The monumental epic of American literature

by Liz on January 4, 2013 · Children's rare books

Herman Melville's Moby Dick

Among the many valuable and enlightening rare books to be barely found in the rare book market today, none come close to surpassing Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece, Moby Dick or The Whale. In addition to providing the reader with a tantalizingly realistic picture of what life on a whaling ship in the middle of the ocean is truly like, Melville’s use of underlying forms of symbolism, analogy, and serious life lessons as experienced by the ship crew make Moby Dick an immortal literary treasure that has been much beloved for almost three centuries.
While the storyline of the battle between the captain of the ship Captain Ahab and the whale, Moby Dick may have been partially inspired by the biblical struggle between Jonah and the whale, it is highly probable that many other tales such as Pinocchio may have in turn been inspired by Melville’s tale, as well as the universal symbol of a peg legged pirate. While Captain Ahab is not described as wearing a peg in the place of a leg, in a previous confrontation with the whale, it is explained that Captain Ahab’s leg was tragically bitten off, causing Moby Dick to gain a large advance in his ongoing war with Ahab, and further causing Ahab to harbor a feverish desire to gain victory over his salt water spewing, fluke clad rival.
Interestingly enough, the venomous clash between Captain Ahab and Moby Dick has many political ties, as individuals have long likened pursuits and conquests by certain presidents to the battle that is painted in Moby Dick. During his presidency, for instance, Ronald Reagan was compared to Captain Ahab as he sought to put an end to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. More recently, President Bush was seen as a Captain Ahab of sorts, as he responded with strife to the September 11th attacks.

What is today considered as the most valuable copy of Moby Dick is not, as expected, available for sale. This particular first edition that the renowned author of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne owned is in fact personally inscribed by Melville to Hawthorne, praising him for his “genius.” This association copy was later sold to the rare book and manuscript collector, Harry B. Smith, who then sold Hawthorne’s personal copy to A.S.W Rosenbach. As a result, Hawthorne’s inscribed copy is now in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia for all to see and examine.
Political associations and museum exhibits aside, first editions of Moby Dick that are in good condition are priced at unflinchingly high numbers. In the rare book market today, original 1851 first editions are unabashedly priced around $50,000.
Besides its incredible and thought provoking plotline, one must reasonably ask what it is about Moby Dick that deems it so valuable. Is it its age? A book written in 1851, after all, is automatically categorized as one of the oldest books in American history, dating back even before the outbreak of the Civil War. Perhaps it is the proposition that Moby Dick has inspired other well known tales such as Pinocchio and famous artists such as Rockwell Kent. Or, perhaps, it is because the title itself has been immortalized and utilized for many businesses and restaurants in coastal towns and seaside resorts. Interesting to note is that in considering its name before opening for business, the much beloved and revered coffee chain Starbucks was inspired by the name of the ship in Moby Dick, “Starbuck.” Close inspection of the Starbucks logo, in fact, has one wondering what scaly, tail endowed creature the Starbucks muse is grasping in both of her slender hands. Mermaid fins? Whales??
Enigmatically unclear as it may seem, Moby Dick or The Whale promises to remain widely sought after and much revered in the rare book market throughout the years to come. Whether it will eventually be exceeded is yet to discover, but as Melville explains, ““I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.””

About the author

Partner, rare book dealer. Sekkes Consultants.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave N January 6, 2013 at 3:55 am

The name of the ship in Moby-Dick was the Pequod. Starbuck was the chief mate.


Admin January 7, 2013 at 12:33 am

Dave, thank you for your correction. Starbuck was, in fact, the name of the young chief mate on the ship, the Pequod. When considering a name for the franchise, the name Pequod was indeed turned down, and was instead named after Starbuck.


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