I’m far from an expert on this topic; in fact, I’m just barely acquainted with Melville and the state of publishing in the mid 19th century, but I found this example of editing, or censorship, interesting. Warning: you should only read this paper if you really care.
Moby-Dick is a fascinating puzzle of textual scholarship and bibliography. Edited by Melville under the extenuating circumstances of poor eyesight, the oppressive heat of a New York City summer, and a quickly mounting personal debt, Melville strove to complete a work that had already frustrated, beguiled, and consumed him for the better part of two years. Although other writerly psychoses, like missed deadlines and relentless pursuit of perfection, may have been the main reason for much of the textual errata that was born into the American and British first editions, this study is less concerned with the inadvertent changes than with the intentional ones. These edits, conducted by someone at Melville’s British publisher, were likely performed without Melville’s knowledge or approval, and their nature can be broadly characterized into edits of style, idiom, and decency. Stylistic edits include the correction of erroneous sources and the standardization and correction of accidentals, like punctuation and misspelling. Idiomatic edits include the softening of Melville’s aggressive language, changes in spelling to account for differences in American and British English, and changes to words not part of the British lexicon. While some of the stylistic and idiomatic edits were most certainly introduced by Melville’s handwritten comments on the typed proof sheets, the decency edits are not among them. These edits are the most interesting and telling, as they account for offenses against religion, propriety and nationality which were removed presumably to placate proper (and prosperous) Victorian readers and consumers of British novels.
Regrettably, little conclusive information exists about the criteria the editor used and even whether or not Melville knew he was being censored. Of immense help in analysis of the two first editions is the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, compiled by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker and published in 1967. It includes an authoritative version of the novel and a detailed list of all substantive variations, emendations, and accidentals in the text. Furthermore, in the novel’s 150-year critical history, much bibliographic data has been entered and analyses made between both editions, but before we examine the differences it would be wise to restate the circumstances of both the composition of Moby-Dick and the British publication of Melville’s prior works.
History of Composition
Melville began planning and writing Moby-Dick in early 1850 and by his own admission was half finished with the book in May of that year (Melville 551). He was confident enough in his progress to write a letter in June to his British publisher Richard Bentley, offering terms for publication of the work and declaring its readiness by late autumn; however, it would be another full year before Melville wrote Bentley again about the novel, offering him contractual terms and promising to send the American proof sheets in August 1851 (552; 562). During this one-year period, Melville spent a great deal of time rewriting his “whale.” Most scholars attribute this decision to events in the summer of 1850 that greatly affected the scope and purpose of his novel, which had changed in essence from a whaling romance to a whaling epic, from a novel of adventure to an allegory of man. Among these influential events were Melville’s careful reading of works by Carlyle and Shakespeare in the July of 1850, and a now famous gathering of American literati in August of 1850, which yielded Melville’s famous essay on the value and purpose of American literature, “Hawthorne and His Mosses” (Giles 232).
In his new vision, Melville set out to produce a work of literature that would be archetypically American, yet this intent would by definition yield a work that was the antithesis of period British literature. Melville and earlier American adventure writers had always displayed a gruff style that came to be recognized as “American.” With its tendencies towards adventure, realism, non-elevated language, and working class audience, the American style differed greatly from its Victorian counterpart, which focused on sweeping epics of the aristocracy, novels of middle-class manners, and tales of bucolic leisure. But in Moby-Dick, Melville sought to define an American literature through more than idiom and lexicon. He sought to use British literary conventions in a parodic way, to expose what he may have seen as flaws in the British imperialist society, or in British literature for that matter. One example of this is his utilization of humor and unreliable narrators. In an essay outlining Melville’s relationship with British readers during and after his lifetime, Paul Giles writes that Melville, like Carlyle, chose “playfully to balance their neoplatonic idealism against the voices of imperfect narrators, narrators who can act for the reader as conduits between familiar everyday circumstances and the more abstract regions of metaphysics” (233). Giles also recasts D.H. Lawrence’s belief that Melville’s skill lies in “traducing established conventions from English literature and culture by sliding them rhetorically into new, parodic forms” (233). One example he provides is the way in which Ishmael mocks the upper crust style of the English Victorian novel when, while scrubbing the deck, the Pequod crew “‘humorously discourse of parlors, sofas, carpets and fine cambrics’…as though they might be in a novel by Anthony Trollope or George Eliot” (234). Melville’s style and subject matter not only kept his work in relative obscurity in his lifetime, but made it more difficult for subsequent generations of British critics to accept the “profane implications of Melville’s aggressive irreverence” (Giles 226). This irreverence was essential to the American style, and in 1851 it most certainly caused great alarm to his British publisher.
Melville’s change of direction in the writing of the novel caused a number of practical problems, not the least of which was financial debt. Coming to realize that the novel must be completed, whole sections of the novel were rushed from manuscript to typescript even before related sections of the work were completed. He was so far behind in the composition, that he left much of the typescript proofreading to his wife and a few others who, because of their unfamiliarity with the work, introduced more errors into the typescript. According to Hayford and Parker:
By late July 1851…Melville was passing the “closing sheets” of his book through the [American] press, but the proofs were not mailed to England until September 10. This interval gave Melville several weeks to spend making final revisions on the proofs. Since he knew the book would be completely reset for the English edition, Melville was free to make whatever corrections and revisions he wanted and had time to make. He was not equally free to make revisions for the American edition, since the book was already plated and he would have to pay for any changes himself (475).
In brief, Melville made corrections on the American proof sheets, which he then sent to England to be recomposited for publication there. It is because of this process that many discrepancies arose between the two editions, and although the study of these differences is a fascinating exercise, the concerns of this essay are changes not apparently made by Melville himself, but by his British publisher, Richard Bentley.
New York/London Publication
Lynn Horth’s informative essay on Bentley sheds light on Melville’s reputation in British literary circles, on Bentley and Melville’s professional relationship, and also provides a hypothesis on who may have edited The Whale, as it was then called. Melville’s first interaction with Bentley came after Joseph Murray, publisher of Typee and Omoo, rejected publication of Mardi in 1849. Before accepting Mardi, Bentley solicited and received a report on the book, which, though unsigned, Horth attributes quite conclusively to Martha Jones, a frequent reviewer of literature for varied British periodicals including Bentley’s own magazine. Jones’ felt that Melville’s Mardi “intend(s) a ridicule or rather denunciation of all established forms…of religion… and is discoursed of in a way to offend Christians of all denominations” (qtd. in Horth 231). In addition, Melville’s writing “could almost seem to have been written by a madman,-and the last few pages are quite delirious” (qtd. in Horth 231). Horth believes Jones’ reports “emphasize her awareness that such market considerations as a good plot and an unoffensive treatment of religion were among the key concerns at the Bentley firm” (230).
Horth further notes that while Bentley “published not a single one of the books [Jones] censured in her ten other reports still in the Bentley papers at the British Library,” he accepted Mardi despite her misgivings, most likely out of desire to have Melville as one of his authors (233). Bentley paid the full amount of Melville’s requested advance, and in a presumed, though unlocated letter, Horth believes Bentley “agreed …to accept Mardi without altering the text in any way, since this was one of the stipulations Melville had made when offering the book first to John Murray” (234).
While the reviews for Mardi were mixed, each ensuing book was greeted with less and less enthusiasm. Upon agreeing to publish Melville’s next book, Redburn, Bentley offered only two-thirds of Melville’s requested advance. The contract for Melville’s next book, White-Jacket, included a clause that Melville would reimburse Bentley for any financial losses. In neither instance is there evidence that Bentley requested expurgation of Melville’s work for British audiences, and the British and American editions of Mardi, Redburn, and White-Jacket are nearly identical (Horth 243). It is remarkable that after three consecutive financial losses Bentley still agreed to publish The Whale, offering two-thirds of Melville’s requested advance, yet retaining an avaricious half of the book’s profits (Melville 562). Only after The Whale was published, while offering terms for Melville’s next book, Pierre, did Bentley demand Melville allow Bentley’s “judicious literary friend” to edit the book for British publication. Thus, if evidence indicates Bentley did not expurgate Melville in novels prior to The Whale, and yet insisted on expurgation after The Whale, I suggest Melville did not agree for The Whale to be expurgated in the first place. In this case, we can surmise that many of the British changes, whether in the name of clarity or good taste, were performed without Melville’s authorization. There are no surviving documents to confirm or deny this assumption or to indicate which changes are in fact Melville’s, yet physical evidence reveals that changes and expurgations were made, and it might be that Martha Jones, advisor of Richard Bentley and reviewer of Mardi, was the one responsible for those edits.
In Bentley’s letter of acceptance to publish Pierre only with significant alterations, he writes:
…if you had not sometimes offended the feelings of many sensitive readers you would have succeeded in England. Everybody must admit the genius displayed in your writings; but it would have been impossible for any publisher with any prudent regard to his own interests to have put out your books here without revisal, & occasional omission (qtd. in Horth 238).
Bentley’s use of the past conditional tense “would have been impossible” seems to suggest this letter is not only a proposal for expurgation of Pierre, but also a defense of the “revisal and occasional omission” he ordered for The Whale.
In a letter to an American acquaintance written February 22, 1850, after the publication of White-Jacket, but before the acceptance of The Whale, Bentley writes, “if only [Melville] be careful not to rub too violently against general opinion in religious matters, he cannot fail to be very popular” (qtd. in Horth 239). Even at this late stage, Bentley still recognized Melville’s talent, and yet his recognition of Melville’s liabilities perhaps forced Bentley to only accept The Whale if it could be so altered. As stated earlier there is nothing to suggest that Melville agreed to the expurgation of The Whale, though his precarious financial situation and his need to get the British book in copyright before publication of the American edition may have forced him to give in to Bentley’s request, if there indeed was one. Whether Melville agreed to be expurgated, or whether he authorized any of the changes is irrelevant; what matters is that changes were made, and in great number.
Edits of Style and Idiom
Michael Sadiler’s 1922 comparison of the two editions, found “approximately 150 omissions or changes of less than a sentence in length” including “thirty-five omissions of a whole sentence or more” (Ament 41). Not included in this number are the deletions of a Melville footnote, the complete removal of Chapter 35, and the absent epilogue, which Melville added before the American version went to press, but after the proof sheets of the American had been sent off to Britain for compositing. The title of the book suffered a similar fate; being changed to Moby-Dick after the sheets had been mailed.
Many scholars believe that some changes made to the British edition are improvements, particularly those which standardized Melville’s erratic punctuation, and those which removed words where Melville had originally substituted one for another and yet both ended up in print. Either way, Harrison and Hayford note, “Isolating all [Melville's] corrections of accidentals is hopeless, although there are frequent instances where the English punctuation make noticeably better sense…With substantive changes-changes of words-we can be much surer when it was Melville himself who made a given change and when it was not” (476).
Stylistic edits include the correction of erroneous source material and the standardization and correction of accidentals (errors in capitalization, punctuation, and spelling), in which there are over 100 differences between the editions, most of them minor changes executed in the interest of clarity. Of the seventeen changes in comma punctuation alone, one favorable, oft-cited example is the correction of the American edition’s, “D’ye feel brave men, brave?” which the British edition corrects with a comma: “D’ye feel brave, men, brave?” (459). Another more impacting change exists in Ahab’s dialogue with Starbuck about abandoning the quest for the safety of home. In the American edition Ahab writes, “What is it…recklessly making me ready to do what…I durst not so much as dare. Is Ahab Ahab? Is it I, God or who that lifts the arm?” (444-445). The American reading conveys Ahab’s doubtful introspection, much in the mode of a Shakespearean tragic protagonist, as if to utter, “Am I still myself?” The British text replaces the middle sentence with “Is it Ahab, Ahab?” This reading makes better sense when placed in context of the sentences preceding and following, in which he questions the source of his motivation as if to say, “Am I doing this or is someone making me do it?” In this instance, the comma and the insertion of the pronoun change the meaning of an entire paragraph in one of the novel’s most important passages of characterization. The beneficial or detrimental impact of that change divides many scholars.
The British edition also contains changes in incorrect references to source material, and in some cases to attributing the wrong character to a piece of dialog. Hayford and Parker suggest that these changes were in fact made by Melville on the American proof sheets used by the British, but not on sheets used by the American publisher (487). Examples include source attributions where the American edition mistakes John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress for his Holy War, and the British martyr John Wickliff for martyr Thomas Cranmer (4; 140). Other examples change blatantly incorrect usages, such as referring to Peleg when Melville obviously meant Bildad and plaintiffs when he meant defendants (72; 333). In this case, whether the changes were Melville’s or the British editor’s, they are accurate and justified.
Forty-six changes were made in spelling between editions, which may be delineated between instances in which obvious misspellings or typos in the American edition were corrected, and instances in which the spelling was changed as a result of differing standards in American and British English. Some obvious misspellings and their British replacements are Cruize/Cruise, Bhreing’s/Behring’s, and Cogniac/Cognac (9; 65; 272). Idiomatic spelling changes from American to British include Merchant/Marchant, warrantry/warranty, smooth/smoothe and feign/fain (68; 109; 403; 425). These idiomatic spelling changes, though perhaps made in the name of clarity for the British reading public, also imply a discrimination against the American idiom, since the editor apparently felt that the British spelling was correct and the American version inferior, if not outright wrong. Certainly British readers would still have understood the American spelling and might have accepted it as an idiosyncrasy of American literature. Alternatively, the changes may have been made to protect the literary reputation of the publisher, since they might have been viewed as careless editorial mistakes rather than American idiomatic differences. (Contemporary international publishers continue to practice a reverse form of this discrimination. One need only examine the recent Harry Potter books to see how routinely the American publisher substitutes “color” for “colour” and “shop” for “shoppe.”)
Another type of idiomatic edit in The Whale concerns the softening of language, in which one begins to see changes that were more about Melville’s authorial voice than about a writer’s mechanics. Though some of the edits can be considered as expurgations, they are here not treated as such because they have little or nothing to do with censorship on religious, sexual, or ethnic grounds. While the ultimate goal of both is to soften the work, changes in idiom are not so much a deletion of offensive material as an alternation of tone, which well-heeled Victorian readers may have seen as gruff or presumptuous. A good example of this is when the American edition says, “the grand distinction,” while the British softens it to “one of the grand distinctions,” subtly yet effectively reducing the authority of the narrator (128). In similar examples, a “noble” custom becomes a more subdued “grand” custom, and “huge” is lessened to “large” (145; 5). Other idiomatic softening occurs when the editor reduces multi-adverbial or multi-adjectival phrases, apparently in the interest of brevity. For example, the American “consecutive great battles,” “however wistful and erring,” and “found grimly clinging” are shortened to the British “consecutive battles,” “however erring,” and “found clinging” (230; 443; 457). Whatever the editor’s justification for edits of this nature, they do seem specifically directed at Melville as an American author, as these types of phrases and Melville’s gruffness differ little from Walter Scott’s, and Melville’s verbosity and omniscient authority are not dissimilar from British novels of the Victorian period.
Cogent claims can be made that Melville made many of the changes to the British edition himself, since, as Ament points out above, he had several weeks to add markings to his American proof sheets before sending them Bentley. This would certainly explain the many accidentals; as for idiomatic changes, however, an argument can be made that Melville softening his own narrative to be more conformative to British standards would be counterproductive to his new theory of a distinctly American literature.
Expurgations and Edits of Decency
Regardless of the source of stylistic and idiomatic changes, there is little doubt that the major expurgations in the work were performed at Bentley’s request, and without Melville’s consent. These passages were presumably omitted for disrespect or irreverence of Judeo-Christian theology, impropriety of language, and offenses against national honor; however, a close analysis of the omitted content will bring to mind comparable passages that, when held to the same decency standards, were surprisingly allowed to remain in the British text, whether through editorial oversight or subjective acceptability. Some contradictions exist because the offended groups are non-Westerner and/or non-Christian, and thus not protected by the editor, but other passages are clearly in violation of British standards established elsewhere in the book. Comparing the omissions with the inclusions might then tell us more about the decency standards of British culture, or at least what the editor of The Whale (and the publisher’s marketing department) presumed those standards to be.
William S. Ament writes that in addition to accounting for matters of style and differences in the American and British idioms, Bentley’s copy-editor was free to “omit crude or blasphemous passages. He did not hesitate to rewrite whole sentences” (41). As discussed above, recent findings appear to indicate the “he” may have been a “she;” and while there exists no correspondence detailing the identity of whom Bentley calls his “judicious literary friend,” Martha Jones might have been the Bowdler of Moby-Dick. The changes that are suspect in this category are those which were instituted to adjust for perceived sensitivities in British culture and thus shield the reader from Melville’s disrespect of religion, propriety, and British national honor.
Religious edits include references to biblical figures when not used in a purely favorable way, as well as complete deletions if the passage contained references “too sacred to be mentioned or expatiated upon in a somewhat ironic whale story” (Ament 43). These edits were handled in two different ways, either by removing or altering the reference to the biblical figure, or by deleting the offending passage altogether. Examples of the former methodology include changing “poor Paul’s” to “St. Paul’s” and “old Jonah” to “old fellow” (19; 23). While these may seem not to greatly affect the style of the novel, there is a significant loss of descriptive power between the American description of Ahab “with a crucifixion in his face” and the British “with an apparently eternal anguish in his face” (111).
Instances of complete deletion are prevalent throughout the novel, with some bearing more stylistic consequence than others. One example of note is Ishmael’s well-reasoned justification for joining in Queequeg’s worship of his wooden idol, in which the following passage was completely removed: “Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth-pagans and all included-can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible!” (54). Another deletion ironically leaves an implied reference to Satan as an “intangible malignity,” but removes the subsequent “to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds” (160). Strangely, Melville’s inclusions of commonly accepted biblical facts were also deleted, despite their continued appearance in the very same Bible the editor sought to defend. She removed accurate references to “Solomon devoutly worshiping among his thousand concubines” and “Saul of Tarsus converted from unbelief by a similar fright” (329; 179). Although these biblical facts may have been downplayed in the nineteenth century church-as relics of an earlier, more barbaric society-she apparently did not equate differences between Hebrew and British society with similar differences between British and American society, thereby allowing them to remain in the text.
In general, religious edits of this kind sought to subvert Melville’s almost Universalist acceptance of religious differences, as well as protecting the publisher from charges of religious blasphemy. Yet for all the work done in this effort, many biblical references were retained in full. On one page of Chapter 17 alone, in which Ishmael is locked out of his room during Queequeg’s Ramadan, there are four sacrilegious uses of God or Lord in the dialogue that were allowed to remain in the British version, despite their clear violation of the biblical commandment prohibiting use of the Lord’s name in vain (79). Likewise, she contradicts her standards in two adjacent sentences in Chapter 93, when Melville details Pip’s near drowning, deleting “indifferent as his God,” while allowing Pip to see “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom,” taking away God’s involvement in the first part and leaving it in the second (347). It is because of instances like these, where the editor failed to finish the task, that the novel was nevertheless chastised for its content by some British critics.
Edits of propriety generally encompass issues of obscene language and physicality. Profanity was replaced in the typical way, by leaving out enough letters to suggest the right word, without completely deleting it; thus, damned became d___d. In most cases, however, complete deletion of the offending word would have had little effect on the meaning, and if therefore, linguistic purity were the ultimate goal, then it is peculiar that the editor did not just remove the word completely. A similar occurrence exists in the aforementioned Chapter 17 dialogue surrounding Queequeg’s Ramadan, where the editor alters Ishmael’s blasphemous “for G_d’s sake!” (79). Again the editor seems to have weighed the ethical sensitivities of the audience against the need for marketability.
Also removed were physical topics considered profane by Victorian society, like references to sexual conduct (for procreation or otherwise), and parts of the body. References found objectionable by the editor include mentions of a “harlot,” a warning against “fornication,” and a description of Queequeg “ripening his apricot thighs upon the sunny deck (170; 97; 215). Another standards paradox is the editor’s changing of Queequeg’s “obstetrics” to “dexterity,” while allowing Melville’s detailed footnote about the nursing whale (290; 326), as if to indicate that the discussion of reproduction or infant nutrition is only acceptable for mammals other than humans. The somewhat quaint change of Melville’s description of whale courtship from “alas! all fish bed in common” to “alas! All fish have very vague ideas of the connubial tie” is yet another expurgation along similar lines (483).
In contrast to this prudishness, however, Melville’s Chapter 95 description of the whale’s penis-its role as fetish and its function as raincoat-is common to both editions, revealing yet another disparity between what was expurgated and what was allowed to remain. Further evidence of this lies in many of the homoerotic overtones that, at first glance, appear to have been left in because they do not carry the same connotation that they do today. Giles paraphrases scholar Leo Bersani who believes the “philosophical idea of homoeroticism is introduced so easily into Moby-Dick, precisely because, in psychological terms, so little is at stake.” Unlike characters in Gide or Proust who address the issue in subjective terms, Melville’s characters remain objective, which results in an effect on the reader of “puzzlement and alienation” (Giles 234). If this effect was felt by Bentley’s editor as well, then those passages may have been left alone by shear naïveté. In particular, Chapter 94, which recounts a gathering of the men around a tub of sperm, is left entirely intact. Modern readers may hypothesize that the sperm homophone was not recognized in the mid nineteenth century, yet to confirm the dual meaning of sperm in this book (as whale and as reproductive fluid), one need only examine Chapter 32 where Ishmael states, “this same spermaceti was that quickening humor [semen] of the Greenland Whale which the first syllable of the word literally expresses” (120). Thus the word did indeed carry both meanings in Melville’s time, and yet curiously, the editor did not see the homoerotic irony in Chapter 94. It may be far-fetched to accept that the editor was unaware of the potential symbolism of the Pequod’s crew with their hands playfully engulfed in a bucket of sperm, and while it is nearly impossible to grant a male editor that ignorance, a female editor, shielded from homosexuality by the standards of her time, could be excused for missing the connotation. While she obviously saw enough homoeroticism to delete references to both a “honeymoon” and the entanglement of legs from the narrative of Ishmael and Queequeg sharing a bed, she may have been innocent of the kind of hypererotic details suggested by the passage on sperm (54). This bit of evidence lends further credence to the proposition that Martha Jones, or admittedly another woman, might be the editor of The Whale.
In the area of offenses against national honor, the most obvious is the complete omission of Chapter 25, in which Ishmael chronicles the use of spermaceti as an anointing oil for British monarchs. While the editor was certainly Eurocentric in her judgment, she was not purely Anglocentric; she also protected the Turks and the Dutch by removing “…these Grand Turks are too lavish of their strength, and hence their unctuousness is small” and “aglow, as bridegrooms new-leaped from out the daintiest Holland”(329; 357) Ironically, she also took care to protect the French, the historic British nemesis, by changing “Louis the Devil” to “Louis Napoleon” and by removing Melville’s equating of cannibalism with eating pate de foix gras (136; 256).Yet if the deletion of Chapter 25 was performed to avoid charges of blasphemy against the British crown, then why was Chapter 90, in which Melville overtly denounces the preferential treatment of royalty, left untouched? Another telling alteration is the changing of “thou great democratic God” to “thou great God,” which suggests that this religious reference was acceptable as long as democracy, that prime American ideal, was not included as a suggestion of its superiority to monarchy (105).
The editor and Anglocentrism
Considering these contradictions in expurgation standards, what can we surmise about the nature of the editor and the standards she imposes on the audience? Whether through obvious misunderstandings or misintentions, a misreading of Melville, or just poorly written Melville, the nature of these edits and the conflicting way they were applied do tell us something about the editor. She obviously remembered the market, evidenced by balancing choices between what might be so offensive that it requires deletion, and what might be left alone, albeit risqué, to tempt some segment of the reading public. She was a pious woman and protective of her religion, deleting text that would slight the Christian church, including many references to biblical passages that could be excused by virtue of differing standards between the time of David and the time of Christ. She was offended by even the slightest reference to sexuality, intragendered or otherwise; however, although she deleted some passages containing homoerotic overtones, some of the most blatant were allowed to remain, indicating her knowledge of homoerotic particulars to be general and not specific. This naïveté might indicate the editor was a woman, which in turn lends credence to Horth’s supposition that the editor of The Whale is Bentley’s confidant, Martha Jones.
Also interesting is what the nature of these edits say about the relationship between the British and their now independent western colonies. Why, for example, were changes in standard American spelling introduced, even though the British readers would understand both the word and the reason for the differences in spelling? Why was the dominance of Melville’s authorial style made bland to accommodate the palate of British readers? And most importantly, why were mass expurgations necessary in the first place? If most of these changes were necessitated by American boldness, why were they not left in tact as an example of a style typical of the new American literature? The answers to these questions most certainly lie in the British culture’s sense of superiority over its crude, unrefined American cousin. The specifics of this superiority, and the literary and socio-economic evidence that supports it, is well beyond the scope of this paper, and yet as shown above, Melville’s work was most certainly subjected to it. Rather than denounce this discriminatory Anglocentrism, it is sufficient for my purpose to regard these changes not as an insult to Americanism, but as an example of the democratic freedom Melville espoused in his writing. The American publishers did not choose to censor Melville, since doing so would violate the principles upon which America was founded. The American edition of Moby-Dick makes full use of American First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, and the press. The publication differences sufficiently speak to which culture was, at that time, better positioned for the free development of literary and artistic pursuits.
As for quality, Ament suggests, “The first English edition is an uninspired revision of the proof of the American. Many of the corrections of details are improvements, but most of the major changes are a weakening or unwarranted Bowdlerization of Melville’s highly colored style” (45). Though this may be the case overall, the British reading public, ignorant of the American edition and therefore unable perhaps to appreciate the brash, “colored style” would not have been the wiser. For some reviewers, the expurgations were still not enough, and no matter how much positive criticism was bestowed on the language and characterization, Melville’s offending content became the crux of many negative reviews. As a result, the question is whether the editor failed completely by not removing all of the potentially offensive material. Its existence poses two interesting questions: if Melville was aware of the changes, did he overrule some of them; or if unaware, then did the editor leave some in tact so as to appease Melville upon his discovering them? Nonetheless, while the British edition most certainly lost some of its allegorical complexity, it retained much of its stylistic and rhetorical thrust. The variants in the text, and what the expurgations might convey about cultural differences resulting from an emerging American national identity, certainly provide more “intellectual chowder” than a version that was authoritative all along. It helps keep Moby-Dick and Melville in the sights of literary researchers; it reveals the maturation of an American culture and its distancing from its British parents; and it provides a reminder of the importance of the publisher in the relationship between author and reader.
Ament, William S. “Bowdler and The Whale: Some Notes on the First English and American Editions of Moby-Dick.” American Literature 4.1 (March 1932): 39-46.
Giles, Paul. “‘Bewildering Intertanglement': Melville’s Engagement with British Culture.” The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Hayford, Harrison and Hershel Parker. “Textual Problems of Moby-Dick.” Moby-Dick. By Herman Melville. New York: Norton, 1967. 471-477.
_____. “Substantive Variants Between Moby-Dick and The Whale.” Moby-Dick. By Herman Melville. New York: Norton, 1967. 477-498.
Horth, Lynn. “Richard Bentley’s Place in Melville’s Literary Career.” Studies in the American Renaissance. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992. 229-45.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Eds. Hayford, Harrison and Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 1967.