American Collections blog

4 posts from January 2021

25 January 2021

Beyond the Exhibition: Unfinished Business – Curators' Lunchtime Session


Colour photograph of women holding placards
International Women's Day March Los Angeles 2017. Image © Molly Adams CCBY 2.0(1)

From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights.  

Although the physical exhibition space is currently closed due to lockdown restrictions, you can discover more about the stories, people and events that have shaped society, as well as the work that remains unfinished, through the exhibition web resource, podcast and fantastic series of online events.  

As part of this events series, on Friday 29 January curators will discuss women’s rights in Europe, the Americas and Oceania through items from their collection areas that they think deserve a spotlight.  

Looking beyond the UK focus of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights, the curators will be in conversation about their handpicked choices that speak to the themes of the exhibition and, in many cases, challenge and disrupt pre-conceptions of women’s activism, experiences and struggles for equality. 

This free, online event will take place on Friday 29 January 2021, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access. 

10 January 2021

or, The Whale

This is the third in our series on Moby-Dick, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon.  Today, our contributors will be telling us about their favourite editions (and adaptations) of Melville’s literary classic. We’ll also be finding out about how digital humanities projects shed light on Melville’s working processes and change our readings of familiar passages of text.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon is a 24-hour, cover-to-cover reading of Herman Melville’s iconic American novel. Editorial Nascimento and the British Library are proud to explore the impact and complex literary meanings of the novel while tuning in to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon.


What is your favourite edition of Moby Dick?

Morgane: I quite enjoy the Rockwell Kent edition for the stunning prints! [Editorial note: read more about Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for this edition.]

MD Rockwell Kent

Martina: The Northwestern Newberry edition has a groundbreaking editorial appendix for any readers of Moby-Dick, with some of Melville’s personal notes reprinted from his handwritten manuscripts and memoranda for further contextualization. I have dozens of Moby-Dick editions, works of rewrites for adults and children as well as filmic adaptations. Among the many 20th century rewrites, my favorite one is Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed. A Drama in Two Acts (1965), imagining a rehearsal of Moby-Dick as a poorly funded American theatre production at the end of the 19th century.

Moby_Dick_Rehearsed Cover
Orson Welles, Moby Dick Rehearsed. Martina's personal copy. Also at BL shelfmark X.908/3242.


Ed: I’m partial to tracking down translated editions as they usually yield something interesting. They enact, in a miniature way, the history of Moby-Dick more broadly as it gets refracted and changed into new and often bizarre forms as it metabolically interacts with history.

The first “translation,” for instance, was in French in 1853 but ended up being a creative appropriation more than anything else: the translator, who had helped to popularise Poe, turned it, in the course of only 25 pages, into an adventure story without any character by the name of Ishmael. There is, apparently, a missing Russian translation in a magazine from 1854, a journal which only seems to be held in two German libraries, however my attempts to get a hold of it have, so far, come to naught…Who knows, maybe Dostoevsky set eyes on it there!

These sorts of bowdlerisations have beset Moby-Dick as it has crossed borders and languages. Particularly egregious is the German translation of 1927 which managed, somehow, to omit “The Whiteness of the Whale,” which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a substantive slip…

Copies of a 2012 translation of Moby-Dick in Macedonian by Ognen Čemerski, a copy of which has been acquired by the British Librayr and will be catalogued in due course. Macedonia is a landlocked country and so Čemerski researched origins of Melville's maritime vocabulary and found comparable usages in Macedonian and other Slavic languages related to carpentry and similar crafts that were transferable to a maritime context. For more see

The translations of the 1930s and 1940s are particularly interesting to me, as they all stage, to some degree, a debate about fascism and totalitarianism. Cesare Pavese, a brilliant and tragic writer in his own right, translated it into Italian in the early 1930s at a moment where Mussolini was demanding that all culture tend towards the celebration of the nation-state. In this, the very fact of the translation stands out as a monument to an urge to freedom that otherwise could not be expressed, a celebration of a democratic, liberal culture that was then outlawed by thuggish party stooges.

Yet, it could also go the other way: Paul de Man, who would become a celebrated Deconstructionist literary critic, translated it, anonymously, into Flemish, around the same time that he was writing virulently anti-Semitic articles (which only surfaced after his death) and attempting to become the Minister for Culture under the invading Nazi regime. His is a strangely mute and equivocal one by all accounts, that seems to erase, appropriately enough given his later philosophy, its origins. Yet, revealingly, the etymologies, the first word of which is in Hebrew, are not included.

Speaking of which, the first Hebrew translation of 1952 which was done by a seemingly quite gregarious and eccentric man called Elijah Bortniker, is also interesting, not least as he had to invent a word for “whale,” which Hebrew, strictly, did not possess then. Similarly, he lifted words from Moby-Dick into Hebrew, like “contraband”, so it has left a permanent mark on the language.

MD Hebrew edition
First Hebrew edition of Moby-Dick, translated by Elijah Bortniker.

Scott: The Penguin Clothbound editions by Coralie Bickford-Smith are wonderful, if slightly fragile, but as a hoarder I try and collect them all; I’m not blind to the irony there in that obsessive behaviour while discussing Moby Dick!

Moby Dick Penguin editions
Scott's personal copy of the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of Moby-Dick, you can find this at shelfmark Nov.2014/1798

Christopher: I have two favourites which are intended for two different aesthetic experiences. The first is for deep reading: the 1967 Norton Critical Edition, which was edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. It was the first attempt to create a critical edition that reconciled the first American and British editions. It was the first edition I read cover to cover; it is so old and weathered that I had to use industrial tape to keep the pages and binding together, and almost every page is covered with my notes in red and black ink and pencil going back to my undergraduate days.

Norton edition

Norton edition
Christopher's well-worn and annotated personal copy of the 1967 Norton Critical Edition.

A great autodidact, Melville was an active and eccentric annotator of his books, so I tend to mimic his style of marginalia. (I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Melville to consult Melville’s Marginalia Online for evidence of his reading of texts ranging from the New Testament to Homer to Shakespeare, Milton, and Emerson.) The Norton Critical edition has helpful contextual notes, in addition to critical essays in the back of the book, including one that I consider to be one of the finest essays on Moby-Dick: Walter Bezanson’s “Moby-Dick: Work of Art” (1953).

My other favourite edition is the Melville Electronic Library digital edition (hereafter MEL), which I use for enriching my reading experience of the book. This edition, which I co-edit with John Bryant and Wyn Kelley with the support of Performant Software Solutions, has pop-up notes in the text that give further context and highlight the differences between the first American and British editions.


Spine and front cover of The Whale, London 1851, the first printing of Moby-Dick. Reproduced with kind permission of the Houghton Library, which hosts the Melville Electronic Library. A British Library copy can be found at shelfmark C.71.d.13.

Melville hired a private printer to set the set type and print proof sheets for the first American edition, published by Harper & Brothers, which represents what Melville wanted to publish at that time. But he also sent those proof sheets to the British publisher and made additional revisions to the text. It is therefore crucial to know that when Moby-Dick was published in 1851, there were two different books for two different audiences, an American audience that read Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, and a British one that read The Whale, a book that was censored and accidentally left out the Epilogue in which Ishmael explains that he was the only member of the Pequod to survive the wreck. Melville had complete control over his book until he handed it over to his British publisher, Richard Bentley. Bentley then changed various aspects of the text, including its coarse language, homoerotic scenes, and blasphemous passages. Therefore the British edition has mixed authority.

Left: Title page for the first American edition of Moby-Dick. Right: title page for the first British edition. Image: Melville Electronic Library.

The MEL edition makes it much easier for readers to examine the differences between these first editions. Take, for example, Ishmael’s famous rhetorical question, “Who ain’t a slave?” The British edition standardised his language to “Who is not a slave?”

Left: the first American edition of Moby-Dick. Right: the first British edition of The Whale which shows evidence of British censorship.

In Chapter 11 (“Nightgown”), after Ishmael compares Queequeg to a wife (“in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair”), the British publisher deleted the detail of their sensual moment in bed: “We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when, at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though day-break was yet some way down the future.”

Left: the first American edition of Moby-Dick. Right: the first British edition of The Whale which shows evidence of British censorship.

Readers of Melville now know his irreverence quite well, but the British edition removed several blasphemous passages, including this one from the end of Chapter 2 (“The Carpet-Bag”) with the bleak phrase starting “The universe is finished…”


The first American edition (top) of Moby-Dick, showing passages at the end of Chapter 2 “The Carpet-Bag” that were deleted from the British edition (marked in red), presumably for being blasphemous.

As the Melville Electronic Library digital edition notes in the text, Ishmael’s commentary on mid-nineteenth century wealth inequality compares the affordances (and our emotional responses) between a tight window that keeps the warmth inside and a sashless or ill-framed window that lets the frost come through. He then likens this difference to the Biblical characters Lazarus and Dives, the one chattering out in the cold and the other enjoying “a fine frosty night” from inside his warm room. Ishmael is calling upon Luke 16:19–23, where the homeless and sore-ridden Lazarus lies at the gates of a scornful rich man (elsewhere called Dives) begging for crumbs. When both die, Lazarus goes to heaven, and Dives burns in hell, begging Lazarus to send him water. But Melville’s British editor expurgated references to this and other Biblical parables throughout the novel.

You see a similar excision in Chapter 93 (“The Castaway”), after Melville’s remarkable Black character Pip goes overboard, and despite being rescued his mind is “drowned the infinite of his soul” by the sea and considered mad: “So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God” (American edition). The British edition removed the indifference of God, which robs this passage of its weightiness.

In the following instance is an interesting problem where it is unclear whether Melville or his British editor made a change. In Chapter 132 (“The Symphony”), in which Ahab delivers a soliloquy on the nature of his revenge, he asks himself in the first American edition (on the left): “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”


As you can see on the right, the British edition reads “Is it Ahab, Ahab? …” By adding “it”, the British edition matches the syntax of “Is it Ahab, Ahab?” with its subsequent sentence, “Is it I, God…?” And “Is it Ahab, Ahab?” completely changes the meaning of the original “Is Ahab, Ahab?” In the latter, he is doubting his own identity, and his agency, whereas in the former he seems to be questioning to himself a mysterious aspect of himself which may be false.

The standard Northwestern-Newberry edition (1988) printed the reading from the first American edition (“Is Ahab, Ahab?”), which is its authoritative base text, and it is impossible to know whether Melville added “it” in the British version (and this is a reasonable decision). MEL also gives that reading in its “base version.” However, in the spirit of its print prototype, John Bryant and Haskell Springer’s Longman Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, the MEL edition gives immediate access to the textual problems of the American and British versions in its notes.

This is what I love about the potentials of the MEL edition: we can have a direct engagement with Moby-Dick on multiple experiential levels. We are able to encounter what D. F. McKenzie called the bibliographic facts of each edition, the forms of which invite different meanings, as I hope the images above illustrate. We can also encounter the digital, searchable “Reading Text” with various textual and contextual notes in pop-ups and linked data that enrich our understanding of this complicated novel.

Why do you think Moby Dick remains so popular today?

Morgane: I think it must be because it is so open to interpretation, like James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Scott: I think the themes that play out so masterfully are as relevant today as ever, driving, burning obsession, vengeance, revenge, man’s relationship with the natural world, and the perception of Natures vengeance on Man’s exploitation. We can so easily see much of ourselves in these well-rounded characters. It also reminds me that as we become more environmentally conscious, it stands as a easily available, well-known insight to the horrors of whaling, or ‘Scientific research’ still ongoing today, and how far we still have to go.

Ed: I’m not sure that’s an answerable question in a general sense. There are probably answers to be found in particular local ecosystems of reading: in the United States, for instance, the answer is simply that it’s on numerous syllabi and has been accorded the status of “national classic” with all the cultural capital that accrues around such a designation. This would not apply in other communities of reading, of which there are many, around the world.

Martina: Even before Moby-Dick, the myth of the hunt for the white whale circulated as a maritime yarn amongst sailors in the early 19th century. This martime trope, which was taken up in a least four white whaling narratives prior in popular print literature, was intricately connected to masculinity, sexuality and rivalry.

J.N. Reynolds, Mocha Dick or the White Whale of the Pacific. This is the cover of the 1870 British reprint. This story originally appreared in 'The Knickerbocker', a literary magazine, in 1839 and partly inspired Herman Melville. The Knickerbocker can be found at shelfmark P.P.6240.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, British authors and American academics, established Moby-Dick’s reputation culminating in the Melville Revival. America’s motion picture industry quickly followed suit. In fact, Hollywood co-constructed Melville’s popularity in the global popular imagination. Elmer Clifton’s Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), set in New Bedford, references Moby-Dick on intertitles. Just a couple of years afterwards, Warner Bros. successfully spread the myth of the white whale with its international release of The Sea Beast (1926), Moby Dick (1930), and its German sound version Dämon des Meeres, which premiered at the Mozartsaal in Berlin in 1931.

Poster for Dämon des Meeres (Demon of the Sea), dir. Michael Curtiz and William Dieterle, 1931.

Throughout the 20th and early 21st century, numerous editions and versions of Moby-Dick continue to reaffirm its status as high literature, as much they have produced new perspectives on the global cultural trope as part of a vast, commercial Moby-Dick industry. With an increasing interest in white masculinity, America’s shifting position in the world, and the need for a more sustainable relationship with nature, Moby-Dick will continue to attract global readers for what it is: a masterpiece of literature.


That brings to an end our series celebrating the 25th anniversary of the New Bedford Musem of Whaling Moby-Dick Marathon.  We hope you have enjoyed watching the Marathon, and have learnt a few things about Melville's great white whale!

We’d like to thank all of our contributors - Pablo Georg-Nascimento, Morgane Lirette, Martina Pfeiler, Scott Ratiman Nolan, and Edward Sugden for their devotion to our literary blog-marathon.  Special thanks to Christopher Ohge and the Melville Electonic Library for permission to reproduce digitised images of the first British edition of Moby-Dick.  Thanks also to language cataloguers Lora Afric and Zuzanna Krzemien, and collections auditor Edward Horton for their assistance with Slavic language editions, and finding the mis-shelved Poe in the process!


Produced by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and presented by Editorial Nascimento in association with the British Library.

Written and compiled by Katerina Webb-Bourne, and Francisca Fuentes Rettig.

09 January 2021


We’re now on day two of our series devoted to exploring Moby-Dick in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual Moby-Dick Marathon.  This will be streamed live from 11.30am EST today (16.30 GMT). You can either watch this below, or by visiting the 2021 Moby-Dick Marathon official page

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon is a 24-hour, cover-to-cover reading of Herman Melville’s iconic American novel. Editorial Nascimento and the British Library are proud to explore the impact and complex literary meanings of the novel while tuning in to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon

In the collaborative spirit of the marathon, we’ll be handing over today and tomorrow’s blogs to other people to tell you about their experiences of reading what is now recognised as a literary classic (although this wasn’t always the case, as we will learn…). We hope you enjoy today’s blog and return tomorrow to find out even more about the book that just keeps giving.


Q: Hello! Please introduce yourself.

Kia ora, I’m Scott Ratima Nolan, I’m Māori from Aotearoa New Zealand, and I work here in the British Library as a Conservation Support Assistant, doing my part to protect our collections.





Martina Pfeiler Northwestern_Newberry

Hello, I’m Martina Pfeiler. I am a university scholar, teaching American literature and culture in Germany. I am currently working on the publication of Ahab in Love. The Creative Reception of Moby-Dick Popular Culture and have published articles on teaching Moby-Dick in Leviathan. A Journal of Melville Studies and, forthcoming, in the new Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville (2021).

Foto credit: Franziska Peters 


Christopher: I'm Christopher Ohge. I work as Lecturer in Digital Approaches to Literature, University of London School of Advanced Study; also I serve as Associate Director of the Melville Electronic Library.


Hi, I'm Morgane Lirette. I'm a book and paper conservator in the BLCC.  Not only do I love repairing the complex mechanical objects we call books, but I am also an avid reader!  When I'm not reading books about books (you think I'm joking) I still tend to stick to non-fiction, but every now and again I get the urge for a good story.



Sugden Author Photo


I’m Edward Sugden, I am a Senior Lecturer in American Literature at King’s College London. I am currently writing a trade biography of Moby-Dick which tracks its various movements around the world from its birth to the present day. I am also the author of Emergent Worlds which explores how American fiction 'remembers' histories that failed to come into being.



Right, onto the book!  When did you first read Moby-Dick?

Scott: I first read it as a fresher in University, I suspect more to make myself more appealing and literate to girls than any genuine interest. So while posing ostentatiously in a corner of the library, I surprised myself by making some headway on it, though I did struggle with it, probably as I approached it on less than noble intentions. 

Martina: I first read Moby-Dick as an ERASMUS exchange student at Roehampton University in November 1999. I bought the cheap Bantam Books edition by Charles Child Walcutt at the university bookstore, took it home with me and stayed up all night. I was struck by Melville’s poetic language as much as Ishmael and Queequeg’s intimate friendship, the narrator’s humor and universal mind-set. 

Morgane: Like many Americans (I’m from South Louisiana) I first read Moby-Dick in high school. I remember finding the story hard to handle. I think a bit of me was just sick of being assigned reading from the same perspective (male and white, namely... how many Hemingway novels can you fit on a high school syllabus? The answer: about 5 too many!). But I also found the whaling descriptions and the racism upsetting to such an extent that any other merits of the book or writing were lost on me.

Ed: It would have been in the summer of 2006 in the Penguin Classics edition. As an appropriately precocious young lad I decided to read it and Ulysses one after the other. I’m not sure how I managed it, given there was a World Cup that year.  

I struggled, in retrospect, to extract the conceptual elements of it, was stuck at the level of “theme,” but was energised by its beauty and lyricism. The first quote that stuck was “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God”.

Christopher: I have hazy memories of reading the plot-driven sections in high school. I first read it carefully in my second year of university, using the Norton Anthology of American Literature. I have carried that anthology with me as I moved from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area to London.


Norton edition
Christopher's well-worn Norton Anthology edition of Moby-Dick.  Copyright Christopher Ohge.

At the time I was a philosophy student, and taking early modern philosophy and existentialism courses. I then read Moby-Dick in a survey of American literature and thought, now this is good philosophy! We’ve got Descartian vortices [see the end of Chapter 35], Humean scepticism [Ishmael], Rousseauean noble savages [Queequeg], and Nietzschean supermen [Ahab]! I was young, and I was hooked (and I still read Melville as a philosophical writer). Melville created something unique in American literature––it contains Whitmanian multitudes, multiple genres and worldviews, constraining them all within the crowded space of a ship at sea filled with a global coterie of working class whale hunters. Harrison Hayford was the first to point out the ‘prisoner motif’ in the novel, suggesting that the drama in the narrative parallels how we make compelling narratives when we are trapped both physically and spiritually––what results is great art, but also something troubling about the nature of the mind.

On the basis of my enthusiasm, American literature professor Steven Olsen-Smith invited me to intern for his digital project Melville’s Marginalia Online. I still contribute to that project. Little did I know at the time that that internship would set the stage for my career.

What does Moby-Dick make you think about?

Scott: It makes me think of home. I wear a whalebone pendant made from the tooth of parāoa, the Sperm whale. It is a repository of my travels around the world, journeying afar as the whales do, a misconstrued oversimplification of the phrase ‘Ko ahau te tohorā, te tohorā ko ahau’ (I am the whale, and the whale is me). It also reminds me of the importance of Maori ideals of kaitiakitanga, the sustainable way we live with the natural world and the environment, and how we need to be far more conscious of our own actions and their affects. 

Ed: What I like about Moby-Dick is that, when I read about it, I think about nothing else other than itself: it’s a rare book that is absolutely self-sustaining on its own terms, particularly because its reach is ambitious and generous enough to contain almost everything worth knowing. It feels more real than reality. Perhaps, these days, total immersion in a text is nigh on impossible, but I get close to something like that in the key passages of Moby-Dick, where the sheer density of the prose provides an imaginative ecosystem where I can reside, the words my oxygen, albeit temporarily. 

Martina: Moby-Dick makes me think about the function of literature, its specificity, and about imaginative freedom of expression. The book is a gigantic vessel filled with words from the Bible, Shakespeare, maritime folklore, Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, etc.  It also makes me think of globalization, Native American genocide, U.S. politics, whiteness and masculinity, the irresponsible role of human leadership on this planet. 

Beale Habits Sperm Whale
Thomas Beale, A Few Observations on the Natural History of the Sperm Whale: with an account of the rise and progress of the fishery, etc. General Reference Collection 728.f.19. DRT Digital Store 728.f.19.

Who is your favourite character?

Ed: Pip, after he falls into the water. He’s the most philosophically profound of the lot, a Tom o’ Bedlam of the oceans and I’m not sure anyone has caught up to his insights as of yet (though there is an interesting take on him by the African American artist Ellen Gallagher whose “Bird in Hand” gets closest to capturing his oneiric and historical energy.)

Morgane: I was rooting for Moby the whole way through.

Scott: Can I say Moby Dick? The first time I really liked the character of Starbuck, but the second time round it was all Ahab. Villains always get the best lines don’t they! I’m not the first or last to draw comparisons of Milton’s Lucifer to Melville’s Ahab, and I love (if am also appalled by) his relentlessness, a kind of internal fire that reminded me slightly of Tolkien’s Fëanor. Even the scars on his body fascinate me.

Ahab Rockwell Kent
Ahab as depicted by Rockwell Kent in the 1930 Lakeside Press edition. 3 Vols, British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1.

Oddly, I didn’t connect with Queequeg, despite the real-life connections to Te Pēhi Kupe. In fact I was horrified by his casual selling of Toi Moko, the tattooed heads of Māori, which did happen at that time; nonetheless, his character is superbly written, and comes across as one of the best, most selfless.

Martina: Ishmael. He probes the meaning of life and the meaning of the fictional representation of life. It is only through a collision of both worlds that he survives and is able to pass on his epic narrative. But: Queequeg is much cooler and wiser than Ishmael. 


What is your favourite passage and why?

Morgane: I think the passages I’d most want to go back to would be natural science-y ones, because that sort of “non-fiction in fiction” idea really appeals to the reader I’ve become. I love the history of science and technology, and Moby-Dick is the by-product of a fantastic era in those histories. This is the post-Enlightenment era which gives us Darwin, the Industrial Revolution and, I think, the birth of science communication in real terms. I've been known to link anything and everything to papermaking and printing, and here I see another delicious opportunity to do so. Could Melville have ever written Moby-Dick without access to Darwin and his contemporaries? I doubt so, and those texts were only widely accessible due to mechanised, industrial papermaking and printing.

1979 Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick with illustrations of Melville’s 'folio' of whales in which he arranges them by folio, quarto, octavo, and so on, a playful homage to the 19th century works of natural science that influenced the writing of the book. Illustrations and copyright Barry Moser. Shelfmark C.105.k.4.

The books from that era can be real headaches for us conservators due to cheap materials and manufacture, but their cheapness itself helped disseminate scientific and technological information, literature and news of the day on an unprecedented scale. I'd like to think that Melville had this shift in collective conscious in mind when planning the novel. I can imagine myself enjoying those snapshots back in time from a history of science/technology point of view. As much as it would be interesting to see how far we've come in our understanding of the natural world, I'm sure the passages would equally illuminate how limited our current understanding is still. Which I suppose is one novel's themes, right?

Christopher: “The Whiteness of the Whale,” “The Quarter-Deck,” and “The Doubloon” chapters are still my favourites. “The Whiteness of the Whale” is a work of philosophical wonderment, whereas the other chapters are simply entertaining, with Ahab taking up all the oxygen, like Milton’s Satan. How can you beat the rhapsodic, gnomic brilliance of the conclusion to “The Whiteness of the Whale”? Generations of scholars continue to unpack and debate the significance of these intuitions.

Martina: I particularly enjoy all chapters set in New Bedford, especially Ch. 3 “The Spouter-Inn” and Ch. 10 “A Bosom Friend”. Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter is great learning lesson against cultural prejudices. Only by confronting these stereotypes and overcoming them with great sense of humor, can human friendship evolve into its most affectionate form, regardless of one’s gender, ethnic, social, and religious context. Ishmael nails it when he says: “What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself--the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Scott: It’s a tough one, but I would say chapter 61: “Stubbs Kills a Whale.” This is because it’s the first real action sequence in the book. The vividness of the hunt really places you there, oar in hand, rowing madly towards this giant of the oceans, and the sadness of its death.

Harpooned Whale
Piscium vivæ icones in æs incisæ et editæ ab A. Collardo, General Reference Collection 436.b.24.(3.) DRT Digital Store 436.b.24.(3.)

Ed: I’ve got a long-standing love of the “loom of time” passage from “The Mat-Maker”—rather like when Pip gets submerged in the water, it’s one of those moments where you can see Melville at the very edges, and perhaps beyond, of the expressible. I also love the metaphor of the oyster Ishmael uses: he suggests our perception might be as limited as that of the oyster who little imagines that there can be anything beyond the viscous water it finds itself in.

History of the oyster
T.C. Eyton, (Thomas Campbell, A history of the oyster and the oyster fisheries. General Reference Collection 1256.g.5. DRT Digital Store 1256.g.5.


Obsession: good or bad?  Discuss.

Scott: Oh definitely bad. A captain has a responsibility to his men and his ship. Ahab not only loses his ship, but brings death to not only himself but the entire crew of the Pequod, save for Ishmael, even the morally strong figure of Starbuck does not survive. And furthermore, it’s pointless, as Righteous Vengeance, in the form of taniwha Moby Dick survives. I felt that in the relentless pursuing of Moby Dick, even after the first encounter and the death (and subsequent horrifying visualisation of Fedallah dragged behind the whale) they were clearly outmatched from the start, is symbolic of the worst characteristics in humanity, obsession mixed with arrogance.

Harpooned Whale
Illustration by Stewart Lizars, The Natural History of the ordinary Cetacea or Whales. In The Naturalist's Library. Shelfmark 1150.a.4

Martina: Depends. If it is self-harming or harming others, then it is evidently bad. However, some spark, some drive, some passion, mixed with a healthy mode of obsession can turn out as a game-changer in one’s relationship with oneself and society, if not the universe. We are complex human beings with little access to our own motivations.

Herman Melville. , ca. 1860. Photograph.

Did Moby-Dick change how you think about oceans and the natural world?

Christopher: I did not initially read much into the ecological implications of the book, but over time it has become clearer to me that Melville, like Thoreau, was a forceful critic of rapacious capitalism, particularly in its forms of slavery and environmental degradation. The work of Richard J. King (Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick, 2020) in particular offers helpful tools for thinking about the natural world in Melville, which he calls ‘blue ecocriticism’.

Morgane:I think what stood out to me most theme-wise as a teenager and still stays with me today is the idea of human hubris in the face of the awesome natural world. Growing up on the Gulf Coast, the water was never far from my mind. Hurricanes are an annual threat, I was witnessing land loss first-hand due to the man-made strangulation of the Mississippi River and still today if you push a surface-level bit of sand with your toes in Grande Isle, Louisiana you’ll be met with black, oil-stained sand from the BP oil spill in 2010. I feel super protective over our natural heritage no doubt because of my lived and inherited experiences, and perhaps Moby-Dick could have played a role in developing that part of my personality. I’ve never really thought about it, but how could it have not?

Cocodrie dawn
Cocodrie, Louisiana at dawn. Copyright Morgane Lirette.

Scott: It did! I even attempted to join Sea Shepherd, the Anti-Whaling group. Sadly they did not reply to my email. I can’t imagine how helpful I would have been! I always interpreted Moby Dick as a Taniwha, a manifestation of a protective guardian, or Kaitiaki, a punishment for the destructive overexploitation of the children of Tangaroa. The Whale has always been seen as chiefly by my people, and should one beach and pass, it is a gift from Tangaroa, to be respected, and buried with karakia, or prayer. Needless to say I much enjoyed the destruction of the Pequod, and of the crew. But I also enjoyed Melville’s vivid descriptions of both ship-board life and sailing on the oceans. Both Melville and Patrick O’Brian have much to blame for my overly-romanticised notions of the sea.

Martina: Oh, yes! Moby-Dick reads like a 19th century slaughterhouse with a mad captain on top of it! It is deeply philosophical in its outlook on the archaic trope of man against nature, in addition to making the competitive forces of capitalism visible in the character of Starbuck and the various whaling ships that the Pequod encounters on its voyage. The threat of the extinction of whales is looming over the book.

Whaling Apparatus
William Scoresby the Younger. An Account of the Arctic Regions, with a history and description of the Northern Whale-Fishery. Shelfmark: G.2603 vol. II

Ed: On the first reading, I think it opened up a metaphorical language for speaking about oceans and nature for me. As a would-be poet—don’t ask—then I, of course, was no stranger to somewhat tortuous similes about oceans and the like, but Moby-Dick offered me something more substantive.

Since then one reading that has grown in prominence in my mind is that the book is not really an American epic, as such, but rather an epic about the tragic conflict between humans and nature under the regime of extractive capitalism. There’s an argument to be made that it’s the fictional equivalent to Marx’s Capital in this regard. It’s about how humans destroy the very things they depend on for life. That’s the tragic conflict, the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of it.

Finally, have you ever seen a whale?

Scott: Yes! But only for a second. I was walking along the shorefront in Kaikoura, in New Zealand, busily engaged in my own internal dialogue, when I saw out of the corner of my eye, something vast leap out of the sea. It was so quick that by the time I fixed my eye upon the area, I only saw a glimpse of the flukes splashing down. So just a glimpse, but enough to crow about for some time.

Morgane: Only in captivity - which always left me very sad. However, I’ve been fortunate to see plenty of other wild cetaceans like porpoises and dolphins off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ed: I imagine I saw poor old Shamu, or a distant descendent, when I visited SeaWorld as a child…

Christopher: Yes, during a whale watch in Massachusetts Bay while I was studying in Boston. I was so sea-sick I could barely appreciate them; I had to mainline ginger chews for several hours to overcome my nausea. That gave me some perspective on the difficulty of the enterprise Melville described. I would not have lasted as long!

Martina: Yes. Around three years ago, I finally decided to take a whale watching tour off the coast of São Miguel on the Azores. Our crew spotted some whales spouting in the distance. We could barely see them but could hear them breathing air through their lungs. They looked so well adapted to the ocean, intermingling with it, and they seemed to ask us what in the world we were doing there on our ship. When I asked the captain why he named his ship Moby Dick. He said: “Oh, because everyone knows Moby Dick!” And he is right. Moby-Dick is "not only ubiquitous, but immortal", but they are best left alone.

Two whale fins, Boston, MA. Credit Ajay Sureshi, Creative Commons licence.


Join us again tomorrow as we continue exploring Moby-Dick through various editions over the years, from the very first printing to digital iterations that you can explore from home.


Produced by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and presented by Editorial Nascimento in association with the British Library.

Written and compiled by Katerina Webb-Bourne, and Francisca Fuentes Rettig.


08 January 2021

25 Years of the Moby-Dick Marathon

Did you know it's the 25th anniversary of the @whalingmuseum's Moby-Dick Marathon this weekend? Dig out your favourite edition of Herman Melville's sprawling epic and join the New Bedford Whaling Museum for a live-stream of this collaborative reading beginning Saturday at 11.30am EST (16.30 GMT), and partake in the conversation on the @britishlibrary twitter feed using #mobydickmarathon.

2021 MD Marathon
Logo 25th Anniversary Moby Dick Marathon

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon is a 24-hour, cover-to-cover reading of Herman Melville’s iconic American novel. Editorial Nascimento and the British Library are proud to explore the impact and complex literary meanings of the novel while tuning in to the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon.

To celebrate this anniversary, we will be posting a series of Moby-Dick related blogs over the weekend. Pulling together these posts has proven to be an endeavour that is worthy of the book itself, bringing in a wide assortment of characters, thematic deviations, and book histories: basement staff who went delving through our holdings of Moby-Dick editions (during which a “missing” Poe edition was rediscovered!); language cataloguers who spent time digging into interesting translated editions with their own unique histories; publishers, academics and Moby-Dick aficionados whose lives have been irrevocably influenced by Melville’s words and ideas.

We hope that you enjoy these posts, and revel in the range of stories and resources that they introduce you to. Opening the series is a post from Pablo George-Nascimento, director of Editorial Nascimento. Pablo follows the multiple threads between the publishing company established by his great grandfather, New Bedford, whaling, Moby-Dick, and the British Library.

“What surprised me the most, as I relaunched my old family publishing house more than a century after my great grandfather (Manuel Carlos George-Nascimento - a.k.a. Don Carlos) had opened it in Santiago de Chile, was just how well known the Nascimento name still was, and not only among bibliophiles.

Don Carlos
Don Carlos, founder of Editorial Nascimento

Our presentation in the auditorium of the British Library went amazingly well, lasting nearly eight hours with interest bubbling until the end. Something special engaged the audience's attention. It was hard to know whether that was the famous authors in the Nascimento back catalogue or the story of the publisher himself, whose journey to publishing stardom was both a novel and a poem in itself. Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that having Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Nicanor Parra, two Nobel Prize winners and one nominee, on the list of your ‘discoveries' will never be bad for your legacy.

Gabriela Mistral
Gabriela Mistral, Chile's first Nobel Laureate in literature

Don Carlos was born on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, half way between Europe and America, He had dreamed of going to Chile since he was a young boy, to work with an uncle who had emigrated there and opened a famous bookshop in 1873: the Libreria Nascimento. His love for books was fostered by his brother, a parish priest, who had built a substantial library in the house. But the thing that stoked the young man's ambition most was his father's adventures alongside another famous whaler, Herman Melville. Throughout his life, Don Carlos often called this his greatest source of inspiration for his love of books.

CARLOS LOURENÇO JORGE (whaler portrait)
Carlos Lourenço Jorge, Don Carlos’ father, a whaler who was credited by Herman Melville at the time of publishing Moby Dick.

Of eleven siblings, nine left the Portuguese Azores for the USA from the mid-1800s onwards. All of them arrived first in New Bedford. Don Carlos’ priestly brother, Francisco Lourenço,  became the parish priest of the Azorean whalers in the city.

New Bedford & Fairhaven map
Map of New Bedford and Fairhaven. By Robert G. Ingraham. Scale of feet, 3,000[ = 101 mm]. Cartographic Items Maps 73435.(81.)


Don Carlos was the only one to head to South America. After adventures and disappointments, eventually, in 1917, he opened the first publishing house in Latin America, in Santiago de Chile.  He kept the book manufacturing process in house by building a printing factory. Some of the most beautiful and innovative designs worldwide came out of Nascimento.

Crepusculario limited edition
Limited edition Editorial Nascimento 1937 of Pablo Neruda's 'Crepusculario'. The British Library holds the 4th edition at shelfmark X.908/23180.

The greatest artists of the period worked at Nascimento and, during his lifetime, Don Carlos built a catalogue of more than 6,500 titles, which included the first women authors at a time when women were still unable to vote. Gabriela Mistral, Marta Brunet, Maria Luisa Bombal, Teresa Wilms Montt and Maria Monvel are but a few of them.

Montana Adentro - Marta Brunet
Marta Brunet 'Montaña Adentro', 1923 Editorial Nascimento. Shelfmark X.908/85120.

Don Carlos surpassed his wildest ambitions. When he died in 1966, Nascimento had 35 of the 37 National Literature Awards on its catalogue, and had published Neruda's Twenty Love Poems, which has been the best selling poetry book in the history of the Spanish language.

Who would have ever imagined that this young Portuguese immigrant, born of a whaling and navy family going back more than 500 years, could have become such an important figure in world publishing? His vision was such that, every month, he would pack boxes with his latest publications and post them to the world's leading libraries, including the British Museum library. These went on to have a home in the British Library following its formation in 1973.

Poemas y Antipoemas - Nicanor Parra
Nicanor Parra, 'Poemas y Antipoemas', Editorial Nascimento, 1954

Today we are proud to knit this story together again. Nascimento was reborn in Chile and now in the UK with a series of innovative projects encompassing books, art books, performing arts and digital creations. With the imminent centenary celebrations of Neruda's and Mistral's first books, from 2023 we will be hosting a series of events and publishing a number of carefully selected limited artistic editions from our original back catalogue.

We start by bringing you a celebration of the most famous book of that period: the Moby-Dick Marathon. The New Bedford Whaling Museum celebrates the 25th anniversary of this 24-hour-long annual event held in the museum. Editorial Nascimento have previously worked with the Museum to produce a simultaneous Portuguese language version of the marathon.

New Bedford Whaling Museum logo
New Bedford Whaling Museum logo

This year, in these unique circumstances, the Moby-Dick Marathon moves online, giving many thousands the chance to share this intimate occasion. In association with the British Library we bring you this unique opportunity to take part in this non-stop reading.”

Join the Americas blog again tomorrow to hear from more people about how Moby Dick has influenced them, and join in watching the livestream of the Moby-Dick Marathon.

Prodcued by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and presented by Editorial Nascimento in association with the British Library.