The Making of Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick'

With the Moby-Dick inspired film 'In the Heart of the Sea' opening this week, we delved into what inspired Herman Melville to write his cherished classic.
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Moby Dick Photo

Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick. (Photo: I. W. Taber [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

If you've heard of Ron Howard's new film, In the Heart of the Sea, you may also be aware that the events depicted in that movie — about a crew's struggle to survive after their ship, the Essex, is brought down by a whale — inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick (1851). But you may not know how Melville deepened his knowledge of that disaster, or what other important influences contributed to his masterpiece. Read on to learn more about the making of Moby-Dick.

The Sinking of the Essex

The Essex was destroyed by a whale on November 20, 1820; more than 20 years later, its fate was still being discussed. After Herman Melville became a member of the whaleship Acushnet's crew in 1841, he found that "among other matters of forecastle conversation at times was the story of the Essex." It's not surprising that the unlucky ship remained a topic of conversation, as the Essex was the only whaleship known to have been rammed (twice) by a whale.

During Melville's voyage, the Acushnet met up with another ship, and he encountered William Henry Chase, a member of this second ship's crew. William was the son of Owen Chase, who'd been the first mate on the Essex. Chase had survived the ordeal, and had provided the details for an account entitled Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (1821). William Henry lent Melville his copy of his father's book.

Herman Melville Photo

Herman Melville, 1870. (Image: Joseph O. Eaton and an unknown etcher (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

On board the Acushnet, Melville read about the Essex's destruction, the three months-long journey in small whaleboats and the descent into cannibalism; only 8 of 20 men had survived. Melville later noted, "The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect upon me."

The impact the story had on Melville can be seen in Moby-Dick: when the Pequod sinks at the end of the novel, it mirrors the fate of the Essex.

Man vs. Whale

In his Narrative, Chase revealed that he felt the striking whale had exhibited "decided, calculating mischief" in its attack on the Essex, and that it had possibly acted to avenge fellow whales that had been harpooned by the ship's crew. The Narrative also states that the attacking whale's "aspect was most horrible, and such as indicated resentment and fury."

In addition to being convinced that his ship had been the victim of a whale out to do deliberate harm, Chase couldn't stop replaying his memories of the attack after it was over. A vengeful whale and a haunted whale hunter certainly holds parallels to Melville's Moby-Dick.

Melville's interest in Chase prompted him to ask Chase's son for information about his father. Melville also thought he had seen Chase onboard another whaling ship, describing him as "the most prepossessing-looking whale-hunter I think I ever saw." (However, Melville was wrong about seeing Chase, as the man had retired from whaling at the time of this sighting — it's unknown who Melville mistook for Chase.)

The Tale of Mocha Dick

Mocha Dick Book Cover Photo

1870 U.K. reprint. (Photo: [Public domain] via Wikipedia

You may not have heard of Mocha Dick, whose name suggests something Starbucks would include in a literary-inspired line of beverages, perhaps along with Kona Lear and A Tea of Two Cities. However, this whale — named for the Island of Mocha, which lies off Chile's coast — was an inspiration for Moby Dick.

In 1839, Jeremiah N. Reynolds's "Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific" appeared in The Knickerbocker Magazine. The article, which purported to be based on a sailor's tale, described a battle-hardened whale who "was white as wool," and who had survived multiple encounters with whalers and their harpoons.

The similarities between Mocha Dick and Moby Dick — two ornery albino sperm whales — are clear. But the whales' stories had very different endings: Reynolds wrote that Mocha Dick is killed, yielding "one hundred barrels of clear oil." Moby Dick fared much better in his climactic battle.

A Study of Whales

Thanks to his experiences on the Acushnet, Melville possessed firsthand knowledge of whaling. But, as Owen Chase's Narrative about the Essex and the tale of Mocha Dick demonstrate, Melville liked to draw upon external sources for inspiration — and this extended to books about whales.

While writing Moby-Dick, Melville referred to sources such as William Scoresby's An Account of the Arctic Regions (1820) and Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839). In fact, Melville marked passages in Beale's work that detailed the size and behavior of whales in order to use them in Moby-Dick.

However, incorporating some of Beale's research doesn't make Moby-Dick a reliable source for information on sperm whales — Melville also made alterations for literary effect. For example, Steven Olsen-Smith, a Melville scholar at Boise State University, has noted that Melville "systematically enlarged upon what he had marked, adding six feet to the length of the sperm whale and four to its circumference." After all, Moby Dick needed to be as grand as possible in order to be a worthy opponent!

A Literary Bromance

Nathaniel Hawthorne Photo

Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1860s. (Photo: Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1850, Melville was almost finished with his whaling book when he met Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter) in the Berkshires. After his encounter with the older writer, Melville decided to move to a farm nearby where Hawthorne lived.

Melville said he had felt Hawthorne had "dropped germinous seeds into my soul" and decidedly revised his book from simply an adventurous tale about whaling to a more philosophical and allegorical work.

Melville — who dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne — was happy with the literary results. However, he wasn't happy with the buying public's reaction. Though it would later be recognized as a classic, Moby-Dick only sold about 3,000 copies in Melville's lifetime.