Happy Birthday, Herman Melville!
Today marks the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth right here in New York City. In his honor, we are highlighting this exceptional copy of his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Published in November 1851, it was initially regarded as a critical and financial failure, but has since come to be rightly regarded as “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.”
First American edition
In the most desirable original red cloth binding
Melville, Herman (1819-1891).
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York, Harper & Brothers, 14 November 1851.
8° (187x124 mm). XXIII, , 634, [1 blank], [6, of advertisements], [2 blank] pages. Original red cloth binding (A); original brown-orange coated endpapers. Exceptional copy, almost invisibly repaired by the master restorer Bruce Levy (DeGolyer Award for American Bookbinding in 2000). Housed in a full red morocco clamshell case.
First American edition of one of the Great American Novels, in its extremely rare original first state binding in red cloth (according to BAL). “As a work of fictional narrative Moby-Dick is a formidable book. Its reputation generally precedes it and certainly no reader comes to the text without having at least heard about 'that long book on whales' [...] Melville's highly poetic narrative style was as unique in its own time as it is today. Based primarily on his deep and insightful reading of Shakespeare and the Bible, especially the Old Testament, Melville's prose is grandly metaphorical even at its most literal moments” (M. J. Davey, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, p. 2) The American edition follows the English one (entitled The Whale) – published only a month earlier – and includes thirty-five passages and the 'Epilogue' which had been omitted from the London publication, to avoid offending delicate political and moral sensibilities.
There is no doubt that Melville was inspired by an article written by the American journalist and explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds and published on the popular publication Knickerbocker Magazine in May 1839: the magazine's account was a vivid tale purportedly told to Reynolds by the eccentric first mate of a whaling vessel, and was based on the legendary Mocha Dick, the whale who had killed more than thirty men, and had attacked and damaged three whaling ships and fourteen whaleboats. Melville began focusing his attention on the question of evil, which let him generate the character of Captain Ahab, thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne's friendship: the zenith of their relationship was reached when Moby Dick was published and was dedicated to Hawthorne.
In 1853 the Harpers' fire destroyed the plates of all his books, and only about sixty copies of Melville's book survived.
“Melville's permanent fame must always rest on the great prose epic of Moby Dick, a book that has no equal in American literature for variety and splendor of style and for depth of feeling” (Dictionary of American Biography, XII, p. 526).
BAL 13664; Grolier 100 American Books 60; Sadleir Excursions, 229; M. J. Davey (ed.), Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: A Routledge Study Guide and Sourcebook, Abingdon-New York, 2004; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 273.