and his finances, was belittled and slandered in the crucial first weeks following publication in America. As told in Hershel Parker's monumental biography of Melville (two 1,000-page volumes, 1996 and 2002), this turning point in Melville's life had the shape of Greek tragedy: the confident and euphoric Melville at his cigar-and-port dinner with Nathaniel Hawthorne on or about publication day, unaware that the British edition was out, or botched; the British reviews describing his novel "as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature" winging their way to Boston by boat that very minute; the U.S. papers about to quote and requote the British press, showing not just a similar lack of insight but that they had not read the book, as the American edition was different, and not botched. The long-term personal and professional impact could not have been greater: "Taken all in all," writes Parker of Nov. 14, "this was the happiest day of Melville's life."

Some of those who found "Moby-Dick" "an absurd book" of "ravings and scraps" wanted a straight-ahead adventure tale from Melville, such as his "Typee." Tales of a killer sperm whale destroying his attackers were not commonplace, but in a coincidence that would get any publisher or author excited, reports of such an event hit the East Coast papers just several weeks before the American publication date. Melville had in fact based some of his book on a memoir written in 1840 by a survivor of another such attack, and he seems to have taken his whale's name from an 1839 magazine article about the capture of "Mocha Dick," a whale infamous among whalers for its violent attacks -- the whale getting "Mocha" for having been sighted near that island, and "Dick" where it might have gotten "Tom" or "Harry." And Melville had other choices and models, some of whom he invokes in Chapter 45:

"... Was it not so, O Timor Jack! thou famed leviathan, scarred like an iceberg, who so long did'st lurk in the Oriental straits of that name, whose spout was oft seen from the palmy beach of Ombay? Was it not so, O New Zealand Tom! thou terror of all cruisers that crossed their wakes in the vicinity of the Tattoo Land? Was it not so, O Morquan! King of Japan, whose lofty jet they say at times assumed the semblance of a snow-white cross against the sky? Was it not so, O Don Miguel! thou Chilian whale, marked like an old tortoise with mystic hieroglyphics upon the back! In plain prose, here are four whales as well known to the students of Cetacean History as Marius or Sylla to the classic scholar."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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