On this day, Harper & Brothers in New York publishes Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. The book flopped, and it was many years before the book was recognized as an American classic.
Melville was born in New York City in 1819. A childhood bout of scarlet fever left him with weakened eyes. At age 19, he became a cabin boy on a ship bound for Liverpool. He later sailed to the South Seas on a whaler, the Acushnet, which anchored in Polynesia. He took part in a mutiny, was thrown in jail in Tahiti, escaped, and wandered around the South Sea islands from 1841 to 1844. In 1846, he published his first novel, Typee, based on his Polynesian adventures. His second book, Omoo (1847), also dealt with the South Seas. The two novels became popular, although his third, Mardi (1849), more experimental in nature, failed to catch on with the public.
Melville bought a farm near Nathaniel Hawthorne's house in Massachusetts, and the two became close friends, although they later drifted apart. Melville wrote for journals and continued to publish novels. Moby Dick was coolly received, but his short stories were highly acclaimed. Putnam's Monthly published "Bartleby the Scrivener" in 1853 and "Benito Cereno" in 1855.
In 1866, Melville won appointment as a customs inspector in New York, which brought him a stable income. He published several volumes of poetry. He continued to write until his death in 1891, and his last novel, Billy Budd, was not published until 1924.