Herman Melville

(1819-1891)

  • Title: Moby Dick
  • Author: Herman Melville
  • Publication Date: 1851
  • Publisher: New York, Harper Brothers Publishers

Herman Melville’s father died bankrupt, leaving the young man without access to formal education. Moreover, much of the family library was sold at due to the bankruptcy. Therefore, as Melville sought to educate himself access to quality books became especially important. Throughout his life, Melville purchased and borrowed huge quantities of books which educated him into the renowned author that is still being read today. (Melville Marginalia) Melville’s position in the book cycle is unique. He added as an author and a reader who learned to value books more than most. The website Melville Marginalia notes that the writer’s history is glimpsed in his fourth book, Redburn, with “the main character’s pledge to preserve a book, ‘Dear book, I will sell my Shakespeare, and even sacrifice my old quarto Hogarth, before I will part with you. Yes, I will go to the hammer myself, ere I send you to be knocked down in the auctioneer’s shambles. I will, my beloved, -old family relic that you are;- till you drop leaf from leaf, and letter from letter, you shall have a snug shelf somewhere, though I have no bench for myself” (Melville Marginalia). The Melville Marginalia houses the “The Online Catalog of Books and Documents Owned and Borrowed and Consulted by Herman Melville”. Pictured below, The title page of Redburn (1849), source: archive.org- digitallibraryindia. Images from the Melville library of owned and borrowed books, Melville Marginalia

Another interesting, connection to the book cycle and literary criticism is the reawakening to Melville’s writing which began around the 1920’s. Lauter (1994) notes this began with, “The centennial celebration of Melville, however small, helped propel bibliographers, the bibliophiles, the editors, the biographers into motion. Melville’s name began to get around” (p. 6). As talk about Melville increases among literary critics, more articles were produced about his work. For example Lauter mentions the “Literary News Notes, for 14 December 1921, they say of Weaver’s work that ‘he has been able to reveal for the first time the life of the man who is really the father of the South Sea literature” (p. 7). Finally, Lauter state, “No one presents this conception of Melville so starkly as Fred Lewis Pattee, perhaps the very first professor of American Literature. He portrays Melville as a thundering naysayer, Byronic, Nietzschean, displaying his ‘contempt for the herd’, his characters ‘superman who flauth their defiance even in the face of the Almighty” (p. 15). Eventually, publishers used the opportunity to release new editions or Moby Dick, Redburn, etc. The rest is literary and school-reads history.

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