“Very Like a Whale” Editions of Moby-Dick

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick originally appeared in 1851 to little fanfare and even less renown. With a drab, darkish, dreary cover, the first American edition look s undistinguished, even shabby. The first English edition is much handsomer; each of its three volumes has a gold whale on its spine. Unfortunately, the whales are right whales, not sperm whales. Melville heaped contempt upon right whales, who swam so “sluggishly” that they appeared “lifeless masses of rock,” which could be mistaken for “bare, blackened elevations of the soil”; in contrast, he called sperm whales—such as Moby Dick— “the most majestic in aspect” of all whales.

The first American edition was set directly in type from Melville’s manuscript, but it was not published first. In order to secure copyright protection, a book by a non-British author had to have its initial publication in England. The proof sheets were therefore sent to Richard Bentley, Melville’s London publisher, where they were edited and sections considered too blasphemous or bawdy cut. Bentley released the book under its original title The Whale on October 18, 1851. Harper & Brothers published the book as Moby-Dick in New York on November 14, 1851.

The Bentley edition was only 500 copies. Even though Bentley inserted a new title page into some copies in 1853, those copies were still composed of the original sheets. The Harper edition was much bigger—2,915 copies—with new printings of roughly 250 copies in 1855, 1863, and 1871. Part of the reason for the new printings was the Harper fire in 1853. These were new printings, not new editions. In the forty years between Moby-Dick’s publication in 1851 and Melville’s death in 1891, only one British and one American edition were published.

Even while writing Moby-Dick Melville experienced deep frustration. He wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” Such anguish is still painful to read 160 years later. But there is one consolation: Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne, and upon Hawthorne’s receipt of the book, he sent Melville a “joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter.” Melville added, in his response to Hawthorne’s letter, “A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book.”

And so the book was published. The review in the New Bedford, Mass., Daily Mercury called the first American edition “a bulky, queer looking volume, in some respects ‘very like a whale’ even in outward appearance.” We know of one whaleman who read it: Benjamin Boodry aboard the Arnolda in 1852. But few others did.

Melville died in 1891 with no expectations of literary fame for his whaling book. In fact, on Melville’s death, the obituaries registered surprise not so much that he had died as that he had still been alive.

“There died yesterday at his quiet home in this city a man who, although he had done almost no literary work during the past sixteen years, was once the most popular writer in the United States. . . . Probably, if the truth were known, even his own generation has long thought him dead.”

One year after his death, in 1892, Melville’s literary executor, Arthur Stedman, republished Moby-Dick in what is sometimes called the “deathbed edition.” Three other editions followed: the Scribner’s edition in 1899, with illustrations by I.W. Taber; the “Everyman’s Library” edition in 1907; and the “World’s Classics” edition in 1920.

Then, in 1921, everything changed. That year, a Columbia University professor, Raymond Weaver, published a biography of Melville titled Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic. It is poor biography, but its importance cannot be overemphasized. Having read the biography, readers clamored for Melville’s works. Twelve new editions of Moby-Dick appeared in the next eight years, over half of which were illustrated. Weaver served as editor of the Constable edition of The Works of Herman Melville, Standard Edition (1922–24), which remains the only complete set of Melville’s works.

The first color illustrations appeared in the 1922 Dodd, Mead edition. Mead Schaeffer created the first full-length portrait of Ahab. Schaeffer’s style is realistic; one can even see the grain of the wood on the quarterdeck and the details of Ahab’s belt-buckle. But, as Elizabeth Schultz asks in Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art (1995), “How does a realistic artist depict ‘an infinity of firmest fortitude’ or ‘the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe’ or even the adjective
‘moody’?”—all phrases used in the initial description of Ahab when he finally appears in chapter 28, “Ahab.” The answer is he cannot. “[T]he Pequod’s captain,” Schultz writes, “looks like nothing more than a common seaman, hardly the tragic, isolated figure—romanticized or demonized—of later illustrators.”

Schaeffer’s Ahab stands in strong contrast to that drawn by the most famous of all illustrators of Moby-Dick: Rockwell Kent. Kent’s Ahab is brawny and powerful with a craggy face and determined eyes gazing over the side of the Pequod. The full-length portrait of Ahab does not appear until midway through chapter 46,
“Surmises.” It takes twenty-eight chapters for Ahab as a character to appear, and forty-six chapters for Ahab as an illustration to appear. As Schultz notes: “Kent intentionally postpones his presentation of the Pequod’s captain in the full power of his personality. Rigid in mind and body, dark-clothed and dark in his thoughts, he stands alone.”

Kent’s three-volume Lakeside Press edition, containing 280 engravings and published in an aluminum slipcase, appeared in 1930. His are by far the most well known of all illustrations. Although only a thousand copies of the Lakeside Press edition existed, in 1930 Random House issued a short, squat, one-volume copy containing 270 of the 280 illustrations that was picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club. In 1944, the Modern Library Giant appeared, also containing Kent’s illustrations.

Kent’s fame, of course, does not rest on easy public access to his illustrations, but on their tremendous power. Our vision of the white whale is inextricably bound to Kent’s image of Moby Dick ascending from black waters into a dark sky, sprinkled with stars, the jet of his white spout flowing back across his back. The bubbles of the whale’s wake seem inseparable from the stars. Kent’s other most famous illustration of Moby Dick is a radiant white whale soaring into heaven, trailing white water behind him, dazzling light surrounding him: a true apotheosis.

Kent consulted with Robert Cushman Murphy, who had made a whaling voyage on the Daisy in 1912–13 and visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, then, as now, berthed in New Bedford, before creating his illustrations. But his research pales in comparison to that undergone by Barry Moser for the 1979 Arion Press edition. Each illustration that Moser completed had to be vetted by a group of maritime-museum curators. For example, Moser’s first illustration of a cutting stage was sent back because the version he had drawn did not come into use until after Melville returned from his four years at sea in 1844.

During a visit to San Francisco in October of 1977, Moser met Andrew Hoyem and agreed to produce a hundred engravings for the Arion Press’s forthcoming Moby-Dick. Hoyem strictly controlled the project. He believed that “pictorial presentation of the characters or interpretations of events would inhibit a reader’s imagination” and therefore Moser’s woodcuts “depict only whales (live and dead, skeletal and blubbery), the objects, tools, and processes used in whaling, the types of vessels from which the hunts were conducted, the ports from which they sailed, and the seas over which they voyaged.” Moser himself has long chafed against Hoyem’s restrictions and talks of producing a new version of Moby-Dick in which he will engrave Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, and the other characters as he has imagined them. Nonetheless, his 1979 engravings remain deeply loved.

Arion Press produced only 265 copies (250 for sale), so they are now extremely rare. In 1981, however, the University of California Press issued a seventy-percent smaller version in hardback and paperback, therefore ensuring that the general public could have access. Actor Daniel Day Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson were so impressed when they saw a copy of the Arion Press Moby-Dick that they hired typographer Kenny Howard to set the type and print the title sequence for “There Will Be Blood” (2007).

Not all editions are as grand, imposing, or—Hoyem’s word—“monumental” as that of the Arion Press; some are simply fun, quirky, or odd. As early as 1925, Grosset & Dunlap released an edition that was “Illustrated with Scenes from the Photoplay.” The photographs show such elusive characters as Ahab’s evil brother Derek and loyal girlfriend Esther Harper—elusive, of course, because they do not exist in Melville’s text. Filmed in 1925 and released in January of 1926, this silent black-and-white film was titled The Sea Beast, but based on Moby-Dick. A new version, a talkie, starring John Barrymore, was released in 1930; called Moby Dick, Ahab’s beloved is now named Faith Mapple. In both versions, we finally learn Ahab’s last name: Ceely. Grosset & Dunlap had a later printing with photographs from the 1930 film.

In contrast to the quirky editions were the scholarly editions. For these, textual editors try to present a text as close as possible to what Melville wrote. Texts are corrupted in many ways, accidentally by printers’ sloppy compositorial work, or purposefully by editors in order to remove anything they fear might be offensive. Textual editors report all changes, then seek to determine whether any change is “authorial” (done by the author) or not. For the 1952 Hendricks House edition, Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent report a small number of editorial changes and “verbal changes made in the first English edition.” Their edition is justifiably famous above all for their extensive “Explanatory Notes,” which run for 263 pages.

The next scholarly edition after Mansfield-Vincent was Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker’s Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (1967, but in progress since the early 1960s and independent of the Melville Project). For two decades the NCE, designed to make textual history and issues accessible to students, was the standard edition of Moby-Dick. Textually the 1967 NCE was almost identical to the 1988 Northwestern-Newberry edition, which featured a more conventional textual apparatus and in which Hayford and Parker were joined by a third editor, G. Thomas Tanselle. The NN text was used in the Arion Press edition (1979) and later in the Penguin edition (1992), with introduction by Andrew Delbanco and notes by Tom Quirk, and the Penguin eBook (2009), with additional eNotes and essays by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards. This is the gold standard of texts, with an exhaustive Textual Record; the NN edition aims to establish a text—a “critical edition”—as close to the author’s intention as surviving evidence permits, but also to give the reader all the information on that text.

As might be expected with a work as important as Moby-Dick, there are those who disagree with the NN editorial policies. In 2007, John Bryant and Haskell Springer published the Longman Critical Edition, which indicates the differences between the first American and first English editions with the use of gray type. The editors discuss any extensive difference in a “Revision Narrative” that appears on the same page. Therefore, the differences are visually obvious to the reader during the act of reading.

One might wonder if, after 160 years, it is still possible to create a new edition of Moby-Dick. The answer is a resounding yes. In 2009, librarian Matt Kish began a project during which every day he selected a phrase, theme, or quotation from each page of the Signet Classics edition of Moby-Dick and translated it into a piece of art that he then posted on his blog. It took him 543 days to illustrate the 552 pages. As Kish writes: “At first, I had identified with Ishmael, feeling like a passenger, a silent observer, on a doomed journey that I had no real control over. But as I started working through the second half of the book, I began to identify more and more with Ahab, obsessed with the idea of the White Whale and the task of finally finishing the art and slaying the monster. I worked harder and harder each day. I lost sleep.” Published as Moby-Dick in Pictures in 2011, the result is visually stunning and evocative.

From the Spring 2012 issue of Historic Nantucket.


Mary K. Bercaw Edwards is a Melville scholar, author of Cannibal Old Me: Spoken Sources in Melville’s Early Works (2009) and Melville’s Sources (1987), and editor of Wilson Heflin’s Herman Melville’s Whaling Years (2004). An Associate Professor of English and on the Maritime Studies faculty at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Bercaw Edwards works aboard the Charles W. Morgan, only remaining whaleship, berthed at Mystic Seaport, and has accrued 58,000 miles at sea under sail.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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