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Did Melville Borrow the Idea for 'Moby Dick'?


Paul Collins has become our literary historian. This week he was browsing old books on eBay and came across a first-edition Herman Melville, 1894 copy of the novel "Redburn." One of the images the seller scanned to sell the book was the back page where the publisher, then Harper & Brothers, advertised other new titles, including "The Whale and His Captors," by a Reverend Henry Cheever. It's a whaling adventure with a meditative thread about the nature of God and man, and Herman Melville's very next book was "Moby Dick." Coincidence? Paul Collins joins us now from WSUI in Iowa City.

Thanks very much for being back with us, Paul.

Mr. PAUL COLLINS (Literary Historian): Oh, it's good to be here.

SIMON: Do we know for sure that Herman Melville read Reverend Cheever's book?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, we do because he actually quotes from it. At the beginning of "Moby Dick" there is a section titled Extracts, where he quotes from a whole number of works. And Cheever's is one of them. Probably the first person to actually spot this was back in 1949. It's a fellow named Howard Vincent. He had a book called "The Trying-Out of Moby Dick," where he points out that most of the technical information--and there's a great deal of it--is drawn really from five books and Cheever's is one of them. The ironic thing about it really is that "The Whale and His Captors" went through a number of editions in the 1850s and 1860s. "Moby Dick" did not. It was sort of famously or infamously something of a commercial failure for Melville.

SIMON: Have you read "The Whale and His Captors"?

Mr. COLLINS: Yes. It's a fascinating little book. I think a lot of--when Melville scholars have noticed the extent to which he borrowed material from other writers, their defense of him has always been that he was essentially transmuting lead into literary gold. He was taking fairly ordinary maritime literature and actually turning it into this grand, almost Shakespearean type of work.

SIMON: So it's quite likely that the Reverend Cheever made more money as an author than Herman Melville.

Mr. COLLINS: That's probably true. The curious thing, too, is that Cheever had actually been following Melville's career quite closely. The first hostile review that Herman Melville ever got for his first book, "Typee," was written by Cheever, and when he reviewed "Moby Dick" he didn't actually mention that some of the stuff had been borrowed from, in a couple of cases Melville actually acknowledged where he had gotten something from Cheever. But Cheever doesn't mention that in his review. What he does say is that after reading "Moby Dick" he thinks that Melville might go to hell for having written something that is so questioning of the nature of God.

SIMON: But the one thing he didn't say was, `This man ripped me off.'

Mr. COLLINS: No. It's worth knowing that there was a real difference in the literary culture back then. Probably a good example would be somebody like Edgar Allen Poe. His first book of prose was something called "The First Book of Conchology." It was actually a book of marine science. Poe actually lifted quite a bit of material from a British book of conchology, and it's been one of those things that ever since has been a bit of an embarrassment to Poe's biographers, but it wasn't that uncommon for people to borrow pretty heavily from each other's work back then.

SIMON: If you could read the first paragraph of "The Whale and His Captor" and the first paragraph of "Moby Dick."

Mr. COLLINS: OK. The first paragraph from "The Whale and His Captors": (Reading) `This book is simply what its title indicates--the mind of the author pretending to be only the camera obscura through which the rays of nature and nature's living scenes have passed uncolored to the canvas. It may be that some who are with the writer and others, too, experienced and old in whaling life may like to glance through this gallery of daguerreotypes and by their help recall to mind scenes of which if they cannot say, like many in this vocation...'

SIMON: All right. By contrast, the opening paragraph now of Melville's "Moby Dick."

Mr. COLLINS: (Reading) `Call me Ishmael. Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, of regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet, and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to keep me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off, then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.'

SIMON: Can you tell why one is read today and the other isn't?

Mr. COLLINS: Oh, yes. Cheever's work is of use to someone who's interested in whaling. "Moby Dick" is of use to anyone who's interested in the human condition, and I think that's the real difference between the two.

SIMON: Literary historian Paul Collins. His latest book is "The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine." Paul, as the Reverend Henry Cheever might say, nice talking to you.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you. It's always good talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 14, 2006 at 12:01 PM CST
The audio for this story gives the wrong year for the publication of the novel Redburn. It was published in 1849.