Moby-Dick

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The great American novel by Herman Melville (1819-1891) about Captain Ahab's hunt for the white whale that took his leg was first published in 1851 in a British edition of 500 copies as The Whale. A month later, the American edition (2,915 copies) was published under the title Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Note the typographical conventrion:

  • the title of the novel should be hyphenated, Moby-Dick
  • the name of the whale at the centre of the story is not hyphenated: Moby Dick.
The origin of the name is not clear. 'Moby' has no recorded meaning in English, before the novel (and precious few afterwards). It is supposed that Melville took, or adapted, the name for a whale renowned among South Sea whalers which was often sent in the waters around the Chilean island of Mocha: "an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, as exhibited in the case of the Ethiopian Albino, a singular consequence had resulted - he was white as wool! Instead of projecting his spout obliquely forward, and puffing with a short, convulsive effort, accompanied by a snorting noise, as usual with his species, he flung the water from his nose in a lofty, perpendicular, expanded volume, at regular and somewhat distant intervals; its expulsion producing a continuous roar, like that of vapor struggling from the safety-valve of a powerful steam engine. ... On the spermaceti whale, barnacles are rarely discovered; but upon the head of this lusus naturae ['freak of nature'], they had clustered, until it became absolutely rugged with the shells. In short, regard him as you would, he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of Nantucket, "a genuine old sog", of the first water .... [P]revious to the year 1810, he had been seen and attacked near the island of Mocha. Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws; ... It must not be supposed, howbeit, that through all this desperate warfare, our leviathan passed scathless. A back serried with irons, and from fifty to a hundred yards of line trailing in his wake, sufficiently attested, that though unconquered, he had not proved invulnerable. From the period of Dick's first appearance, his celebrity continued to increase, until his name seemed naturally to mingle with the salutations which whalemen were in the habit of exchanging, in their encounters upon the broad Pacific; the customary interrogatories almost always closing with, "Any news from Mocha Dick?" (Jenkins, R.N. (1839) ; AWE's notes and underlining).
The origin of the story appears to have been the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship the Essex in 1820 when it was rammed by a bull sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. The ordeal of the survivors, adrift in small boats for three months, ultimately resorting to cannibalism, were reported by the mate, Owen Chase, in Narrative of the most extraordinary and distressing shipwreck of the whale-ship Essex of Nantucket, New York, 1821. Melville owned, and annotated, a copy of this. A scholarly modern account may be found in Philbrick (2000).