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.

Herman Melville died in 1891, and in 1922 a collection of his short pieces titled “The Apple-Tree Table and Other Sketches” was published by Princeton University Press. The passage above was included in the text, and an introductory note by the editor remarked that Melville and Hawthorne were friends: 2

“Hawthorne and His Mosses,” the only piece of criticism in this collection, is particularly interesting viewed in the light of Melville’s friendship with Hawthorne while they were neighbors at Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

In 1992 a syndicated newspaper feature called “The World Almanac Date Book” included the expression as “Today’s Quote”. Hence, the words were distributed in several newspapers such as “The Argus-Press” of Owosso, Michigan 3 and the “Del Rio News-Herald” of Del Rio, Texas. 4

TODAY’S QUOTE: “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” — Herman Melville

In 1999 the “American News” of Aberdeen, South Dakota printed the quotation with an ascription to Melville at the top of page 4A: 5

In conclusion, the quotation championing originality was written by Herman Melville in an essay published in 1850.

Image Notes: Illustration of the final chase from a 1902 edition of Moby-Dick. Etching of Herman Melville based on a portrait of Melville. Illustration of the whale’s head from an 1892 edition of Moby-Dick.

(Great thanks to EntrepreneursQ and Keith Sand whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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
  2. 1922, The Apple-Tree Table and Other Sketches by Herman Melville, Chapter: Hawthorne and His Mosses, Quote Page 5, Start Page 53, Quote Page 73, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google Books Full View) link link
  3. 1992 August 1, The Argus-Press, The World Almanac Date Book, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Owosso, Michigan. (Google News Archive)
  4. 1992 August 1, Del Rio News-Herald, The World Almanac Date Book, Quote Page 9A, Rightmost Column, Del Rio, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1999 December 20, American News (Aberdeen Daily News), (Freestanding quotation at top of page), Quote Page 4A, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)