Category Archives: Herman Melville

Better To Fail in Originality than To Succeed in Imitation

Herman Melville? Apocryphal?

moby14Dear Quote Investigator: The major literary figure Herman Melville was famous for envisioning an archetypal beast and a fateful battle in “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” published in 1851. Reportedly, Melville wrote an article that extolled creativity with the following assertion:

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

I would like to use this statement in an essay, but I have been unable to locate its source. Are these really the words of Melville? Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In August 1850 a New York journal called “The Literary World” published an article of literary criticism titled “Hawthorne and His Mosses”, and the critic was described as “A Virginian Spending July in Vermont”. Eventually, Herman Melville was identified as the essayist, and in one section of the article he chided a “graceful writer” who was imitating works from other countries. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

But that graceful writer, who perhaps of all Americans has received the most plaudits from his own country for his productions,—that very popular and amiable writer, however good and self-reliant in many things, perhaps owes his chief reputation to the self-acknowledged imitation of a foreign model, and to the studied avoidance of all topics but smooth ones. But it is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1850 August 24, The Literary World, Hawthorne and His Mosses by A Virginian Spending July in Vermont (Herman Melville), Start Page 145, Quote Page 146, E. A. & G. L. Duyckinck, New York. (Google Books Full View) link