Today is the 161st anniversary of the British publication of Moby-Dick by Richard Bentley in London in an a bowdlerized three-volume edition entitled The Whale. In celebration of the book’s British birthday, Google is featuring the “doodle” that you see above.
The British edition proved to be problematic, however, and may well have doomed the American reception of Melville’s novel. Click on the continuation link to find out more.
SPOILER ALERT: Don’t click if you’ve never read the novel before and are listening to the daily “Big Read” chapters.
In this edition, the “Etymology” and “Extracts” section were banished to the end of the book, and it’s likely that in the shuffle the single-page epilogue in which Ishmael explains how he came to survive the wreck of the Pequod. Two reviews published in London on October 25 were extremely hostile. Here’s how Hershel Parker tells it in a biographical essay included in the Norton Critical Edition of the novel:
Long before he saw a set of the three-volume English edition, The Whale, Melville saw two British reviews that were printed, reprinted, and widely quoted in the United States. Normally, many British reviews had been reprinted in this country. This time, for crucial weeks, the only two known in the United States were the extremely hostile ones published in London on the same day, October 25, in the London Spectator and the Athenaeum. They were hostile largely because there was no epilogue in the English edition to explain just how Ishmael survived. Most likely, Bentley had told his compositors to put all the etymology and extracts, all that distracting junk, in the back of the third volume, and in the process of shifting things around the single sheet (half a page of type) had gotten lost. To many British reviewers, Melville seemed guilty of violating the basic con tract between writer and reader: if you create a first person narrator, you make sure he or she lives to tell the story. The loss of the epilogue was bad luck, for it tainted the whole British reception. The fact that only the Spectator and Athenaeum reviews were reprinted in the United States was worse than bad luck-it was disastrously bad, for as it happened neither of these reviewers specified just what was wrong with the ending each of them was condemning. No American, picking up the new book just in time to read these two London reviews and the early American reviews (many influenced by these London ones), could possibly figure out that Melville may have been guilty of many literary sins, but not of botching the ending. No one had a chance to say, “Aren’t these Brits odd? They are saying Ishmael does not survive, but right here in my copy Ishmael is rescued by the Rachel.”
Nineteenth-century readers weren’t ready for the narrative strategy that Martin Scorsese would employ in his film Casino (1995), in which one of the voice-over narrators turns out to be speaking from beyond the grave.
Hmm. Maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating the British publication after all. The anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick; or The Whale in a one-volume edition with all of its parts in the right places is coming up on November 14.