“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
So begins “Moby Dick”—the first paragraph, anyway—the man meets fish (well, aquatic mammal) epic penned by Herman Melville in 1851. Immortal words now, but for a period of time prior to 1920, largely forgotten ones. Reassessment and rediscovery began in the early 1920s,
The biggest boost to Melville’s reputation came from Rockwell Kent, with the publication in 1930 of the 3-volume Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick, illustrated and designed by Kent. Both the limited edition (1000 copies) and the Random House trade edition, also published in 1930, sold extremely well, helping push Melville back into the public consciousness. Melville was overdue, no doubt, but this was clearly a Reese’s peanut butter cup moment, a happy marriage of writer and illustrator. Indeed, it would be hard to find a writer-illustrator combination as well-matched, unless maybe it is Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman, though Kent and Melville didn’t work together, and surely didn’t party together (Kent was 9 when Melville died in 1891).
That Melville and Kent were kindred spirits is evident in their biographies and their paths, which crossed literally and metaphorically. Both men spent significant portions of their lives in and around New York and the mountains north and west of the city. Melville was of the generation of romantic writers and thinkers that included Emerson and Thoreau; he was also a sailor and an adventurer—his first three novels, “Typee,” “Omoo,” and “Mardi,” recount his travels to exotic lands. Kent was weaned on mysticism and transcendentalism, reading Emerson and Whitman extensively (he also illustrated Leaves of Grass). He, too, was an adventurer and fellow traveller (in more ways than one: Kent received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967). Kent’s early books include “Voyaging Southward from the Strait of Magellan” and “N by E,” recounting sailing adventures to Tierra del Fuego and Greenland. Additionally, Melville’s scathing indictment of commerce and materialism in “The Confidence Man” is echoed in Kent’s embracing of socialism.
So when Kent was approached in 1926 with an offer to illustrate Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast,” he suggested “Moby Dick” instead, and the rest is publishing history.
Since 1930, Melville’s—and the book’s—place in the pantheon of literature has remained secure (Starbuck’s, anyone?), while Kent’s artistic reputation has largely waned in the face of abstract expressionism and successive art movements. But the illustrated “Moby Dick” has remained in print for 75 years, thrilling generations of readers with Melville’s incandescent prose and Kent’s dramatic and haunting engravings.