November 15, 2011
160 years of Moby Dick
by Ellie Robins
The first US edition of Moby Dick was published 160 years ago yesterday. Happy birthday, namesake! In celebration, HarperCollins published a copy of the original contract for The Whale as signed by Herman Melville and his publishers and Harper and Brothers. Check it out here, it’s a pretty incredible artifact. Most striking — apart, of course, from the hand of a scrivener who evidently didn’t prefer not to — is how similar this is to a modern publishing contract, down to the wording in a lot of places. If, like me, your curiosity is more powerful than your eyesight, Melville.org has also published this amazing (and more legible) rundown of his literary earnings over his lifetime. A few records are incomplete or missing, but the substantial amount of information we do have suggests lifetime earnings of US$10,214.82. Heartbreaking — but as the MobyLives saying goes, the whale is still out there. That’s got to be some consolation to writers feeling the pinch today.
Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.