Great moments in literature: The lost manuscript of ‘Moby Duck’

Melville's pencil sketch of the giant duck.

Melville’s pencil sketch of the giant duck.

Everyone is familiar with the story of Moby Dick; the monomaniacal Ahab in pursuit of the white whale. But the origins of this story are a closely guarded secret, for reasons I am about to divulge.

While serving on board the whaler Julia during 1842, Melville was one of a party dispatched to collect fresh water while visiting the Nā Pali coast, of Kauaʻi.

While progressing by row-boat up a small stream, the party was attacked, and, if truth be told, Melville almost killed, by a demonic duck of huge proportions and no colour.

Similar to the Canadian beaver, which stops growing in size only with death, this, now, thankfully, extinct breed of duck grew monstrous in size and nature on the vegetation that grew in waters that flowed out of the volcanic rich interior and natural selection had found no reason to limit either.

Demonic—and deadly. The severed edges that line the beaks of ordinary ducks pose no danger to humans, but in a duck standing as high as a man it’s quite another matter. This is to say nothing of it pecking you in the eye.

It seems to have been related to the fossil remains noted in this 2008 news story: Big bird: Experts unveil skull of giant duck with teeth and the wingspan of a family car

By today’s standards these were pretty bizarre animals, but perhaps the strangest thing about them is that they had sharp, tooth-like projections along the cutting edges of the beak.

‘Strange’ indeed.

Melville returned to the United States a changed, chastened man. Melancholic by nature, he had taken to the sea to find some peace. Now he took to his writing table for the same reason, as if by writing he could exorcise the internal scars caused by this infernal, damned duck.

It is well known that Melville was influenced by his neighbour and friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, but Melville’s friendship with Edgar Allen Poe, was a closely guarded secret (for he was a harsh critic of Hawthorne).

It was Poe who read the manuscript and suggested the title, ‘Moby Duck’. Moby, from the Latin for ‘exceptionally large’. Duck, because a duck it was.

But it was not to be. Harper & Brothers of New York, like all publishers, had an eye on the market and concluded that the market for a book about a giant acquatic bird was a dead duck, as it were. They insisted on it being rewritten for the whaling market, which was just taking off.

Darwin had a similar problem with The Origin of Species (1859). His publisher read the first chapter, on selection under domestication, and pressed Darwin to rewrite it for the pigeon fancier market in England (then, as now, huge).

Darwin resisted, but Melville succumbed. He set off on a fact-finding tour of whaling towns (including my own) and rewrote the tale. Duck to Dick.

With exaggerated respect—‘As a token of my Admiration for his Genius’—Melville dedicated the improbably named Moby Dick (1851) to Hawthorne.

The manuscript for Moby Duck stayed with Poe and perished when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1849.

All this I know because when Melville visited my home town of Hull, to do some research in its Maritime Museum (which is mentioned in the book), he confided in a relative of mine, Joshua Marsden, a whaler himself, in the Dog and Duck across the road.

And all this I now pass on to you.

Hull Maritime Museum

Hull Maritime Museum

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