Moby-Dick, or, The Plurality of the Whale

Moby-Dick - poster"Call me Ishmael." Even if you have never read Moby-Dick, chances are you know the first line and something about Captain Ahab's obsessive hunt for the white whale. The plot and key characters have become part of our popular culture and are referred to by people who couldn't tell you if Ahab survives his final encounter with the beast that took his leg.

One reason the novel has so thoroughly entered our popular imagination is because it is not really just one novel. Moby-Dick has been repackaged time and time again to serve multiple purposes and satisfy different audiences. It has been a muse for artists, a dry meditation on the human condition for students to suffer through, an exciting story of the sea, and an action story befitting of comic book heroes.

We invite you to "read" Moby-Dick through the lens offered by these editions from Rauner Library's Melville Collection. The story told is rarely the same.

The exhibit was curated by Bay ByrneSim ’15 and Jay Satterfield. The exhibit was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries from September 4 to November 15, 2015.

You may download a small, 8x10 version of the poster: MobyDick.jpg. You may also download a handlist of the items in this exhibition: MobyDick.

Materials Included in the Exhibition

Case 1. Inspired Visions

Moby-Dick has spawned hundreds of illustrated versions, with most editions focusing on the danger and drama of the story or the literal business of whaling. But for some artists, the story of the white whale becomes a muse for adventurous art. The abstract renditions in this case tackle the larger questions of life, passion and ambition in Melville’s wandering interludes and digressions.

  1. Matt Kish. Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page. Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2011. Melville PS2384.M62 K57 2011
    1. Kish, an Ohio-based artist and librarian, spent eighteen months creating daily images inspired by each page of his favorite edition of Moby-Dick. Melville’s characters become psychedelic robots, with Queequeg’s face dissolving into tentacles while Ahab appears as a metallic, geometric automaton.
  2. Herman Melville and Rockwell Kent. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. Chicago: The Lakeside Press, 1930. Presses L149me
    1. In 1930, if you wanted something printed cheaply and quickly, you went to R. R. Donnelly and Sons in Chicago. To upgrade their reputation, the firm established The Lakeside Press, which debuted with a series of collector’s editions of American classics. They hired Rockwell Kent to illustrate Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, but Kent preferred Meville and suggested Moby-Dick. The version was so popular that Robert Frost satirized it in 1947: “Oh you mean Moby-Dick / By Rockwell Kent that everyone’s reading.”
  3. Plate with Rockwell Kent design. Vernon Kilns, CA. 1938-1942. Realia 506
    1. Vernon Kilns, a ceramic company operating in Southern California, hired Rockwell Kent to create designs based on his popular illustrations for Moby-Dick. The plate’s image portrays an adventure, bloodless yet rugged, perfect for the dining table or a yacht’s galley.
  4. Robert Del Tredici. Illustrations to Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Self published, 1967. Melville PS2384.M62 D37 1967
    1. Del Tredici began drawing images from Moby-Dick in the late 1960s, resulting in this portfolio, sold at The Print Mint in Berkeley, California, for fifty cents a copy. The portfolio consists of black and white screenprints on a variety of colored papers, from gold to magenta, as well as on translucent sheets.


Case 2, Part 1. The Novel of the American Renaissance

Here is the book people dread. So long, so boring to look at, so canonical. Moby-Dick was a flop when it first came out. The English edition that preceded the American by a month relegated the extracts and the etymology to appendices and left off the crucial epilogue that explains how Ishmael survived to tell the tale. The influential British reviewers panned the novel, and it seemed doomed to obscurity. D. H. Lawrence helped to resurrect Moby-Dick in the 1920s in his essay on American literature and F. O. Matthiessen declared it a masterpiece in his 1941 American Renaissance. By 1950, Moby-Dick was on the syllabus in American Literature classes across the country and the world. To satisfy this new market, the college edition was born. Laden with scholarly apparatus, Melville’s novel is presented as dry, required reading.

  1. Herman Melville. The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851. Melville PS2384.M62 1851
    1. The first English edition was published from proof sheets that appeared to be completed, but were not. The publisher did not know of Melville planned changes, so it was mistitled The Whale and the contents were not properly ordered. The triple-decker format, standard for nineteenth century novels, emphasizes “The Whiteness of the Whale” by using it to close the first volume.
  2. Herman Melville. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851. Melville 52 copy 2
    1. The first American edition, published with Melville’s final copy edits, was also a commercial failure. Fewer than 4,000 copies of the novel were sold in Melville’s lifetime. This copy has a signed letter by Melville tipped in.
  3. Unsigned review of The Whale. Athenaeum. Number 1252 (October 25, 1851): 1112-1113.
    1. London’s influential Athenaeum panned Moby-Dick. After an extensive catalog of the novel’s faults, the reviewer accused Melville of being “not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.
  4. Herman Melville. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. With an introduction by Alfred Kazin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956. Melville PS2384 .M62 1956b
    1. This is among the first editions of Moby Dick that clearly caters to a college market. Blurbs on the back emphasize Alfred Kazin’s introduction and the textual scholarship that makes this “an important edition of an American masterpiece” in a series “distinguished by its textual purity and authoritative editorial material.”
  5. Herman Melville. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. London: Penguin Books, 1985. Melville PS2384 .M62 1985
    1. The Penguin Classics edition tries to bridge the gap between a dry academic edition and a readable text. The cover art is active and stresses the action, but the introduction, commentary and notes occupy well over 400 pages, suggesting the reader will need help understanding the novel.


Case 2, Part 2. Adventure on the High Seas

A rousing good tale with exotic characters and locations, adventure, blood and violence: this story is good, and fun, too. Dynamic cover art tried to invite readers into the story by conveying Ahab’s madness and the whale’s fierceness. Melville’s meandering abstractness was deemed unnecessary to editors focused on enlarging the book’s potential audience. In many popular editions, the novel is stripped down to just the action scenes, in other cases, the novel is presented in full, but packaged and illustrated to accentuate the hunt.   

  1. Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, The White Whale. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1925. Melville PS2384 .M62 1925b
    1. Illustrated with scenes from the “Photoplay,” this edition (like the Big Little Book in the next case) is a tie-in to the first movie adaptation starring John Barrymore as a sensitive Ahab. Despite being advertised as the complete novel, it lacks the etymology and extracts.
  2. Herman Melville. Moby Dick. London: Rylee Classics, 1950. Melville PS2384 .M62 1950d 
    1. This abridged version hits the action with the first line, “I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpet-bag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific.”
  3. Herman Melville. Moby Dick. London: Collins, 1954. Melville PS2384 .M62 1954
    1. The inside jacket copy touts, “Moby Dick must be one of the greatest sea stories ever written. It is impossible to follow the course of the whaler, Pequod, out of Nantucket, round the Cape of Good Hope and into the Japanese seas without feeling you are one of that strange crew skippered by the mad Captain Ahab, scouring the seas to do battle with the most terrible whale known to whalemen—the great white whale—the living legend, Moby Dick.”
  4. Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, The White Whale. Illustrated by Mead Schaeffer. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co. 1923. Melville PS2384 .M62 1923
  5. Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, The White Whale. Philadelphia: Macrae, Smith and Co., 1924. Melville PS2384 .M62 1924
    1. Guns, a sword and a ship frame this distinctively strung-out Ahab.
  6. Herman Melville. Moby Dick, or, The White Whale. Illustrated by Anton Otto Fischer. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1931. Melville PS2384 .M62 1931b


Case 3. Coming of Age with Moby Dick

Moby-Dick is not a children’s book, but it can be a children’s story. Stripped of the novel’s philosophical digressions, Moby Dick becomes a mean and evil whale chased by a righteous Ahab. These simplifications have broader ramifications: Melville’s atmosphere of ambiguous and fluid sexuality is abandoned to reinforce social norms. The children’s books construct the story as a hypermasculine adventure tale for boys to share with their fathers, marketed alongside other male-centric works such as Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans.

  1. Herman Melville. Moby Dick. New York: J. H. Sears, 1928. Melville PS2384 .M62 1928d
    1. The “Father and Son Library” series, distributed by Sears Department Store, emphasized male bonding through literature. According to the introduction, nothing can “weld so strong a bond between father and son such as the reading of good books together.”
  2. Herman Melville and John Barrymore. The Story of Moby Dick: The Great White Whale. Racine, WI: Whitman, 1934. Melville PS2384 .M62 1934
    1. This Big Little Book is an adaptation of a 1926 silent film “The Sea Beast” starring John Barrymore. Most of the book concerns itself with the love triangle between a young Ahab, Ahab’s brother Dereck, and the preacher’s daughter Faith Mapple. Crippled by Moby Dick, Ahab believes he is no longer worthy of Faith, and he pursues the great white whale as vengeance for his doomed love while Dereck attempts to seduce Faith. After slaughtering Moby Dick, Ahab returns to New Bedford, where the patient Faith declares her love.
  3. Herman Melville. Moby Dick. Southport, CT: Joshua Morris Pub., 1985. Melville PS2384 .M62 1985c
    1. This picture book turns Ishmael into an adventurous young boy and portrays the white whale as “mean and evil,” but it does not undermine Ahab’s monomania or the violence of whaling.
  4. Herman Melville and Louis Zansky. Moby Dick. New York: Gilberton, 1951. Melville PS2384.M62 1950c
    1. The Classics Illustrated series claimed: “Each issue [is] a complete adaptation of an immortal gem of literature by the world’s greatest authors. Each page chock full of exciting—thrilling—chilling adventure.” Moby-Dick was available in a box set along with adaptations of masculine tales by Dumas, Scott and Cooper.
  5. Herman Melville. Moby Dick: The Story of the Great White Whale and the Men Who Hunted Him! New York: Dell Pub. Co., 1956. Melville PS2384.M62 1956d
    1. Derived from John Huston and Ray Bradbury’s 1956 film version, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, this is an adaptation of an adaptation. Despite the rousing adventure and violence of the story, a pledge on inside remarks that all Dell comics contain only “clean and wholesome entertainment.”
  6. Herman Melville and Emma G. Sterne, and Charles Andrès. Moby Dick. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956. Melville PS2384.M62 1956e
    1. In stamp books, sheets of stamps were enclosed with the text. Each stamp could be torn out and affixed to a specific page of the text, not only providing small color illustrations for each page, but also allowing young readers to help build the story.