An Illustration of Every Page of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick


Her­man Melville’s Moby Dick, the work he is most known for in death, had the effect in life of ruin­ing his lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion and dri­ving him into obscu­ri­ty. This is but one of many ironies attend­ing the mas­sive nov­el, first pub­lished in Britain in three vol­umes on Octo­ber 18, 1851. At that time, it was sim­ply called The Whale, and as informs us, was “expur­gat­ed to avoid offend­ing del­i­cate polit­i­cal and moral sen­si­bil­i­ties.” One month lat­er, the first Amer­i­can edi­tion appeared, now titled Moby Dick; Or, The Whale, com­piled into one huge vol­ume, and with its cen­sored pas­sages, includ­ing the Epi­logue, restored. In both print­ings, the book sold poor­ly, and the reviews—save those from a hand­ful of Amer­i­can crit­ics, includ­ing Melville’s fel­low Great Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Nathaniel Hawthorne—were large­ly neg­a­tive.

"God keep me! — keep us all!" murmured Starbuck, lowly.

Anoth­er irony sur­round­ing the nov­el is one near­ly every­one who’s read it, or tried to read it, will know well. We’re social­ized through visu­al media to approach the sto­ry as great, trag­ic action/adventure. As Melville’s friend, pub­lish­er Evert Augus­tus Duy­ck­inck, described it, the nov­el is osten­si­bly “a roman­tic, fan­ci­ful & lit­er­al & most enjoy­able pre­sent­ment of the Whale Fish­ery,” dri­ven by the revenge plot of mad old Cap­tain Ahab. And yet, it is not that at all, or not sim­ply that. Despite the fact that it lends itself so well to adven­tur­ous retelling, the nov­el itself can seem very obscure, pon­der­ous, and digres­sive to a mad­den­ing degree. The so-called “whal­ing chap­ters,” notably “Cetol­ogy,” delve deeply into the lore and tech­nique of whal­ing, the anato­my and phys­i­ol­o­gy of var­i­ous whale species, and the his­to­ry and pol­i­tics of the ven­ture.

Through­out the nov­el, ordi­nary objects and events—especially, of course, the whale itself—acquire such sym­bol­ic weight that they become almost car­toon­ish tal­is­mans and leap bewil­der­ing­ly out of the nar­ra­tive, forc­ing the read­er to con­tem­plate their significance—no easy task. Depend­ing on your sen­si­bil­i­ties and tol­er­ance for Melville’s labyrinthine prose, these very strange fea­tures of the nov­el are either indis­pens­ably fas­ci­nat­ing or just plain excess bag­gage. Since many edi­tions are pub­lished with the whal­ing chap­ters excised, many read­ers clear­ly feel they are the lat­ter. That is unfor­tu­nate, I think. It’s one of my favorite nov­els, in all its baroque over­stuffed­ness and philo­soph­i­cal den­si­ty. But there’s no deny­ing that it works, as they say, “on many lev­els.” Depend­ing on how you expe­ri­ence the book—it’s either an incred­i­bly grip­ping adven­ture tale, or a very dense and puz­zling work of his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics, and zool­o­gy… or both, and more besides….


Rec­og­niz­ing the pow­er of Melville’s arrest­ing imagery, artist and librar­i­an Matt Kish decid­ed that he would illus­trate all 552 pages of the Signet Clas­sic paper­back edi­tion of Moby Dick, a book he con­sid­ers “to be the great­est nov­el ever writ­ten.” He began the project in August of 2009 with the first page, illus­trat­ing those famous first words—“Call me Ishmael”—above. (At the top, see page 489, below it page 158, and direct­ly below, page 116). Kish com­plet­ed his epic project at the end of 2010. He used a vari­ety of media—ink, water­col­or, acrylic paint—and incor­po­rat­ed a num­ber of dif­fer­ent graph­ic art styles. As he explains in the com­ments under the first illus­tra­tion, he chose “draw­ing and paint­ing over pages from old books and dia­grams because the pres­ence of visu­al infor­ma­tion on those pages would in some ways inter­fere with, and clut­ter up, my own obses­sive con­trol over my marks.” All in all, it’s a very admirable under­tak­ing, and you can see each indi­vid­ual illus­tra­tion, and many of the stages of draft­ing and com­po­si­tion, at Kish’s blog or on this list we’ve com­piled. (You can also find links to the first 25 pages at bot­tom of this post.) The entire project has also been pub­lished as a book, Moby-Dick in Pic­tures: One Draw­ing for Every Page, a fur­ther irony giv­en the obses­sive lit­er­ari­ness of Melville’s nov­el, a work as obsessed with lan­guage as Cap­tain Ahab is with his great white neme­sis.


Nonethe­less, what Kish’s project fur­ther demon­strates is the seem­ing­ly inex­haustible trea­sure house that is Moby Dick, a book that so rich­ly appeals to all the sens­es as it also cease­less­ly engages the intel­lect. Kish has gone on to apply his won­der­ful inter­pre­tive tech­nique to oth­er clas­sic lit­er­ary works, includ­ing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Dark­ness and Ita­lo Calvino’s Invis­i­ble Cities. These projects are equal­ly strik­ing, but it’s Moby Dick, “the great unread Amer­i­can nov­el,” that most inspired Kish, as it has so many oth­er artists and read­ers.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Moby Dick Big Read: Celebri­ties and Every­day Folk Read a Chap­ter a Day from the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el

A View From the Room Where Melville Wrote Moby Dick (Plus a Free Celebri­ty Read­ing of the Nov­el)

How Ray Brad­bury Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956)

Orson Welles Reads Moby Dick

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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