During this week in 1851, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was first published as The Whale in three volumes by Richard Bentley in London. Almost one month later in November, the first American edition was published in New York by Harper & Brothers. Although many think of Melville’s classic novel as the “Great American Novel,” Moby Dick was a 19th-century bomb, and only received recognition as a literary icon in the 20th century.
Despite his iconic status now, Melville was not a particularly successful writer during his life. Slow sales of Melville’s previous novels convinced Bentley to reduce the printing The Whale to only 500 copies, and of that, only 300 sold in the first 4 months. The remaining unbound sheets were bound in a cheaper casing in 1852, and in 1853 there were still enough remaining sheets to again bind into an even cheaper edition.
The first American edition had 2,951 copies. About 1,500 sold in 11 days, but then sales slowed to less than 300 the next year. After two years, copies of the first edition were still available, and almost 300 were destroyed in the 1853 fire of Harper’s warehouse.
Although the text for the second printing was printed from the original plates, ordinarily during this time a new title page would be reset to reflect the new printing. However, because of its small run, the number 1 in 1851 on the original plate was simply replaced by a number 5 – in a different font!! Two other small printings of the first edition would follow: 1863 (253 copies) and 1871 (277 copies). The British and American first editions were the only two to be printed in Melville’s lifetime, and only 3,215 copies were sold in the 19th century. Melville earned only $1,260 from the English and American editions, and he died in 1891 an unheralded author.