Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

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.