Book publishing—like many commercial industries—is inherently a gamble. You can pick your favorite spec manuscripts, think the author behind it is brilliant, spend gobs of money on marketing, and still your latest offering can bomb.
Unknown debuts can turn into unexpected blockbusters overnight, and seasoned hitmakers can produce a surprising dud mid-career. Every green-lit project has an air of risk, expectation, and mystery surrounding it.
Take Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Now considered one of the greatest novels ever written, the book initially received mixed reviews only to fall into obscurity by the end of Melville’s life.
If you have any doubts about this, just read the New York Times’ 1891 obituary of the writer, which is any moderately successful person’s nightmare of a eulogy.
“There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines,” the obit reads, going on to call him not just a forgotten man, but an “absolutely forgotten man.”
Fast forward a few decades and the tale of the whale had become one of the must-reads of the Western literary canon. The book’s accolades are well-deserved, of course, but they were also a good piece of luck—and, one can imagine, provided a good chunk of change—for Harper & Brothers, Melville’s U.S. publisher.
But the publishing house, which eventually became HarperCollins, did not have quite the foresight when it came to another of Melville’s novels. When the author brought his finished manuscript for Isle of the Cross to New York, his publishers gave it a firm, “No, thank you.”
It’s anyone’s guess what the reception of the work would have been. Naturally, some of Melville’s works (Moby-Dick and “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” to name two) have held up better over time than others.
But given the rousing success of Moby-Dick, not to mention the early embrace of his swashbuckling tales like Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, you have to wonder, what could have been? Would later generations have deemed this now-lost manuscript another great American novel?
Melville lived a life of adventure, but also one of hardship. Born into a well-to-do family of merchants, the Melvill’s, as they originally spelled their last name, lost it all after Father M decided to diversify the business into furs. Soon after losing the family fortune, he unexpectedly died, forcing all of his young children to leave school and begin working to support the family.
After a few years working odd-jobs, a 20-year-old Herman found his sea-legs. Melville’s exploits working first on merchant ships, then on whalers in the Pacific, are the stuff of legend today. There was desertion and mutiny, a capture by cannibals and the rescuing of ships. He worked as a harpooner on the rolling seas, a potato farmer in Tahiti, and a shopkeeper in Honolulu.
All along the way, the literary-minded young man was storing up tales of adventure—both his own and those that he gathered from people he met—that would eventually be turned into his riveting stories of life on the sea.
In 1846, Melville published his first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, which is a fictional tale based on his own exploits of a sailor who encounters cannibals after deserting his ship in the South Pacific.
The author first took the book to Harper & Brothers in New York, who rejected it on the grounds that it was too unrealistic. (Later that year, Melville’s fellow deserter Richard Tobias Greene, who is also a character in the novel, would confirm that many of the book’s tales were true.)
So, Melville decided to take his chances across the pond, where he found a publisher in England. His debut was a success. The book sold well, and, as the author of his obituary would later write, made him “about the most interesting of literary Americans” in the eyes of the skeptical Brits.
After this first hit, Melville was incredibly prolific. He produced a book a year for the next six years, including Moby-Dick in 1851.
“We think it the best production which has yet come from that seething brain, and in spite of its lawless flights, which put all regular criticism at defiance, it gives us a higher opinion of the author’s originality and power than even the favorite and fragrant first fruits of his genius, the never-to-be-forgotten Typee,” read the review of the book in the New York Daily Tribune.
Not all reviews were quite so positive, however, and the book, his most ambitious undertaking to date, didn’t sell as well as his first success. Unfortunately, this would become the story of his writerly life. Melville continued to chase literary renown to no avail and his efforts brought financial difficulties upon his family for the rest of his life.
But Melville wasn’t done after Moby-Dick. He had become close friends with Nathanial Hawthorne—so close, in fact, that he dedicated Moby-Dick to his fellow writer and early reader. During the winter of 1852, he wrote to his friend that he was beginning a new novel based on “the story of Agatha.”
It was a story he had heard while vacationing on Nantucket. There was a woman, he was told, who had married a sailor only to be deserted by him. It was perhaps the perfect tale of romance and desperation for the writer to tackle at that time.
“As a man abandoned by his public, Melville may have been disposed to be sympathetic toward another loving, responsive young person wrongly abandoned,” scholar Hershel Park wrote in the second volume of his biography of the writer.
“At the same time, the sort of shame Melville was suffering for in effect mortgaging Arrowhead [his farm] to a second creditor may have disposed him toward a young sailor who came ashore and took on a commitment which he was not prepared to honor, only to suffer remorse when he came to understand the significance of the rules he had violated.”
He made quick work of the tale, Isle of the Cross. By June 1853, he was taking it to New York to show it to Harper & Brothers. But, not for the first time, the publisher was not interested. And that is the last the finished manuscript was seen.
Over the next century, hints of the work’s existence would come up here and there, but no one really knew details of this mysterious lost book. While there was a rough understanding that Melville had attempted to write the “story of Agatha,” no one knew what form that took or whether he had ever completed it.
It was Melville scholar Hershel Parker who unearthed the true nature—and the chosen title—of this lost work by putting together the clues dropped throughout letters and references.
But beyond knowing what Melville had written about and the short journey the work took from inception to rejection, all other fragments and traces of Isle of the Cross have been lost.
Despondent at his failures, Melville would write a couple more books and turn to short stories before resigning to the disfavor of the publishing gods and getting a job as a customs officer in New York.
But he never stopped writing. Until his death in 1891 at the age of 72, Melville continued to write poetry every day. Of course, long after Melville died, Moby-Dick was rediscovered and judged to be one of the greatest-ever works of literature to ever be produced.