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Herman Melville

Herman Melville gave his young children back issues of Harper’s Magazine for Christmas. His first story for Harper’s appeared in the year-old periodical’s October 1851 issue—titled “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 years immediately following 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, published anonymously, was a euphemistic romp called “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” (December 1853).

Harper & Brothers first worked with Melville on his dubiously autobiographical novel Omoo: A Narrative of the South Seas (1847), 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 rejected because “it was impossible that it could be true and therefore was without real value.” In “The Town-Ho’s Story,” Ishmael regales “a lounging circle of my Spanish friends” with tales of his shipboard adventures, and they doubt his honesty.

Melville turned to poetry after The Confidence-Man (1857) was savaged by critics, publishing five poems about the Civil War in Harper’s in 1866. Twenty-four years later, Harper’s included the by then largely forgotten author in an article called “American Literary Comedians,” and in the following year’s December issue, Melville received a two-line obituary: “September 27th.—In New York city, Herman Melville, aged seventy-three years.” The New York Times received a note about the passing of “Henry Melville.”

Melville was the subject of renewed attention following reconsiderations of the author 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 a revival of interest in the author in the twentieth century. “Call me Ishmael” is now one of the most famous lines in English literature. Melville was one of the first seven writers the Library of American published, in 1982, and a twelve-million-year-old fossil of a giant sperm whale discovered in 2010 was given the scientific name Leviathan melvillei.

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October 1851

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