Herman Melville: A Bicentennial Celebration


Even if you’ve never read Moby Dick, you have no doubt heard of Herman Melville and his literary masterpiece. Today, August 1, 2019, we celebrate the author, now recognized as one of the cornerstones of American literature, on what would have been his 200th birthday. In honor of this occasion, we’ve pulled together some recommended reading on Melville.

Black and white photograph of a seated Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, with his signature across the bottom.
Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

To Read

Courtesy of The New Yorker
Illustration by Carson Ellis

Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker article touches on Melville’s journey to finish the great American novel at his Berkshire farm.

Courtesy of The Guardian

Philip Hoare’s Guardian article discussing six reasons Moby Dick is still relevant today.


Herman Melville, Moby Dick, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, first Kent trade edition, New York, 1930.

The novel itself! There’s no day like today to start reading or rereading Melville’s classic. Pick up a fresh paperback at your local indie, buy a well-loved copy from your favorite purveyor of used books, or borrow it from the library.

rockwell kent's frontispiece for moby dick
Rockwell Kent, frontispiece from the Lakeside Press Moby Dick, pen and ink, 1930.

Collecting Melville & The Great White Whale


Mead Schaeffer, frontispiece and dustjacket illustration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, 1922. Sold on June 4 for $50,000.


In our June sale of Illustration Art, we sold Mead Schaeffer’s frontispiece and dust jacket design for the 1922 reissue of Moby Dick for $50,000. Dodd and Mead’s edition of the classic, with its memorable, dramatic cover, helped popularize the posthumous twentieth-century revival of interest in Melville.


Book from Herman Melville's library, annotated by the author
Herman Melville, two volumes of classic poetry, the first signed, annotated throughout, circa 1860. Estimate $40,000 to $60,000. At auction October 10.
Pictured here is Melville’s commentary on Samuel Johnson’s
The Vanity of Human Wishes, an imitation of the Tenth Satire in Juvenal, which reads:
“Prose is uncertain, verse still more so. But the meaning here would seem to be—Virtue, tired with contempt, gives it up, and latches herself for self-support to Pride & Prudence; but fails here; i.e., perishes, probably, on the gallows—of slander, most likely.”

Featured in our coming October 10 sale of Fine Books & Manuscripts is a rare look at the author’s personal library, as we offer two volumes of Greek & Roman classics owned and heavily annotated by Melville. Possibly the most interesting revelation from the volumes is that the author brought them shipboard on an 1860 New York­–to­–San Francisco trip aboard the Meteor. From his letters we know that Melville occupied his time during the long trip with the study of poetry, and the marginalia found within the volumes provides a more complete understanding of the author and the poetic literature that became the focus of his later works.

Because Melville was not widely recognized in his time, autograph material by the author is scarce, though his personal library has been extensively studied. The definitive source for information on Melville’s library and literary influences is Melville’s Marginalia Online, “a virtual archive of books owned and borrowed by American author Herman Melville.”

First editions of Melville’s best-known work are highly collectible, and have sold at Swann for up to $74,000. Considered a commercial failure in its time, the plates and remaining copies for the first American edition of Moby Dick (published 1851) were destroyed in a fire in 1853. Melville, on his book: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship’s cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”

Want to learn more? Visit The Melville Society.