Connect the Dates: Classic Books

October 12-18

There are threads that weave throughout history, connecting people and events and dates. The way those threads come together can be surprising and fascinating. In this new series, we're exploring some of the intersections of history and discovering the connections between notable people and events, each week in history.

This week in history, the fall publishing season yielded three literary gems. They were as different as three books can be - a Great American Novel, a gentle children's classic and a wacky sci-fi romp - but the threads of history brought them together to share anniversary celebrations.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale was one of several novels written by Herman Melville, but while the rest have mostly faded into obscurity (Billy Budd, though still widely read, is a shorter novella, while Typee is more of a memoir with fictionalized bits), the tale of the whale remains prominent in the literary canon. Published Oct. 18, 1851, it tells an age-old story of revenge, but with a twist: The grievance isn't against a person, but against a whale. Monomaniacal Captain Ahab drives the crew of his Pequod all over the globe - and, for the most part, to their deaths - in search of the white whale that tore his leg off.

Melville himself worked as a whaler, incorporating his vast knowledge of the sea into long descriptive passages that have delighted some readers ... and left others wishing for more action and fewer long passages detailing the various parts of ships, offering information on other whaling books, and going over what a whale looks like from top to tail. Contemporary readers were not particularly impressed, though 19th-century readers certainly had better attention spans than 21st century ones. But for the most part, it seems that the reading public of Melville's day just wasn't interested in reading about whaling. In the wake of mediocre reviews, Melville's career faltered and declined. It wasn't until World War I, decades after Melville's death, that Moby-Dick was reconsidered by critics and readers, reprinted and widely circulated. Contemporary authors Carl Van Doren and D.H. Lawrence praised it, and their fans rushed to read the novel they admired. By the middle of the 20th century, it had become a respected classic, and today it's on most high school literature reading lists.

Winnie-the-Pooh, published Oct. 14, 1926, was the first collection of stories about the honey-loving bear that A. A. Milne wrote, though a Pooh prototype had appeared in Milne's earlier book, When We Were Very Young, named Mr. Edward Bear. Winnie-the-Pooh introduced Pooh with his enduring name, as well as Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore and the rest of the animal friends who had gentle adventures in the Hundred-Acre Wood - though Tigger wouldn't make his first appearance until Milne's next book. Winnie-the-Pooh's loosely connected stories see the friends celebrating Eeyore's birthday, going Woozle hunting, and famously, helping Pooh get unstuck from the entrance to Rabbit's den.

Though this was the first Pooh book, the cuddly bear already had his fans when it was published. Several of the stories in Winnie-the-Pooh had appeared previously in periodicals such as the London Evening News. And Milne had his fans even before that, having written a number of plays and mystery novels for adults. In fact, his publishers were none too excited when he sent them the first Pooh stories - they were hoping for another good murder mystery, not a children's book, which wasn't guaranteed to sell well, if at all. Still, they published it, and they were surprised to see it become a massive success, beloved by readers and lauded by most critics. Pooh was in demand, so Milne wrote more - the books Now We Are Six and The House at Pooh Corner followed in the next two years. Pooh has been a children's favorite ever since, thanks to reprints and adaptations, including popular Disney cartoons and an upcoming live-action film.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy began life as a BBC radio series, and after it was reasonably successful (some listeners hated it, but enough liked it to call it reasonably successful), its writer, Douglas Adams, turned it into a book. And then another book, and then a third, making it a trilogy. And then two more books, still labeled as part of a trilogy, which weirdness is exactly in line with the books' silly take on interstellar travel. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, published Oct. 12, 1979, was the first of the books, introducing Englishman Arthur Dent, alien Ford Prefect and the eponymous guide they use as they hop alien ships and travel from planet to planet in the wake of Earth's destruction.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy quickly made it to the Sunday Times best-seller list and into the hearts of anyone who loved sci-fi, British humor and towels (a towel is, in the trilogy, an essential accessory for any space traveler - it can be used for so many things, not least for hiding under when things get weird). It became a BBC television series and then a motion picture - one that was beloved by fans and left the uninitiated scratching their heads and a little irritated. The same fate accompanied each installment of the trilogy as well as the various adaptations. You either love Hitchhiker's Guide or you hate it. For those who love it, "Don't panic" is an enduring piece of advice, and the number of 42 will always have mystical significance.