11 Things You Might Not Know About Moby-Dick

I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Moby-Dick is considered a classic, but neither the genius of Herman Melville nor his grand masterpiece were fully recognized until well after the author’s death.

1. Two whales inspired the story of Moby-Dick.

Ahab's white whale is larger than life, but this is an instance where truth is stranger than fiction. Moby-Dick is based on a real-life whale called Mocha Dick. Named after the Chilean island of Mocha, near where sailors first encountered him, he was a 70-foot albino sperm whale known for swimming calmly next to the whaling boats. But on the first sign of a harpoon, he would suddenly try to destroy the boat. When he was finally killed around 1839, he had at least 19 harpoons lodged in his sides.

Soon after, the Knickerbocker Magazine reported the story in “Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific.” For his novel, Melville replaced Mocha with Moby, though no one is sure why.

Another incident also inspired Melville's tale. On November 20, 1820, the Nantucket whaling ship Essex was rammed and sunk by huge sperm whale. The 20-person crew climbed into three whaleboats and drifted helplessly for four months and over 3000 miles, with almost no food or fresh water. The few survivors of the disaster resorted to cannibalism.

2. Herman Melville moved homes in the middle of writing Moby-Dick.

The author started writing Moby-Dick in 1850 while living at the family's New York City home. That summer, Melville relocated to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and finished Moby-Dick in the spring of 1851.

3. A minor character in Moby-Dick was an homage to Melville's uncle.

Captain John D’Wolf II, the husband of Melville's aunt Mary, was close friends with the German explorer and naturalist Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, with whom he traveled in Siberia. His tales of adventure enthralled Melville when he was young. In Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick, our narrator Ishmael introduces his uncle, a New Englander named Captain D’Wolf.

4. Moby-Dick is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The two literary celebrities, who lived six miles apart in Massachusetts, met in 1850. Despite having almost finished Moby-Dick by late 1850, Melville felt compelled to essentially rewrite it after meeting the man behind The Scarlet Letter. It’s likely that Hawthorne’s influence changed the direction and tone of Moby-Dick. The two writers greatly admired each other. They’d go on to write glowing reviews of each other’s novels, and Melville even compared his fellow author to Shakespeare.

5. Another sperm whale attack occurred the same year Moby-Dick was published.

On August 20, 1851, a New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling ship called the Ann Alexander met a similar end as the Essex. According to the 1902 book Sunk by a Whale, "The whale struck the ship about two feet from the keel ... knocking a great hole entirely through her bottom, through which the water roared and rushed in impetuously. ... The ship sank rapidly, all effort to keep her afloat proving futile."

Three months later, on November 14, Moby-Dick was released in the U.S. Referring to the Ann Alexander, “It is really & truly a surprising coincidence—to say the least,” Melville wrote to an acquaintance. “I make no doubt it is Moby-Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod … Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.”

6. The original British edition of Moby-Dick was published without the epilogue.

A month before being released in the U.S., Moby-Dick was published in the UK, where editors heavily revised the manuscript without Melville’s consent. There were about 600 differences between the original American and British editions. Thirty-five passages were completely omitted from the latter—including the epilogue, in which Ishmael explains how he, the sole survivor of the Pequod's sinking, lived to tell the tale.

Critics questioned the apparent hole in the plot. “How does it happen that the narrator survived to tell the story?” Dublin University Magazine asked. Many American newspapers reprinted the scathing comments in lieu of reviewing the novel—even though the American edition retained the epilogue. Melville’s most ambitious work was a critical and financial flop.

7. Only 3715 copies of Moby-Dick were sold during Melville's lifetime.

Part of the reason for Moby-Dick's initial failure was that Melville was known as a writer of exotic adventure tales in the same vein as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Melville's first novel Typee, based on his romps in Polynesia, had sold three times as many copies as Moby-Dick. Critics and readers didn't know what to make of the popular adventure novelist's turn toward dark and complex psychological explorations. In the U.S., Melville’s total earnings from Moby-Dick amounted to a $556.37 (which in today's dollars is $253,000). His popularity more or less torpedoed, the writer returned to New York, where he became a customs inspector in 1863.

8. Interest in Moby-Dick grew after Melville's death.

When Melville passed away on September 28, 1891, his New York Times obituary cited him as the author of "Mobie Dick." Readers had to work hard to track down his novels, all of which had gone out of print by 1876.

After Melville's death, Moby-Dick was reprinted and, this time around, critics started to take it more seriously. There was a flurry of interest in Melville's oeuvre in 1919, the centennial of his birth. Then author Carl Van Doren, who’d found a copy at a used book store, called it “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world” in his influential collection The American Novel in 1921. Within the next few decades, Moby-Dick became universally recognized as an American classic.

9. Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay for the 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick.

Though Moby-Dick has been adapted into several films, the 1956 version starring Gregory Peck as Ahab is the most famous. In 1953, the same year as his sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451’s publication, Ray Bradbury spent eight tiring months hammering out the script for director John Huston. Bradbury described the project’s completion: “Finally, in the eighth month, I got out of bed one morning in London, looked in the mirror, and said ‘I am Herman Melville!'” Then followed “eight hours of passionate, red-hot writing,” Bradbury said. He finished the job, raced over to Huston, and threw the screenplay onto his lap. The director asked, “My god, what happened?” “Behold,” Bradbury shouted, “Herman Melville!”

10. Starbucks coffee is named after one of Moby-Dick's main characters.

The world’s largest coffeehouse company was almost named Pequod after Ahab's vessel. Starbucks co-founder Gordon Bowker really liked this idea, but his creative partner Terry Heckler was much less enthusiastic. “No one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod,” he said. Instead, they chose as their eponym Mr. Starbuck, Ahab’s first mate and an often-ignored voice of reason.

11. Scientists named a newly discovered sperm whale fossil Livyatan melvillei in 2010.

Though roughly the same length as a modern sperm whale, L. melvillei had way bigger teeth. “Some of the biggest ones are 36 centimeters long and 12 centimeters wide, and are probably the biggest predatory teeth ever discovered,” paleontologist Olivier Lambert told New Scientist. Twelve to 13 million years ago, it probably dined on smaller whales.

For more fascinating facts and stories about your favorite authors and their works, check out Mental Floss's new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!