Prof. Carol Ann Johnston

Author: marykane

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale: Audience

According to the Reception theory of literature, audiences actively construct texts they read by bringing their unique interpretations, experiences, and judgements to their examination — Moby-Dick; or, the Whale is a fitting example of how perceptions of a book may skew its meaning and cultural value (Jauss). Specifically, the life of Moby Dick demonstrates how intended audiences shift based on certain aspects of the physical book and the cultural moments in which it was distributed. In this blog post, I will explore the intended versus actual demographics of readership of Moby Dick as it was published in its time, then hone in on the Arion Press editions of the book before examining the specific copy in the Dickinson Archives.

Moby Dick is filled with an unyielding level of detail in terms of whaling and intense moments from adventures at sea. When Melville set out to create this novel, his intended audience would be mentally worthy of handling scenes that detail the gory battles of whale hunting, or the complete madness and obsession of Ahab. Prior to the publication of his book, Melville warned his friend Sarah Morewood, “It is not a piece of fine feminine Spitalfields silk – but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hausers … Warn all gentle fastidious people from so much as peeping into the book – on risk of a lumbago & sciatics.” (“Moby-Dick.”). Although this comment is inferred to be made in a joking manner, ( Melville was not explicitly a feminist, but themes of femininity in a positive light were tied into nature and the presentation of several characters), his perceived audience was not composed of females — or “gentle fastidious people” — whose tastes were “too sensitive” for this book. Rather, more broadly, Melville’s intended audience would be progressive-minded people who could mentally handle depictions of gay marriage and subversions of gender norms. This may be why Moby Dick experienced a revival in the 1920s — more people were becoming comfortable with breaking conventions with the explosion of the “New Era” (Routledge).  Therefore, the cultural value of this book has shifted and increased as societal mindsets evolved, hence Moby Dick’s new status as a masterwork of literature. 

Moreover, the front matter of the book details the findings of a “sub-sub librarian,” serving as a comedic fragment Melville included to indirectly engage in conversation with the audience (as seen in the front matter pictured here). This librarian is a thinly disguised representation of himself, considering he compiled the thorough references to whales (touching on their symbolic meaning that will be expanded upon) in past literature. However, at the time of publication, the public was widely unaccepting of Moby Dick. In a way, Melville may have undermined his credibility with his readers by introducing the self-deprecating sub-sub librarian. This epic work was a strict departure from the light-hearted adventures of his previous publications, and the playful introduction may have reinforced readers’ expectations that they were heading into an easy read about an adventure at sea. The harsh criticism and limited profitability negate Melville’s assumption of widespread admiration for his tragic work. Unfortunately, the failure of what he considered his magnum opus eventually led to the downfall of his career as a writer (Lagasse). 

Furthermore, the Printer’s (also referred to as the AP) and California Deluxe editions of Moby Dick were not produced for high school students to fulfill their mandatory reading. Rather, the high-quality Printer’s edition was created for someone who enjoys revisiting the tale of Captain Ahab and his obsession with the white whale. The hefty price suggests that the reader must also appreciate the minute elements that establish the character of a physical book. The intended audience could range from passionate book collectors to university archives; currently on sale for $10,000 – $15,000, this book has become a valuable cultural product (“Arion Press Moby Dick, Printer’s Copy.”). On resale sites, the price increases to $25,000 (“Moby Dick or, the Whale.”). Therefore, this edition is not used for constant rereading, bookmarking, and dog-earing. Rather, the book is representative of the appreciation of the storytelling and act of creation of the physical book — it could serve as a centerpiece or a lavish adornment to a coffee table. The thought put into this book is representative of the significance this book holds in our culture, widely considered one of the greatest American novels. Components including the size, quality of paper, condition of the binding, and presence of thoughtful, handcrafted details all signify that this edition is worthy of that prestige, a tribute to Melville’s success that was deserved when he was alive. 

The original publication of the book indicates the intended success of Moby Dick. Released in the UK and America, the first edition

First Edition of Moby Dick

First edition of Moby Dick, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1851

was a work of art in itself with golden gilt binding, however, the book was sold for $1.50 when published in 1851 (Kuhl). Although the book was not published cheaply, only 915 copies were printed in Melville’s lifetime. A helpful comparison is made to the print run of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published a year after Moby Dick, which “ sold 10,000 copies in 2 weeks” (Kuhl). The failure to sell copies reflects the notion that the audience of the time completely shapes the value of the book. However, as literary tastes developed, the book gained popularity and appreciation, as seen in Arion Press’s homage to Melville’s accomplishment. 

The California Deluxe edition has an intended audience similar to the Printer’s edition. The most prominent difference between the two is that the California Deluxe edition possesses photographic representations of the original. Moreover, this edition is slightly smaller with a cloth cover rather than goat skin. The size of the book still denotes an elevated status, one that deserves a spot in a prized collection or on display despite being less expensive than the Printer’s edition. Currently, copies of this edition are being sold on online marketplaces like Abebooks, on which prices range from $250 to $1,726, depending on the condition, denoting a dedicated audience that holds a deep admiration for bookmaking (“Moby Dick or, the Whale.”). The copies available for purchase are being sold by independent bookstores instead of individuals. This suggests that private owners may be reluctant to sell their books or are utilizing alternative sales methods.

Trade Edition

California Deluxe Edition

Arion Press also released a trade edition that was produced to transfer these finely crafted books into the hands of the public. With this, the audience has shifted to individuals who enjoy reading, but who are unwilling to spend more extreme sums on a single book. This edition was more economically reasonable due to its decreased size, all black rather than blue ink, and thinner paper. This edition aligns with Melville’s intended audience, which was likely a large portion of the population with progressive minds who will thoroughly enjoy the book for its thrill and thoughtfulness.

In terms of the California edition that Dickinson currently owns, the book’s journey to our archives has been touched on in my previous posts. In 2001, Friends of Dickinson College Library invited Barry Moser to deliver an engaging talk detailing his experiences as an artist in the printing industry. The 2002 Fall edition of the Dickinsonian newspaper reports on Moser’s experience at the college and the purchasing of books prior to his visit. Moby Dick was simply one out of seventy-five works acquired by the library to showcase Moser’s wide variety of works that spanned from classic literature to children’s books.

The California Deluxe edition of Moby Dick currently resides in the archives, which explains the near pristine condition of the book. Since this edition is less than 50 years old, this copy has not required any sort of retouching or rebinding. Most importantly, with the repossession of the book from a seller to our school, the audience has been transformed once again – now, readers include students with an interest in historical books, or members of the public who visit the archive for research or personal enjoyment. Throughout this book’s lifetime, its audience is likely to shift again.


Works Cited

“Arion Press Moby Dick, Printer’s Copy.” Moby-Dick; or, the Whale – Price Estimate: $10000 – $15000,

Davis, J. “Moby Dick; Published by University of California Press & Arion Press.” The Whole Book Experience, 14 Sept. 2014,

Jauss, Hans Robert, and Timothy Bahti. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. University of Minnesota Press, 1982. 

Kuhl, Nancy. “Moby Dick: Context and Resources.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 16 Sept. 2020, 

Marcus, Greil. “1851: ‘Give It up, Sub-Subs!”: A New Literary History of America.” Credo Reference, Harvard University Press, 2009,

“Melville, Herman.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Paul Lagasse, and Columbia University, Columbia University Press, 8th edition, 2018. Credo Reference, Accessed 12 May 2023. 

“Moby-Dick.” Brewer’s Curious Titles, edited by Ian Crofton, Chambers Harrap, 1st edition,

  1. CredoReference, Accessed 20 Apr.


“Moby Dick or, the Whale.” AbeBooks, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London,

“R. Michelson Galleries.” R MICHELSON Accessed 11 May 2023.  

Routledge, Christopher. “Moby Dick; or, the Whale 1851.” Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850, edited by Christopher John Murray,  1st edition, 2003. Credo Reference, Accessed 12 May 2023.

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale: Origins

Moby Dick; or, the Whale, was adroitly handcrafted and produced by the Arion Press in 1979. This sensation of a book has a storied creation that reinvigorates the importance of the seemingly lost art of bookmaking in modern society. This book is unique because it was created by the last functional letterpress publisher in the country; its existence proves that the attention paid to the smallest details from a customized font to a hand-sewn headband has a substantial impact on how the work is perceived and valued.

First edition of Moby Dick, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1851

The author of this classic adventure novel has become a household name, meaning Herman Melville’s life and turbulent career has been meticulously cataloged by scholars and historians. Although his book is widely regarded as a masterwork of literature, Moby Dick was largely overlooked and even criticized during his lifetime (“How Melville’s Moby-Dick went from flop to literary masterpiece”, While Melville was alive, he sold a mere 3,000 copies of the book in the U.K. and America combined ( In fact, during Melville’s career his book Typee experienced more praise and popularity due to its easy thrill factor and comparative lightheartedness. His stories are recognized as dramatized accounts of his life and experiences with whaling  (“Herman Melville – the years of acclaim”, Starkly contrasting this past unpopularity, Moby Dick has become a cultural staple, in turn making the original edition and the modern Arion press edition valuable artifacts. The book’s success is marked by the hefty price tags — the first edition is on the market for $65,000, while the Arion press version is also valued in the thousands (“Moby Dick by Melville, First Edition”, Overall, Moby Dick is considered a classic today due to its shameless critique of 19th century conventions and its philosophical nature.

Moby Dick was brought to life by a modern-day printing press (also functioning as a publisher) that values awe-inspiring quality and a level of precision that is unmatched in any mass-produced book. The Arion Press, founded in 1974, is a San-Francisco based company that specializes in limited edition handmade works. Each book they produce is the product of a laborious process that begins with the careful planning and design and ends with the execution of the handcrafted binding. Today, Arion Press is regarded for its magnificent accomplishments with works such as Frankenstein, Sense & Sensibility, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, and several more pieces of esteemed literature. Overall, Moby Dick was the sixth chronological production from this company out of nearly 125 books (“Catalogue”, Printing the colossal Moby Dick was an ambitious goal to pursue, especially considering that the dense text was entirely handset. 

Despite the printing industry being threatened by the modernization of the reading process, Arion Press defies these social obstacles by using the artful craft of bookmaking to pay homage to classic works of literature. The major names associated with this work can be found in the colophon — Andrew Hoyem, Charles Bigelow, Kris Holmes, and Barry Moser. Hoyem is the founder and most prominent force in the company. He was closely involved in the executive decisions for design and course of action for the book, and oversaw the mechanical tasks regarding the production of the text (“About Arion Press”, Moreover, the team of Bigelow and Holmes toiled over the design of the custom-made Leviathan typeface, attempting to bring the significance of the writing into a visual composition. For the bulk of the text, Bigelow and Holmes used the Goudy modern font, a variation of the Goudy open with the letters filled in (“Goudy Modern in use”, Moreover, Barry Moser was commissioned to complete 100 wood-engraved illustrations for the book, and he was challenged by restrictions to not portray pivotal action scenes or major characters (“A Note on the California Edition”). Notably, the book is a clear distinction from identically mass-produced works, in which excellence is sacrificed for a lower price.

Furthermore, the quality of this copy’s paper is unmatched by the thin and flimsy paper used in mechanically manufactured books. In the front matter of the book, “A Note on the California Edition” describes the paper as being handcrafted with faint whale-shaped watermarks on the corner of select pages; this distinct practice reflects the companies’ continued implementation of old-fashioned machinery. Furthermore, the models of 19th technology are used to create the text printed on the paper. A caster in Arion Press’s type foundry is used to create individual pieces of type that will be used to print the book (“About Arion Press”, Each individual piece of type was meticulously forged then laid out, employing methods and technologies that recreate the feel of valuable books made in earlier centuries. Full-time type casters are of extreme rarity today, yet they hold an essential position in establishing works of art that will be read and appreciated by many in subsequent years. The hand cast type lends character to the book, allowing every aspect of the product to be conscious and deliberate instead of mechanically reproduced without any thought. This handset and handmade ty

pe is not reproducible. Although it may be imitated, the Arion edition possesses qualities of type and execution that are exclusively theirs.

The exquisite quality of the book is carried into the process of binding, where an individual punches holes in the printed sections ofthe book before it is sewn. This job could very efficiently be done with a machine to several books in rapid succession, yet the use of a physical person reinforces the importance of the careful handcrafted nature of the book (“About Arion Press”, The book was bound in-house, hand sewn with extreme care. In the final step of the process, the cover is glued to the book and the finished product is put on sale.

Arion Press’s Moby Dick was presented to the public in the original Arion Edition, and later, the California Deluxe Edition. To the untrained eye, not much seems to be different between the two editions. However, the most jarring change is the material of the cover. The original book exhibits a blue Moroccan goatskin cover, whereas the California Deluxe displays a buckram cloth in the same oceanic blue. Furthermore, the newer edition was not printed from the handset type. Instead, the pages are high quality photographic replications of the originals. Ultimately, the changes demonstrate a shift creating a work that can be appreciated by the public, bringing the price down from $1,000 (a value that has appreciated since the initial sale) to significantly less (Davis, Moby Dick; published by University of California Press & Arion Press).

Overall, the book was successful in its mission of providing a work of art that reconciles the past of bookmaking and the modern desire for high quality books. It was magnificent learning about the process of making this book because I was able to fully grasp how a great variety of people contributed to the creation of this work of art. The font used for this paper, Goudy type, is loosely based on the tasteful and elegant font used for the Arion Press’s interpretation of Melville’s famous work. With this edition of the book, several elements combine to generate a physical object deserving of the title ‘perfection’.


Works Cited

“About Arion Press.” Arion Press,

“Catalogue.” Arion Press, The Arion Press,

Davis, J. “Moby Dick; Published by University of California Press & Arion Press.” The Whole Book Experience, 14 Sept. 2014, /moby-dick-published-by-university-of-california-press-arion-press/.

“Goudy Modern in Use.” Fonts in Use, goudy-modern.

History Hit, 3 Aug. 2022, publication-moby-dick/. “Moby Dick; or, the Whale.” AbeBooks, Harper & Brothers, New York, n=Moby%2BDick&x=48&y=18&yrh=1851&yrl=1851.

Irvine, Amy. “How Melville’s Moby-Dick Went from Flop to Literary Masterpiece.”

“Melville, Herman (1819–91),” The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, edited by I. C. B Dear, and Peter Kemp, Oxford University Press, Inc., 2nd edition, 2016. Credo Reference, Accessed 13 Apr. 2023.

“The Years of Acclaim of Herman Melville.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

Moby-Dick; or, the Whale

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is widely considered one of the greatest American novels, renowned for its complex allusions and thoughtful prose. The 1979 Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick; or, the Whale stands out not just for its literary brilliance, but for the fine craftsmanship of the physical book. The copy of the classic in the Dickinson archives’ possession is referred to as the Deluxe California Edition, which contains photographic representations of the original content of the primary 1979 production. However, the fact that these pages are copies does not detract from the aesthetic value of the work. While the original edition was considerably rare with 265 editions, there are 750 copies of the California deluxe and trade editions in collections and archives (Moby Dick or, the whale, I chose this particular book to intimately study because it is a familiar story that has taken on an interesting new physical form. The book stands out for its significant size, with the cover spanning 14 by 9 ¾ inches. Although this size is reduced from the initial version, it creates a more accessible and convenient text by making it less expensive and easier to read. The compressed size allows the reader to hold it in their hands, and the large text is convenient for reading. I also found it intriguing that this book appeared to be unread and unused, sparking my curiosity to dive deeper into its history despite its relatively short history.

The introductory note by James D. Hart identifies the typeface to be 18-point Goudy Modern, which was designed in 1918 (“Goudy Modern”). Additionally, the aptly named Leviathan font is used for the titling capitals and large blue drop caps at the beginning of each chapter. This font was designed specifically for the Arion Press edition of Moby Dick by Charles Bigelow and Kris Holmes — this is clearly an example of the deliberate attention to detail regarding the connection between the presentation of the book and the literary content. This thread of continuity is also represented in the deep ocean blue color of the text, mimicking the aesthetic of Moby Dick.

In the brilliant title page, the reader is greeted with a meticulously detailed woodcut portrait of Herman Melville, set askew from the title of the work in a large, powerful font. The title is in the Leviathan, consistent with the beginning of each subsequent chapter. Underneath the title, the signature portrays the history of this book’s journey to Dickinson College. In 2002, Friends of the Library purchased Moby-Dick; or, the Whale to display the works of their guest speaker of the year, Barry Moser. His signature artfully transforms into an arrow or harpoon, following the style of the book. The publisher name is centered at the bottom of the page,

Although the creator of the signature is unclear in the book, I examined Barry Moser’s signatures on other works and reasoned that he signed this copy when he visited.

Finding out the person behind the signature was like an unfurling mystery, encouraging me to look at people with connections to the book and examine trails of evidence.

along with Melville’s dedication and declaration of admiration for his dear friend Nathaniel Hawthorne on the next page (Phillips). Also prior to the beginning of the text, an etymology explores the origins of the word whale — setting up the scene for the blend of history and fiction in the work.

Additionally, an extract incorporates Melville’s comical excerpt from a sub-sub librarian to demonstrate simultaneously his sense of humor and knowledge of whale references. He details the carelessness of the “librarians’” collection of quotes from notable literary works that mention the sea creatures; in fact, he is commenting on the notion that the reader will not appreciate all of the work he put into this collection by deeming the librarian somewhat incompetent. This front matter ironically generates a jovial mood that is contradicted by the relatively somber atmosphere of the literature’s content. Moreover, an elaborate map exhibits the somewhat convoluted route the famous Pequod took, bringing the story to life. After the story is completed, this book features a colophon that provides information regarding the publication of Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, making the fine details of the publication of the book clearly accessible to the public.

Furthermore, the book is ornamented with 100black and white images, each enhancing the reading experience by providing contextual clues and aesthetic adornments to the writing. The illustrations are intricate woodcut engravings created by the previously mentioned Barry Moser, known for his dazzling engravings spotlighted in works such as Dante’s Inferno and a vividly detailed King James Bible (“A Brief History of Pennyroyal Press”). One can see the texture of the engravement, detailed by small slashes and stark contrasts between ink and paper. James D. Hart asserts that primary characters are never illustrated to allow the readers to imagine their faces — instead, technical depictions of boats and whales are sprinkled throughout the text (“A Note on the California Edition”). Notably, the famous first line of Moby Dick is amplified by the dramatic illustration of a monumental wave that skillfully incorporates the curvature of the first letter C, marrying the text and the artwork.

Additionally, the binding is an interesting combination of sewing and adhesive along the spine. The glue is the primary source of keeping the book intact, while the stitching holds the pages together. The book also has a visible light blue and white thread headband that accentuates the silver lettering stamped on the exterior smooth spine. The unadorned cover of the book is made out of a Moroccan blue buckram cloth, mimicking the goatskin of the original edition of the book. The endpaper marking the front and back of the book is also a rich shade of dark blue, which is contrasted by the paper constituting the book.

The paper is remarkably high quality, described as “dampened handmade paper by platen letterpress” in the introductory passage, “ANote on the California Edition”. The pages are thick, heavy yet flexible, slightly yellow, loud when flipped, and smooth to the touch. The edges of the pages are very precisely cut and laid out in a reader-friendly format. Page numbers are located at the bottom left-hand corner, being the only other material on the page other than text or images. It is also important to note that the beginning of a new chapter does not signify a new page — instead, there is a small amount of space before the title of the new chapter and drop cap. Interestingly, there are 609 pages in the physical book, yet only 576 of them contain Melville’s story. A handful of the remaining pages are dedicated to front matter (title page, extracts, table of contents, publication information, etc.) and the colophon, yet a significant portion of the remaining pages are left starkly blank.

Overall, the book seems to be in pristine condition. There are no apparent signs of usage, and the physical book has been maintained beautifully. However, the slipcase did demonstrate slight signs of use, discoloration, and fraying. When examining this book, I felt as though I was holding a valuable work of art. The attention to even the most minute details in this work was impeccable, in turn creating a masterpiece of a physical book.


Works Cited
“A Brief History of Pennyroyal Press.” Barry Moser-Pennyroyal Press,
“About Arion Press.” Arion Press,
“Artist & Illustrator Barry Moser Autographed Typed Letter, Signed by the Author!” Worthpoint,
“Goudy Modern in Use.” Fonts in Use,
Greenfield, Jane. ABC OF BOOKBINDING: An Unique Glossary with over 700 Illustrations for Collectors & Librarians. Oak Knoll Press, 1998.
Melville Herman et al. Moby-Dick or the Whale. Arion Press 1979.
“Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Illustrated by Barry Moser, Arion Press, 1979.” Classic Editions,
“Moby-Dick, or, The Whale.” OCLC,
“Moby Dick or, the Whale.” University of California Press,
Phillips, John. “Melville Meets Hawthorne.” American Heritage, 1 Feb. 2023,

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