#CoverStories: Moby Dick

#CoverStories: Moby Dick

Giovanni Blandino Published on 6/19/2024

Some books contain stories that are now part of us.

We may not have actually picked up and read these books, but we know the adventures and personalities of their characters inside out: they have become part of popular culture. Moby Dick is undoubtedly one of these books.

It’s the story of Captain Ahab who, aboard the whaler Pequod, sails the seas on a quest for vengeance: he wants to find and kill Moby Dick, the white whale that bit off his leg. Published in 1851, Moby Dick was initially a commercial failure, to the great disappointment of its American author, Herman Melville. At the time of his death in 1891, the book was out of print – the sure sign of a literary flop.

Who knows, perhaps his writing style was too far ahead of its time? But in any case, it was only in the early years of the next century that his book began to be rightfully recognised as a masterwork, and slowly but surely became a bestseller around the world. Today, Moby Dick is considered to be among the greatest novels ever written.

In this article, we tell the story of Moby Dick through its covers: the most significant, the most beautiful and… the most trivia-worthy. All aboard the Pequod!

The first editions in English: two different titles, two different covers

1851. The American first edition, left, and the British first edition, right, each with a different title. Images: abebooks.co.uk; whitmorerarebooks.com

As we’ve learnt from previous articles, 19th-century book covers were not the most creative  – we saw this in the covers of Alice in Wonderland and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But interesting anecdotes often lie behind covers and titles.

Moby Dick is no exception: Melville changed his mind at the last minute  about what to call his masterpiece. The original title was simply The Whale. Some have speculated that this rethink came about because around the time of the book’s first publication in 1851, a similarly titled book had just been published.

We still don’t know really happened. But the fact remains that Melville promptly wrote to his publishers, asking them to change the titles to both the American and British editions. But it was too late for the latter. And so the first 500 copies published by Bentley in the United Kingdom were simply entitled The Whale. And that wasn’t the only difference between the two editions: there was no epilogue in the British edition and various other details were changed – something that enraged the author!

Rockwell Kent’s iconic prints

Some covers and illustrations make such an impression that they become indelibly linked with a book for generations. That’s the case with the Rockwell Kent prints used to illustrate Moby Dick for the first time in the 1930 American edition.

The cover for the 1930 Moby Dick edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent and published by Random House. Image: abaa.org

Published by Random House, this splendid book has a dark cloth-bound cover featuring the title in elegant silver type and an evocative illustration of the famous whale on the front, back and spine.

The book contains about 300 prints by Rockwell Kent, an artist considered, at least in America, among the most important of the early 20th century because of his innovative approach to depicting nature and adventure. That very same year, an even more lavish collector’s edition – divided into three volumes and containing all of Kent’s prints – was published by Chicago Lakeside Press.

A selection of the prints found in the 1930 deluxe edition of Moby Dick published by Lakeside press. Images: philamuseum.org (© Plattsburgh State Art Museum, State University of New York, USA, Rockwell Kent Collection, Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton, all rights reserved).

The edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent was published around the world and is regularly re-released. And his prints have been and continue to be used on countless covers of the book, including the paperback cover for the Penguin Classics edition.

Rockwell Kent’s illustrations on various covers for Moby Dick. From left to right: the Penguin Classics paperback edition, a 1977 German edition and the 2000 Modern Library Classics edition.

Small details can say a lot

So well known is the story of Moby Dick that sometimes only a couple of details are all it takes to make the book immediately recognisable, as these minimalist covers for Melville’s classic prove.

From left to right: the cover of the 1947 Oxford University Press edition, the Italian stage-play edition published by Italo Svevo Edizioni and the deluxe Penguin edition. Images: themobydickcollection.blogspot.com; italosvevo.it; cb-smith.com

Here we have the cover for an edition published by Oxford University Press in 1947, featuring an outsized harpoon and a stylised whale. In Italy, Italo Svevo Edizioni released an edition with a cover created by cover designer Maurizio Ceccato [we interviewed him a few years ago about his work]. For the stage-play edition of Moby Dick, adapted by Orson Welles, Ceccato opted for a single graphical detail – the whale’s tale – and the opening lines of the script.

Harpoons and whales were also the graphical details used by cover designer Coralie Bickford-Smith to create the contemporary pattern that adorns the cloth-bound cover of Penguin’s deluxe edition [we already came across this series in our look at covers for The Little Prince].

Also decidedly minimalist is the cover for the 2007 Chinese edition. What do you think?

The 2007 Chinese edition of Moby Dick. Image: themobydickcollection.blogspot.com

Attacking the white whale

One of the book’s most iconic scenes sees captain Ahab and his men leave the Pequod and pursue the hated white whale in their whaleboat. In Melville’s book, these scenes come in the final chapters, after pages and pages of build-up and detail on the nature of whales (which modern readers may find hard going). Yet the adventurousness of the scene makes it an obvious and popular choice for the cover. So, in an array of styles and languages, here is a selection of covers featuring Ahab’s whaleboat in hot pursuit of Moby Dick.

First we have the comic-book style cover for a Penguin Classics edition and a German cover from the seventies with Ahab to the fore.

Images: amazon.it; themobydickcollection.blogspot.com

Then we have the same scene on a 1968 German edition with almost childlike pen lines. It’s the work of Günther Stiller, a German graphic designer and artist prolific in the fifties and sixties. To the right we have a comic-book edition from Lebanon and published in 1993.

Images:: buchfreund.de; noor-book.com

Below, left is a superb American cover from the seventies that suggests Moby Dick may be lurking beneath the surface: is it the white whale or just shadows on the water? To the right is an Icelandic edition from publishers Almenna Bokafelagid with a cover drawn by Torfi Jonsson.

Images: seymourchwastarchive.com; 3.bp.blogspot.com

The strangest Moby Dick cover

Last, but not least, is the oddest Moby Dick cover that we’ve come across.

Image: hekatepublishing.com

Is it real? Is that bunch of fifties American high-school students supposed to be Ahab and his crew? And the little dog the white whale?

The New York Times included this dust jacket in a selection of the best Moby Dick covers, but with no further information other than its publisher, Books, Inc. If it were indeed real, it would at least confirm that the tale of Ahab and his hunt for the white whale truly is universal!

What about you? Do you have a favourite Moby Dick cover that we haven’t shown here?