The Life of Moby and the Death of Mocha
Stephan did some research and found in The Independent from 26 November a collection of insider knowledge to what we all have read since we can read. Beside the following paragraph about Moby-Dick, there are bits to Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961), PG Wodehouse: My Man Jeeves (1919), F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925), George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita (1955), William Shakespeare: Hamlet (c. 1600), Jules Verne: Around the World in Eighty Days (1872), TS Eliot: The Waste Land (1922), and Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange (1962). One, two:
The stories behind some of literature’s best-known novels
Moby-Dick was a real whale. In the days when whales were not sages of the deep but floating oil repositories, sailors would give names to individual whales who were particularly dangerous or unkillable. One of the most famous was “Mocha Dick”, named after the island of Mocha off the Chilean coast. An albino sperm whale (like Moby-Dick), Mocha Dick was said to have drowned over 30 men, sunk five ships and been harpooned 19 times, which probably accounted for his mood.
Herman Melville’s chief source was an article by Jeremiah N Reynolds in the Knickerbocker Magazine of 1839 entitled “Mocha Dick Or, the White Whale of the Pacific”. He also took from the article the ship’s name the Penguin, changing it to the Pequod.
The change from Mocha to Moby is more difficult to explain. It may have had its origin in another project that was on Melville’s desk at the time he was writing his whale story: this was “The Story of Toby” about a seafaring friend, Tobias Greene. It may be that “Toby” influenced the change from Mocha Dick to Moby-Dick.
So much for the title of Moby-Dick, one might think. But there is an odd twist in the tale. Moby-Dick was not the title of the book at all. The title was The Whale when it was first published in London by Richard Bentley on 18 October 1851. Now rare, the English edition was substantially different textually from the American Harper edition, which followed later on 14 November 1851, and bore the familiar title Moby-Dick.
And, as if to give its imprimatur to the true, the pure American edition, an odd circumstance heralded its publication. On 5 November 1851, just nine days before its appearance, news reached New York that the whaler Ann Alexander, out of New Bedford, had been rammed and sunk by a whale. Despite stories of vicious and malignant whales, this was still a rare event, and the news spread rapidly throughout the globe.
Melville could barely hide his glee. On 7 November he wrote animatedly to his friend Evert Duyckinck: “Crash! comes Moby Dick himself, & reminds me of what I have been about for part of the last year or two. It is really & truly a surprising coincidence – to say the least. I make no doubt it IS Moby Dick himself, I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.”