Moby-dick Side-by-Side: The American And British First Editions

To avoid the pirating of his text, Melville arranged for the near-simultaneous publication of Moby-Dick in the US and England. Melville had his novel typeset in New York City in the summer of 1851 but withheld publication of it in the US until after the British version was released. The British version titled The Whale appeared in October 1851; the American titled Moby-Dick; or, The Whale in November.

For the British version, Melville sent a set of the American proof sheets, which included some corrections and revisions of his own, to Richard Bentley in London, who instructed Henry Milton to copy-edit the American sheets, adapting it to British usage and Bentley’s house style. Milton also expurgated the text in about 200 places. In going to press, Bentley’s edition famously omitted Melville’s epilogue, in which we learn that Ishmael is the only survivor of the Pequod shipwreck. Much to Melville’s chagrin over the loss of some of the novel’s most memorable poetic prose, reviewers were also quick to note the formal impossibility of the death of the novel’s first-person narrator. Also bungled in the British production is the placement of Etymology and Extracts at the end of volume 3, instead of its place at the front of the single-volume American version. The Epilogue omission and Etymology / Extracts misplacement may have been the consequence of confusions arising from the shipment of proofs.

The difference in title in the British and American titles reflects a late change of mind on Melville’s part. When he sent his proofs to Bentley the novel was simply The Whale, but an undated draft of a letter from Melville’s brother and literary agent Allan Melville to Richard Bentley, requesting a title change to Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, came too late for Bentley to make the change; he had already advertised the original title. Exactly when Melville changed his mind is not certain. But the appearance of “The Town-Ho’s Story” (Ch. 54) as a pre-publication excerpt from “The Whale” in the October 1851 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine indicates that Melville had held onto this title into late September, about the time that Bentley had already arranged for his early October advertisements of The Whale. Nevertheless, Bentley was able to insert a half-title page, in volume 1 only, that reads The Whale; or, Moby Dick. The subtitle omits the hyphen in the American title Moby-Dick. Even this difference has meaning, for in modern usage—both scholarly and now popularly—the hyphenated Moby-Dick designates the book; the unhyphenated “Moby Dick” represents the white whale.

Regardless of these complications and the fact that the American version’s text precedes the British, Bentley’s revised and expurgated British version appeared first, in October 1851, and was followed in November by the American version.

Readers can inspect the differing materialities of each book in our side-by-side display of the American and British editions, accessed through the link in the right column. Users can flip page by page through either version by clicking the left or right arrow on page frame; they can skip ahead or back by clicking the dots below the frames. To move to the front and back matter of each book, or to the beginning of a chapter, select the appropriate section or chapter number and title. Inspecting textual differences requires digital collagtion of the two versions, which can be accessed in the Expurgating Moby-Dick link to the right

MEL’s images of the first American edition of Moby-Dick and of the first British edition of The Whale are digitally reproduced from copies—with the call numbers PS2384.M6 1851 and PS2384.M6 1851a v.1-3, respectively—in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Herman Melville Collection, in Special Collections of University of Virginia Library. The texts of the American and British editions used for MEL’s collation of the two versions were transcribed with minimal TEI coding by Aptara, Inc. from these two copies.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (first American Edition)

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The Whale; or, Moby Dick (first British Edition)

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