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In 1865, Melville gave his four young children back issues of Harper’s Magazine as Christmas presents. Harper and Brothers first worked with Herman Melville on his dubiously autobiographical novel Omoo: A Narrative of the South Seas (1847). The book was the sequel to his bestselling Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), a fictionalization of his time on the whaling vessel Lucy Ann, which the Harper brothers had earlier rejected because “it was impossible that it could be true and therefore was without real value.” Melville’s first story for Harper’s Magazine appeared in the year-old periodical’s October 1851 issue; called “The Town-Ho’s Story,” it constitutes the fifty-fourth chapter of Moby-Dick, which was published a month later to critical revilement and commercial disinterest. In “The Town-Ho’s Story,” Ishmael recounts his shipboard adventures for “a lounging circle of my Spanish friends,” who doubt his honesty.
In the years immediately after the publication of Moby-Dick and the similarly received Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852), Melville supplied Harper’s with several more stories, three of which were about recovering from failure. Another was a euphemistic romp called “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” After the novel The Confidence-Man (1857) met with the usual scorn, Melville turned to poetry, publishing five poems about the Civil War in Harper’s in 1866. They were included in the collection Battle-Pieces and Other Aspects of the War (1866), the last non-self-published work in his lifetime. In 1890, Harper’s included the largely forgotten author in an article called “American Literary Comedians,” and in the following year’s December issue he received a two-line obituary: “September 27th.—In New York city, Herman Melville, aged seventy-three years.”
Melville received renewed attention following twentieth-century reconsiderations by D. H. Lawrence, Carl Van Doren, and Raymond Weaver, among others; the posthumous publication of his unfinished Billy Budd (1924), which Thomas Mann called “the most beautiful story in the world,” further propelled his revival. “Call me Ishmael” is today one of the most famous lines in English literature, and the Library of America has chosen Melville as one of the first eight writers it would publish. In 2010, paleontologists named a newly discovered twelve-million-year-old giant sperm whale Livyatan melvillei.
The laugh is on you
Percentage of British elementary-school students who think Isaac Newton discovered fire:
The earth once had three moons; the two lost moons may have crashed into the surviving moon, or been sucked into the sun, or flung out of the solar system to drift through deep space.
In Florida, an 87-year-old World War II veteran flying touch-and-go drills in a Cessna collided with an airborne skydiver. “There was a ‘woof’ sound,” said a witness, “like falling on your face into your pillow.”
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”
© 2012 Harper’s Magazine. Photograph (detail) © Danny Wilcox Frazier