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Happy Birthday, Moby-Dick!

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Moby-Dick was published in England on October 18, 1851 (its United States publication fell almost one month later, on November 14). And in the one and a half centuries since, it has inspired countless new creations by painters, playwrights, musicians, writers, and even tattoo artists. In honor of the White Whale’s birthday, I have decided—like Herman Melville’s own sub-sub-librarian—to share “a glancing bird’s-eye view of what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied, and sung of Leviathan” since Moby-Dick’s first appearance in 1851.

Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick
Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick; a Leviathan of a book at 15" tall

Two of my favorite illustrated editions of Moby-Dick are held in NYPL’s Rare Book Division. Arion Press’s 1979 edition, bound in blue morocco, is printed on paper that, when seen on edge, reminds me of pale blue roiling seas.

The text block of the Arion Press edition.
The text block of the Arion Press edition, with its choppy seas of paper.

And inside, Melville's words appear in blue and black ink alongside evocative and also very informative illustrations by artist Barry Moser. Here are Moser's illustrations of what Melville has classified as "folio" whales. Melville grouped whales according to format, just like books (folio, quarto, octavo, etc.), which is a joke that warms this rare book librarian's heart!

Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick with Barry Moser illustrations
Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick with Barry Moser illustrations

Another iconic edition was published by Lakeside Press in 1930, with dramatic illustrations by none other than Rockwell Kent. But even before opening the volume, the publisher’s cloth binding, with our whale hero/villain  in silvery silhouette, takes your breath away with toothy ferociousness.

Rockwell Kent's cover design for Moby-Dick
Rockwell Kent's cover design for Moby-Dick on the Lakeside Press edition
Rockwell Kent's illustration of Moby-Dick
Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick, with Rockwell Kent's illustrations

Above is Rockwell Kent's vision of the whale's "peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead" and "pyramidical white hump." And below, Kent pictures possible consequences of the whaleman's commitment to "a dead whale or a stove boat."

Rockwell Kent's illustration of Moby-Dick
Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick, with Rockwell Kent's illustrations

Beyond the Rare Book Division, you’ll find other editions in the Library’s collections that make the story come alive for new audiences. Children can explore the tale in a picture book by Jan Needle, and even littler ones can chew on the tale in a board book filled with woolly sculpted illustrations by Jack and Holman Wang. There’s also a graphic novel edition of the tale by Lance Stahlberg to check out.

Some writers have adapted the novel for new media as well. Orson Welles wrote a drama of the tale for the stage.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles's Moby-Dick, 1962. Image ID: 5128335

There’s also an opera too, which I’d love to see. The British poet Henry Reed wrote a radio play of Moby-Dick (read the preface here and read the entire play here). And of course there's the film, with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury. Moby-Dick has inspired new novels too, including Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab's Wife, with illustrations by Christopher Wormell.

Artists of all kinds, from Frank Stella and Richard Ellis to Led Zeppelin and the writers of The X-Files, have been riffing on Melville’s tale for years. To learn more about Moby-Dick-inspired artwork, I recommend Elizabeth Schultz’s Unpainted to the Last, as well as Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish.

Want to dive into the deep end of Moby-Dick? You might first dip a toe in by reading Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick?, and then immerse yourself in Hershel Parker’s two-volume biography to learn everything you’d like to know about author and whaleman Herman Melville.

So, why do we love Moby-Dick so much? I suspect we each have our own answer to this question. For me, immersing myself in its insane questing, its laugh-out-loud humor, its surprising inventions of word and phrase that beg to be read aloud, its portrayal of an industry wholly foreign to me, and its confident embrace of unexpected literary forms became a watershed experience that has only been sharpened by talking about the novel with others who love it too. No matter what draws each of us in, it’s a powerfully inspiring source text, and we’re happy that it exists in so many versions and visions here at the Library. We wish this unforgettable novel and its “fast fish” a happy birthday! Celebratory whale cake, anyone?

Rockwell Kent's cover design for Moby-Dick
Rockwell Kent's cover design for Moby-Dick, with its unforgettably finny spine

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