• The William E. Self Library, I auction at Christies

    Sale 2153

    The William E. Self Library, Important English and American Literature

    4 December 2009, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 148

    MELVILLE, Herman (1819-1891). The Whale. London: R. Clay for Richard Bentley, 1851.

    Price Realised  


    MELVILLE, Herman (1819-1891). The Whale. London: R. Clay for Richard Bentley, 1851.

    3 volumes, 12o. Half-title in vol. 1 (all issued). (E9-10 in vol. I with a few pale marginal stains). Half blue morocco, marbled boards, top edges gilt, by De Coverley (some light wear to joints and at corners). Provenance: M.S. Slocum, Pasadena, California (pencil signatures, typed note laid in).

    'MOBY-DICK' IS THE FICTIONAL PARADIGM FOR AMERICAN SUBLIMITY, FOR AN ACHEIVEMENT ON THE HEIGHTS OR IN THE DEPTHS, PROFOUND EITHER WAY. Despite Melville's considerable debts to Shakespeare, 'Moby Dick' is an extraordinarily original work, at once our national book of Jonah and Book of Job" (Harold Bloom)

    FIRST EDITION, published a month before the American edition and containing substantial textual differences, including the deletion of 35 passages that were restored in the New York edition. When Herman Melville moved to the Berkshires to escape the confines of his Fourth Avenue house in New York, he divided his time between farming and writing his next work after White-Jacket. He evidentially planned to write another potboiler: when he wrote to his British publisher Richard Bentley he said that he was at work on a novel that was to be "a romance of adventure founded upon certain wild legends of the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries." His intensified reading of Shakespeare and Carlyle pointed him in a vastly different direction, however, as did reports of 19th-century adventures at sea. Owen Chase's Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (1821), a rare book even at the time, was found for Melville by his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw and provided the author with the seeds of his story. News of the killing in the late 1830s of the Mocha Whale, an albino sperm whale which had attacked ships and evaded hunters for years, gave shape to the great elusive figure of Moby Dick. Originally thinking the manuscript could be delivered to the publisher by December 1850, it was not in fact finished until the following autumn. The English edition was altered by Bentley, omitting numerous sections, including the epilogue, which help ground the conception of the novel. The London critics were not ready for the genre-shifting earthquake that was Moby Dick; one critic in the London Athenaeum wrote: "The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed." Its immediate American reception was not significantly brighter. Not until the Modernists' revival of Melville in the first quarter of the 20th century did his reputation and the reputation of his masterpiece finally flower. BAL 13663; Grolier American 60; Sadleir 1685. (3)

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