MELVILLE, Herman (1819-1891). The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851.

In the rare first publisher's binding, the first edition of Melville's masterpiece, preceding the American printing by a month and containing substantial textual differences. One of only 500 sets printed.

When Herman Melville moved to the Berkshires to escape the confines of his Fourth Avenue house in New York, he divided his time between farming and writing the novel that would follow White-Jacket. He evidently set out to write another potboiler: when he wrote to his British publisher Richard Bentley he said that he was at work on a novel that was to be "a romance of adventure founded upon certain wild legends of the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries." His intensified reading of Shakespeare and Carlyle pointed him in a vastly different direction, however, as did reports of 19th-century adventures at sea. Owen Chase's Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (1821; see lot in this sale), a rare book even at the time, was found for Melville by his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw and provided the author with the seeds of his story. News of the killing in the late 1830s of the Mocha Whale, an albino sperm whale which had attacked ships and evaded hunters for years, gave shape to the great elusive figure of Moby Dick. Though he originally thought the manuscript could be delivered to the publisher by December 1850, it was not finished until the following autumn. The English edition was altered by Bentley, omitting numerous sections, including the epilogue, which helped ground the concept of the novel. The London critics were not ready for the genre-shifting earthquake that was Moby Dick; one critic in the London Athenaeum wrote: "The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed." Its immediate American reception was not significantly brighter. Not until the Modernists' revival of Melville in the first quarter of the 20th century did his reputation and the reputation of his masterpiece finally flower.

Rare at auction in the original cream and blue cloth: the last copy recorded by ABPC was the Neville copy in 2004, which was also rebacked. BAL 13663, Grolier American 60, Sadleir Excursions p.229.

Three volumes, octavo. Half-title in volume 1 only as issued (a little spotting internally, marginal chip to dedication leaf and short closed tear on following contents leaf, final two leaves of volume 2 in facsimile). Original quarter cream cloth with gilt titles and whale motif over blue embossed cloth covers (some soiling to covers, rebacked with portions of original spines laid down, new endpapers). Custom chemises and quarter morocco slipcase. Provenance: Aldenham School – Bloomsbury Book Auctions, 12 May 1994, lot 133.

Exhibited: "A Herman Melville Collection ... on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death, from the collection of William S. Reese," Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 1991, no. 14.
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