As it happens, I just cataloged for the Cullman Library a chapbook, an inexpensive form of publication usually illustrated with lively if simple woodcuts, which narrates this “most remarkable” tale of the Essex, the ill-fated voyage that began in Nantucket in 1819. Stories About the Whale: with an Account of the Whale Fishery, and the Perils Attending its Prosecution, was published in Concord, New Hampshire in 1850 (PZ10.3 .S881850 SCNHRB) and was rather crudely printed. The title page serves as the cover, with the text (24 pages in all) printed on a single sheet which was then folded and stitched with no binding. Issued a year before Melville’s masterpiece, the chapbook indicates how big and potent the tale was in 19th-century America. This piece of juvenile literature, in a section with caption title “Shipwrecks and Disasters,” warns boys of the dangers of the industry “as the whales often dash to pieces the boats in which the sailors go out to attack them” and a much quicker read of the Essex story in three pages than Moby Dick!
The Smithsonian’s own expert on whales, Curator Emeritus of Marine Mammals James G. Mead, stands in this photograph before a bookcase once owned by Melville, a whaler himself, that holds an array of copies of Moby Dick, including the very first and rare printing, published in London in October 1851, which was followed one month later by another edition in New York. This collection of Melvilleana is in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Dr. Mead points to one of its many treasures, the copy of Moby Dick that was owned by its dedicatee, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Alas, the Smithsonian does not hold any of the earlier issues of Moby Dick, but it does have Sam Ita’s Moby-Dick: a Pop-Up Book (New York: Sterling Publishers, c2007) that tells the tale in abridged and highly inventive form (PZ7.I89617 Mob 2007 CHMRB).
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For more on Whales and the Smithsonian, please see "A Whale of a Tale," a recent posting in the Smithsonian Institution Archives blog.