Herman Melville

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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.

Wraparound — From the July 1975 issue

Wraparound

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Wraparound — From the May 1973 issue

Reports

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The laugh is on you

Poetry — From the July 1866 issue

Gettysburg

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–July, 1863

Poetry — From the June 1866 issue

Chattanooga

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I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

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“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
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“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
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“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
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“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

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