Should Moby-Dick Have a Hyphen?

First American edition of Moby-Dick

Herman Melville’s novel about an obsessive hunt for an elusive whale is Moby Dick. Or is it Moby-Dick? The answer to that question drives obsessive scholars of literature and seems to be just as elusive as the great white whale.

When the first American edition of Melville’s book was published in 1851, its title bore a hyphen. Inexplicably, the contents of the book omit the hyphen when referring to the whale. The only exception is found on page 609 when the name is hyphenated at the end of a line.

From page 609 of the first edition — the only hyphenated appearance of the whale’s name in the contents of the book.

Since the original printing, there have been many subsequent editions. Some have a hyphen, while others disregard it. The fact that it is a matter of debate is often a surprise to the novel’s most devoted readers. It is of great concern, however, to literature purists. Since the first edition bore a hyphen in its title, many insist that is the correct spelling. They will tell you it is proper to refer to the whale as Moby Dick, but if it is the book, you’d better be sure to spell it as Moby-Dick.

Of even greater mystery is why the hyphen was there in the first place. Some suggest that Melville had a fondness or hyphenated titles. Another of his book, White-Jacket, also has a seemingly-unnecessary hyphen.

Another theory is that the hyphen was a mistake. The original title was The Whale, but Melville decided at the last minute to change it. Perhaps in the haste to get the title changed, a hyphen was mistakenly inserted by the printer.

If you think this is a subject of trivial importance, you obviously are not a Melville fanatic. Such an individual has a completely different view and will chase the answer round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before giving it up.*

*Editor’s Note: In the interests of full disclosure, the only reason we know this is a play on Captain Ahab’s famous quote is because we heard similar words in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. That is pretty much the limit of our cultural sophistication.

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