Herman Melville: Representative selections, with introduction, bibliography

Following some threads that I uncovered while reading Moby-Dick, I was led to Willard Thorp’s 1938 book that encompasses snippets from Melville’s work along with a 100+ page introduction by Thorp. I skipped over the pieces of M’s novels since I plan to read them in their entirety and gobbled up the letters, criticism, and poetry.

The reprints of his literary criticism include M’s thoughts on Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1847) and a near-love-letter to Hawthorne’s Mosses from an old Manse, fairly oozing with adoration. This last was written on the eve of the two men meeting for the first time, and apparently Hawthorne was reading M as well, saying “I have read Melville’s works with a progressive appreciation of the author. No writer ever put the reality before his reader more unflinchingly than he does in ‘Redburn,’ and ‘White Jacket’ ‘Mardi’ is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better.” (Hawthorne to Duyckinck, August 1850).

The selections of letters are too sparse for my liking, but the ones that were included were a gem. In his 1861 letter back home to his wife, he talks about meeting President Lincoln in Washington: “A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with ‘Old Abe’ and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Abe is much better looking that [sic] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.”

M’s letters to Hawthorne once they become fast friends are a whirlwind. “There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, —why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” (March 1851)

The whole June 1851 letter is amazing, M writing in the heat of battle as he finishes up Moby. Some choice parts:

“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “Whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, – I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, – that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, – I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, –it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”

“If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won’t believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert, –then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us, –when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity. ”

“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

“My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.”

“P.S. You must not fail to admire my discretion in paying the postage on this letter.”



How to go about capturing the umpteenth reading of this classic work? My copy is pockmarked with post-it notes of things to remember. This was the first time I read the book with the extremely helpful 1952 Hendricks House edition’s hundreds of pages of notes (which also is filling up with my post-it notes, reviewed here). I sip at a chapter of M-D, dive into the Hendricks notes, cross-reference with online notations, look up delicious words in the dictionary, and scribble the good ones into a notebook where I’m collecting words. It’s taking me awhile to swim through, but as always it is a delight. Fart jokes, Shakespeare/Milton/Goethe/Carlyle/Montaigne influences, Biblical stories, alliterative gold. The book is a wonder. You hop from Hamlet to Macbeth to King Lear to Job and back again. The hero of the book swims into view only in the final 3 chapters—masterful!

Chapter 1: Loomings. Nothing comes close to the perfection of this opening chapter. Ishmael finds himself growing grim about the mouth, bringing up the rear of every funeral he meets, wanting to knock people’s hats off, so he goes to sea. Also nestled in this chapter is the timeless reference to a “Grand Contested Election for Presidency of the United States” and a bloody battle in Afghanistan.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag. Ishmael is on his way. Stuck in New Bedford until the next ferry to Nantucket, he looks for a cheap hotel. Melville makes me weak at the knees: “Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.” And don’t miss the fart joke: “For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)”—e.g. don’t eat beans.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn. Enter Queequeg, Ishmael’s sleeping companion and soon bosom buddy. Here we find M-D‘s first aphorism: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

I can’t continue to go chapter by chapter else I write the longest entry ever, but I also want to call out the beautiful explanation of Jonah’s Biblical story in Chapter 9: The Sermon. If church were always so lyrical, I might be tempted to attend.


Something that strikes the ear repeatedly is Melville’s masterful use of alliteration. These are some of my favorites, by no means an exhaustive list:

Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch… (Ch 13)

On Ahab: “There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.” (Ch 28, when Ahab first arrives on the scene)

Having impulsively, it is probable, and perhaps somewhat prematurely revealed the prime but private purpose of the Pequod’s voyage, Ahab was now entirely conscious that, in so doing, he had indirectly laid himself open to the unanswerable charge of usurpation; (Ch 46)

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. (Ch 51)

As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea. (Ch 58)

Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness. (Ch 64)

So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale. (Ch 134)

Rhyme, humor, or playing with words:

Go it, Pip! Bang it, bell-boy! Rig it, dig it stig it, quig it, bell-boy! Make fire-flies; break the jinglers! (Ch 40)

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. (Ch 86)

Ch 15, while eating chowder, wondering what the effect is on the head (e.g. chowder-headed people)

… this same cash would soon cashier Ahab. (Ch 46)

The whole scene in Ch 91 where Stubb speaks disrespectfully to the French captain through an interpreter. “You may as well tell him now that – that – in fact, tell him I’ve diddled him…”

Top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head. (Ch 110)

Oh! jolly is the gale, And a joker is the whale, A’ flourishin’ his tail, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! The scud all a flyin’, That’s his flip only foamin’; When he stirs in the spicin’, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! Thunder splits the ships, But he only smacks his lips, A tastin’ of this flip, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! (Ch 119)


A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that. (Ch 16)

For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. (Ch 35)


And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (Ch 24)

Self-referential (or on writing)

For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! (Ch 32)

But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with whales with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try. (Ch 32)

So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (Ch 45)

Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost. (Ch 49)

Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. (Ch 85)

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. (Ch 104)

Words to love:

portentous, ponderous, fain, arrant, toper, obstreperous, farrago, bosky, withal, tarry, stalwart, inexorable, nonce, wights, celerity, stultify, brindled, palavering, apotheosis, puissant, pallid, expatiate, flummery, solecism, legerdemain, howdah, windrow, cozening, scaramouch, freshet, vicissitude, ineffable, recondite, expatiate, chriography, stolidity, effulgences

Annotated edition of Moby-Dick

The best edition of Moby-Dick for scholars is the 1952 Hendricks House edition (edited by Luther Mansfield & Howard Vincent), which is incredibly hard to find, a copy currently retailing online for almost $6k. Luckily, the extended library network sent me a copy and I kept it handy while reading the text. Melville’s borrowings and embellishments and source material are all exposed here, and you can see just how closely he adhered to those sources or exactly the magic sprinkle he gave words to make them jump. He was deeply indebted to:

  • Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839)
  • Frederick Bennett’s Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe (1840)
  • J. Ross Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1850)
  • Henry Cheever’s The Whale and his Captors (1850)
  • Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) – the notes make continual reference to the fact that Melville pokes fun, “indulges in baiting the humorless Scoresby,” throughout the text.

Here is where I found detailed information about the Pythagoras fart joke, his maxim being “To abstain from beans because they are flatulent and partake most of the breath of life.” Here also is the explanation for the “Grand Contested Election” that freaked me out as a 2017 reader. Melville was talking about the Tippecanoe and Tyler too victory that unseated Van Buren. The recommendation to read Poe’s excellent Arthur Pym came from here as well.

There must have been a dozen pages each explaining the name Ishmael, Ahab, and the other main characters. Catching a whiff of Shakespeare in the text? Turn to the notes to see if it’s coming from Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar. The exposition on good/evil is off the charts. Unending pages about Satan (Melville writes in The Confidence-Man that the 3 great original characters in fiction are Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan.)

One of the things I liked best about the notes was that they incorporated reference to all of M’s other works as well; like the example of discussing the “condor’s quill” reference, saying that Melville’s finest account of his creative process was in Mardi, chap 180, along with letters to Duyckinck in Dec 1850 and Hawthorne June 1851, printed in Thorp’s Representative Selections of Herman Melville.

The note about Pompey’s Pillar explains that the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Greek inscription on the pedestal “by the middle of the nineteen century had been much effaced by initial-carving tourists.” What is this base desire to leave an “I wuz here” mark wherever tourists go???

Various Moby-Dick notations, essays, and explanations

From the Northwestern University and Newberry Library 1988 edition of Moby-Dick, I gleaned very little new, except confirmation that Melville was reading Shakespeare in the months leading up to writing Moby. Letter above from 1849.

I also perused two volumes of Jay Leyda’s Melville Log, wherein he lays out every bit of Melville-miscellany and invites you to write your own biography. From these hundreds if pages I confirmed that he stopped in San Francisco between Oct 11-20, 1860.

Hendricks House 1952 edition has helpful notes, such as the fact that Chapter 25: Postscript was left out of the British edition since it’s a bit blasphemous about the king’s coronation, “a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad.” Also, the Epilogue was unaccountably left out of the British edition, making a lot of reviewers feel that the ending was too hasty, unfinished.

Other useful resources: