Casting Off: a Journey in Five Starts

Cast off: […] To put from one, discard, abandon, disown. Hawking and Hunting […] To let fly (hawks). […] Nautical. To loosen and throw off (a rope, sail, etc.), to let go, let loose; to loosen (a vessel) from a mooring. […] Knitting. To take the work off the wires, closing the loops and forming a selvedge. […] Printing. To estimate how much printed matter will correspond to (a piece of MS. copy).[1]

1. Composition

The act or process of setting type. The hand compositor would stand (or sometimes sit, especially before c.1650) at the type cases, with a copy-text before him (or, rarely, her).[2]

In the first chapter of Moby-Dick Herman Melville writes of New Yorkers who on weekdays are ‘nailed to benches, clinched to desks’, drawn in their leisure time to stand ‘fixed in ocean reveries’ on the harbour-facing streets and piers.[3] Ishmael turns their contemplation into action on our behalf. He and his shipmates on the Pequod chase the whale across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, at the command of the single-minded Captain Ahab. 

This is the story of how I began to print a nineteenth-century novel, using nineteenth-century technology, in the twenty-first century. I was one of those lookers on the shore idly dawdling until a piece of planking gave way. In real life, I looked into a box of remnants from an old printing firm. Out of a jumble of printing blocks for illustrating an encyclopaedia, one seemed to rise from the depths—yes, it was the whale. The sperm whale on this block was depicted as if floating in its element. The distinctive outline was rendered in metal showing the slender skeleton in anatomical cut-away. Lifting this image of a whale out of the box delivered the thought fully formed: print Moby-Dick

I am a ritual re-reader of Moby-Dick. The ideal illustration was in my hand. I had access to type and a press. The means, motive, and opportunity had combined almost before the objective could be spoken. I know enough about the speed of my own hand composition of type to realise approximately how long this will take. Of course, more experience will speed up productivity, but unless there is a vast improvement on the current rate of one chapter a year, printing the 135 chapters of the novel is a project with a beginning but likely without an end.

For nearly four centuries after Gutenberg’s invention most of the operations in a printing workshop were done by hand. Bibliographers designate this the ‘hand-press’ period, from about 1450 to around 1830. We know from printing manuals, images, and business records something about the look of the workshops and the rhythms of book production then. Compositors, those tasked with assembling the individual metal letters into text, prepared pages of type carefully locked together in a frame. The pressmen put ink onto the surface of the type, positioned the paper over the inked type, and operated the lever of the press using their own muscle power. These basic processes appear to have prevailed in most printing workshops until at least 1800. Then newspaper printers with large volumes and tight deadlines began investing in steam-powered presses, and book publishing also began to change.[4] In 1851, the year Moby-Dick was published, huge new printing machines were featured at the Great Exhibition.[5]Hand-operated presses continued to be used by some firms, however. These were no longer made of wood but of cast iron. The key to the survival of this technology was that there were many small printing jobs to be done, far below the volume of newspaper or book publishing. To print page proofs, of which only a few copies are required, I use an Albion cast iron hand-operated press of a kind first manufactured in the 1820s. Albions were made throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Easy to disassemble and transport, these were the machines that served small printing offices around the world. By the later nineteenth century, they were used by printing revivalists and hobby printers. William Morris used Albions at the Kelmscott Press,[6]and Ernest Shackleton was given one to take to Antarctica in 1907.[7] The one I have is stamped with the names of the Ullmers of Fetter Lane (very likely Edwin and William Ullmer who were recorded in 1851 as printing press makers).[8] This press has taken a knock at some point in its history, and the supporting structure is a little cracked, but it is braced up on a wooden leg now. It has a persevering look about it, as if it intends to last the journey.

Figure 1

Fortunately for the publishers of Moby-Dick, and for me, by the middle of the nineteenth century the largest printing firms in centres like London and New York had built steam-powered presses for larger print runs to turn out thousands of impressions an hour, compared to the 250 impressions which was the ‘token,’ probably a maximum, for two workers at a hand press.[9] I have seized on this license to delegate the printing of this edition to a powered press. Once the type is set, printing the fifty copies of each chapter will be quick. The composition will be done by hand, however. That is also true to the period, since hand composition was one of the craft skills that did endure unrivalled in the printing industry until almost the end of the nineteenth century. It lived on in a changed context, though. As we shall see, composition in moveable type for the first printing of Moby-Dick served as a direct preliminary not to printing but to the casting of stereotype plates. These plates had a role in the extraordinary story of the two first printings of the novel. 

2. Copy 

The physical original used by a compositor to set a text in type for printing—typically an author’s MS or typescript, or a previous edition.[10]

‘Begin in the middle.’ This advice was proffered in the gentlest way by a social psychologist who knows how we humans look at each other: ‘That way, your worst work isn’t what people see first.’ 

Of course, the advice was too late. I had already fallen at the first hurdle. I had to admit that, no, I rushed into the composition of Chapter One. But wouldn’t you? ‘Call me Ishmael’: having in your possession all the type, upper and lower case, ligatures and punctuation, spacing and small caps, wouldn’t you start it right there? What’s more, would the first chapter really be my worst work? Look on the bright side: a dedicated compositor can make mistakes all the way from prelims to colophon. The first chapter need not be the worst, by any means. 

Technically there is nothing stopping the absolute beginner from gaining a perfect result, because the tools to hand are calibrated exactly. The skill of the type founder is to ensure all the ‘sorts’ of type (letters and marks of punctuation) and even the spaces are made with microscopic precision. The compositor is further aided by a composing stick that fixes the length of the lines. Once the adjustable stick is set to a specific width, a certain amount of type will fit onto each line. Mathematical calculations of the width of each letter and the number of spaces could tell you how many of the words in this sentence will fit on a line of a certain width and how large the spaces should be between those words. Those are the calculations performed for every line of a hand-set text, not usually mathematically but by a haptic process of judging the tightness of the line. The compositor seeks to feel the tension in the line of type held together in the composing stick as the last piece is pushed home. Recognizing the required tension is the key to preventing problems later. Only lines of exactly equal lengths will make a perfect large rectangle from all the tiny rectangular pieces of type. The lines need to be locked up together in a frame with square-sectioned wooden rods or ‘furniture’ so that the whole page can be lifted and put onto the press. Any variation results in loose lines in the forme, characters dropping off the ends of lines, and an unravelling disaster. 

The opportunities for error in composing type are numerous: eye-skip in following the copy that leaves out a word or a whole line; selecting a letter from the wrong compartment in the type case; selecting a letter that was replaced in the wrong compartment (and wrongly replacing it yourself in the first place); placing a letter upside down in the line so that ‘reads’ reads as ‘reaps’. But the pitfalls go far beyond getting letters in the wrong order. Look at one of the most studied printed books of all, the first Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Leaving aside the variations in spellings of words occasioned by having two or more compositors who couldn’t agree, or the obvious errors for which the hapless ‘Compositor B’ is blamed, the problems for the Folio printers – the Jaggards – began in the assembly of the copy itself, the text to be printed. It was no easy matter to gather everything William Shakespeare had written for the stage. The clue is in the printing of the Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida. The play appears in the book, in the section of ‘Tragedies’, but the title is not in the list of contents. What went wrong? A broken pagination sequence tells of false starts and a shuffling of sequence. Unexplained blank spaces, nonsequential page numbers, and the appearance of decorations and additional text as ‘filler’ are mute witnesses to the effort (with sighs and oaths?) to put things right in the printing house in 1623, as the permission to print Troilus and Cressida was negotiated and the text was finally set up.[11]

It is thrilling to repeat the best mistakes by the most famous printers. Not being a textual scholar, I blithely disregarded the idea of possible variants. With a much-read paperback as my copy I would simply begin at the beginning of my favourite book. The easiest thing in printing is to do a line-for-line reprint. You know which words need to go on which line. The exact number of lines required can be counted in the copy. Onward, I thought. Then I learned that my well-worn Everyman’s Library paperback of Moby-Dick concealed a ‘Troilus and Cressida’ right in the first chapter. Beneath the surface were textual problems that go back to the printing and publishing history of this novel.

The professional teams of compositors who set Moby-Dick in 1851 accomplished the job in a matter of weeks. In fact, it was set by hand twice. The ‘first edition’ published in London was set from printed proofs of an earlier typesetting in New York.[12] In keeping with a practice devised for the purpose of ensuring copyright in both Britain and the United States, Melville’s novel was to be published almost simultaneously in the two places. It was first set in type at the firm of Robert Craighead, ‘printer and stereotyper’, in New York at Melville’s own cost.[13] The author also paid for the ‘plating’: the casting of stereotype plates from moulds of the set type. These metal plates, thinner and lighter than the type and all in one piece, could be used to print the text and were easier to store for the purposes of future printing. The advent of stereotyping around the beginning of the nineteenth century meant that texts could be preserved for printing while the moveable type was being re-used for the next job. 

Image of the typesetting for Moby Dick

Craighead’s compositors in New York were at work setting the type in June and July of 1851. Printed proofs were sent from New York to London in September 1851, but these simply provided the copy for more compositors in London at the firm of Richard Clay to set the text by hand, again, for the publisher Richard Bentley. In London, five hundred copies were printed from the set type and published on 18 October 1851. A month later Harpers in New York published the work, and according to their contract with Melville, the printing of nearly 3000 copies was from the stereotype plates made by Craighead.[14] (The same plates were used by Harpers for reprinting the book in succeeding decades.) The process of setting, proofing, and stereotyping in New York should have meant that the text was absolutely fixed, ready to be set in London from clear printed copy. Nonetheless during the criss-crossing of the ocean the text was altered, whether by the author, the publishers, the compositors, or all three. The two first editions, English and American, diverge in some important ways. Notable differences are that prefatory material in the American edition ­– the ‘Etymology’ and ‘Extracts’ – is placed at the end of the English edition, and that Bentley’s London edition also lacked the ‘Epilogue’ explaining Ishmael’s survival, leading to some mystification on the part of British reviewers.[15] Thus Bentley’s edition mislaid both the beginning and the end of the novel as we know it.[16]

These differences are magnified in importance because no manuscript of the work is known to survive, nor proofs marked by Melville.[17] The editors of the Northwestern-Newberry critical edition of Melville’s works explain the differences as part intention and part error. They surmise that some of the text in the American but not in the English edition was excised by a literary editor for the London publisher Richard Bentley, to eliminate passages which might prove offensive to the British novel-reading public. The fate of the ‘Epilogue’ is not easy to untangle in the absence of the manuscript. Bentley’s printers might have simply missed it, however unlikely that seems, or Melville may have added this section later for the American edition. Thomas Tanselle concludes: ‘Whether the American edition in these respects represents a later or an earlier stage than the English, therefore, the American title page, table of contents, arrangement of preliminaries, and inclusion of the epilogue would seem to reflect Melville’s final intention.’[18]

I had taken as my printing copy a paperback Everyman published in 1992. The original Everyman’s Library edition of 1907 was based on Bentley’s London edition and omitted the Epilogue.[19] The 1992 edition contains the text from Dent’s 1933 reprint, with the Epilogue happily restored and with the prefatory material at the front. It was only on beginning the composition that I took note of the further missing passages, seeming expurgations which run to several paragraphs each. The reprint does not ignore them but relegates them to endnotes under the advice: ‘The original American edition contains the additional material printed below’.[20]These are set in smaller type than the main text with more words to the line. Leafing back and forth in the book was tiresome enough, but counting the number of extra lines in order to do my ‘casting off’ in the typographical sense required calculating the ratio of the sizes of the two typefaces in the copy. Every error in calculation — of course there were errors — was costing me hours of time in composition. The Northwestern-Newberry editors advise, ‘[a]n editor must choose the American edition as the copy-text, since it was set directly from Melville’s manuscript.’[21] I needed to start again, to work from copy with all of the words printed at the same size. Then I could begin to take an interest in the six other categories of variants identified by the critical editors. 

There is much more editorial intervention still to come in the course of my composition. Some of it unintentional, but some less so. When I started to set Chapter 1 and began to look at the text letter by letter, a phrase on the first page that had become familiar to me from the paperback — ‘whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul’[22] — was revealed to contain a typographical error which has persisted in the Dent editions very likely since 1907.[23] Both the American and the English first editions read, ‘a damp, drizzly November’. (p. 1) Yet I could not bring myself to add that ‘a’. As Peter Shillingsburg asked in 1990, can there be an ‘established’ text of this work?[24]

3. Casting off

Estimating a book’s length by counting the words in the copy and computing the length of the whole, based on the size of paper, the format, and the size of type to be used. This process allows the printer to estimate costs and order the right amount of paper; it also permits composition by formes.[25]

Towards the end of that first chapter Ishmael imagines his projected voyage as just one item on a grand ‘bill’ of the universe’s events, modelled in his imagination on theatrical playbills which interspersed the titles of comic turns or dances between the grand tragedies. Setting this chapter in 2016, it was a shock to recognize events that Melville had chosen from his own day as oddly contemporary:

‘Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.

 ‘Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael.


As if to answer the problem of how to be timely in an unending project came a piece of advice from a canny bookseller: ‘Issue it in chapters.’ After the fiasco of the excised passages, a second false start had been to conceive of the book as a series of regular quires, or gatherings, of sixteen pages. To be sure, this is the way books were made for centuries: divide up the work into regular sections of some even number of pages and ensure that a regular amount of paper was provided for each regular amount of typeset text. Last of all, add the tricky preliminaries: that last-minute dedicatory letter, and the index, and so forth. That was the routine for any single book. But taking a larger view, the practice of printing is not only about progressing steadily through one book after another. It is about satisfying the demands of authors and readers. To be blunt, you need to bring something to market.

A regular sequence of gatherings of a uniform size would neatly parcel out the weeks and years of composition ahead, but when I started on a sixteen-page (eight-leaf) gathering I found myself setting portions of Chapter 1 and Chapter 3 together. To continue in this way would mean that almost every quire would contain parts of two or more chapters. Nothing about the book would be finished until the final chapter. Standing at the composing frame, I wondered who would pursue such project—the whole book, and nothing but the whole book. Ahab wants to slay the white whale, and only that. I would set my sights lower, be an Ishmael, and take each chapter as it should come. This meant considering each chapter as a little booklet even if these were of different lengths. It would be more modular than the printing work on the original edition but, for each booklet to have integrity, it would still require consideration of the text as occupying groups of conjoined leaves rather than in a sequence of individual pages. 

If you fold a piece of paper twice you will create a booklet of eight pages. Now number these. When you open the paper, pages 1, 4, 5, and 8 will be on one side, and pages 2, 3, 6, and 7 on the other side. This is the model of the gathering as seen by the compositor. Pages 2 and 3 will be joined at their head and pages 1 and 8 will neighbours on the sheet. One problem for the compositor, when looking at text in this way, is figuring out where to break the text to fit onto the pages. Ideally the text should be distributed evenly, though there is leeway for the first and last pages of a chapter. Most of all, the compositor should know how to make the pages appear to match, with special attention given to facing pages, trying not to leave the first or last line of a paragraph stranded across a page break. This planning should take place before the composition begins, and it will ultimately determine how well two facing pages will balance each other and, to speak in practical terms, whether the text will fit within the publisher’s budget for paper. 

The paper I am using will be cut so that four pages are printed on each sheet, two on each side of the paper. As many of these folded sheets as required can be nested into each single gathering that will be a chapter. Technically, it will be a folio, because each sheet of paper is only folded once. Unlike the Shakespeare First Folio which is a ‘folio in sixes,’ with three sheets nested together to make six leaves or twelve pages in total, the number of leaves and pages in my gatherings will vary according to the length of the chapter. All the same, like the Jaggards, I need to calculate ahead, or cast off, the text of the chapter to decide how many sheets are required. Casting off also affects how work proceeds within the chapters. To make a forme ready for the press, the compositor aims to prepare all the text to be printed one side of a sheet of paper, whether this is one, two, four, or eight or more pages. Looking back at the model booklet of a gathering, we can see that the pages on either side will be non-sequential. The compositor faces a choice between setting the text seriatim(pages 1 to 8 in order) or setting all of one side of the sheet (pages 2, 3, 6, 7 first). The answer might be predetermined if the workshop has a finite supply of letters in the typeface required. 

For modern users of word processors or typewriters, letters and sentences appear in an unending stream of keystrokes. This was not the experience of the hand compositor, who could find the type-case emptying after setting a few pages of text. For much of the hand-press period, any single firm had a limited supply of type to be reused within each book and between different books. I have more than one complete case of type, truly a large amount for an amateur, and it is enough to set almost — but not quite — four pages of this edition at once.[26]

Depending on the supply of type in the workshop and the organisation of work at the time, the compositor might need to use the type only in the order that it is required for printing. It does not really matter which side of the sheet is set first, let us say (heeding the advice of the social psychologist) pages 2, 3, 6, and 7. Once that side is printed, the type can be redistributed into the cases and used again to set pages 1, 8, 4, and 5. This practice, setting one side of the sheet for printing before setting the other, is called composition by formes.[27] A detailed study of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare found the same damaged ‘sorts’ or individual letters recurring in a pattern that showed the pages were not set according to the page number, but according to the side of the sheet on which they would be printed.[28] I will frequently be setting non-sequential text because even in a gathering of two or three sheets, only the middle sheet will contain four consecutive pages.

At the time that Moby-Dick was first printed the relationship between type-founding, composition, and printing—different stages in the life of a piece of type—was changing. We have already seen that powered presses were speeding up printing. By the middle of the nineteenth century the mechanization of type-founding and the spread of stereotyping was increasing the supply of printable surfaces. Godey’s Lady’s Book reported in 1856 from L. Johnson and Co.’s Type and Stereotype Foundry in Philadelphia, an establishment which must have been carrying out similar operations to Robert Craighead’s in New York. At that time Johnson’s firm operated thirty casting machines and employed men and also children for ‘finishing’ the type by trimming off the jet of extra metal that emerges from the mould, and ‘dressing,’ or cutting a groove along the shank of the type that indicates the bottom of the character. The stereotype department at L. Johnson’s reproduced type-set text and the electrotype department made metal copies of woodcuts or wood-engravings. Operations like these were the source of printable relics that survive today, like the sperm whale illustration.[29]

The supply of type and images for printing was thus becoming mechanized, but in 1851 composition was still done by hand, even in Craighead’s and Johnson’s establishments, in a room filled with ‘hundreds upon hundreds of cases […] of type’.[30] It was only in the 1890s that the roles of the compositor and the type-founder would be transformed by the combination of these two processes into mechanical type-setting. Then the ‘comps’ moved from standing at the composing frame to sitting at a keyboard which punched holes in paper tape to programme the casting of the type required solely for one particular text. Like the compositors at L. Johnson’s or Robert Craighead’s in the 1850s my type is cast by machine but set by hand. And like the compositors in Clay’s firm, working for the publisher Bentley in London, the type that I am setting will be used directly for printing. 

Bibliographers looking at books made early in the hand-press period—that is, well before the publication date of Moby-Dick—generally make a point of counting the pages in each gathering and noting the number in each. It’s a version of kicking the tyres on a car; we expect a certain number, and if that is not found some inquiry will be made into the reason. The profile of the quires, called a collation, is given in the full bibliographical description of a book. It records all the quires, to which by tradition the printers gave markings of single or multiple letters (for instance A, or bb, or CCC), and the number of leaves in each. The collation for a short book from the fifteenth century might look like this: a–d8 e6 f4. Arriving, textually, at ‘The Spouter-Inn’ (New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Chapter 3 of Melville’s novel) I realised that I could be giving signature marks to the gatherings. The ostensible purpose of this would be to indicate to the binder which sheets were to be included in the quire, and in which order. The two first editions of Moby-Dick have these markings. The English first edition was issued in three volumes, and each begins with signature ‘B’, the unsigned signature [A] having taken up the preliminaries of that volume. The American first edition, issued in one volume, is signed 1, 1*, 2, and so on, and we arrive at signature 27* by the end. 

What a vanity it is to mark the signatures in my edition, which has no integrity as a volume but will rely on the numbering of chapters, pages, and signatures to hold the text in order. It will make a very irregular collation for a librarian to read. So far, it would look like this:

?? (The preliminaries, not yet printed, so the number of leaves in this quire is still unknown, and the signature mark may be ¶, α, a, or what you please) [A-B4] (Pages 1 to 16, Chapter 1 and 2. Each of the first two chapters is made of two sheets folded once, to make four leaves with one page on each side, that is eight pages in total. No signature markings, so the letters are given in square brackets.) C12 (At last, a signed quire. After the first two restless starts to the journey, we have a more leisurely twenty-four pages in the New Bedford boarding house, and on page 40 finally fall asleep with Ishmael and his shipmate Queequeg.) 

4. Reading for printing, or printing for reading

Merveille est k’om la mer ne het,

Qui si amer mal en mer set

[It is a wonder that man does not hate the sea, when he knows that such bitter evil is at sea] 

(Tristan and Yseut, Carlisle fragment, discovered 1995)[31]

That same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. (Moby-Dick, Chapter 1, p. 3)

Maybe an inevitable effect of re-reading the book too often is a tendency to see signs and portents in all things. You really do know what’s coming next.A retrospective justification for the printing project might be that printing a book is a way of reading it afresh, and more carefully. But is the compositor really reading the copy? Many of my paragraphs are set with greater attention to the spacing than to the words. After all, the words are the author’s (up to a point) while the spacing is where competent typesetting will show. Contrasted with this thought is an idea that somehow the act of setting every word and mark of punctuation, however confused in transmission, will reveal the bones of Melville’s language and the family resemblance to the skeletons of his ancestors. We know that Melville was profoundly influenced by his reading of Shakespeare.[32] Leave the speculators to consider the symbolism of the whale; this effort at printing is a chance to wallow in the words. Is it the sonority of Melville’s language, however borrowed, which gives the book its prophetic tone? 

That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

(Moby-Dick, Chapter 3, p. 12)

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is back’d like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale.

Polonius: Very like a whale.  

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, and quoted in the preliminary section of Moby-Dick, which was printed as a postscript in the English edition, ‘Extracts. Supplied by a sub-sub-librarian,’ p. xiii)

As the project goes on, it is possible to feel more adventurous. Following paths away from the novel’s text is a way to make the printing a starting point for other reading. It helps to seek out different sources of illumination and to listen to voices telling stories that are not Melville’s. 

[Ishmael steps over the threshold of the African-American church in New Bedford]
A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer […] and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there.

(Moby-Dick, Chapter 2, p. 9)

And now in his moaning, and so far from any help, he heard it in himself—it rose from his bleeding, his cracked-open heart.


Where shall I go?

There was no answer. There was no help or healing in the grave, no answer in the darkness, no speech from all the company. They looked backward. And John looked back, seeing no deliverance.

I, John, saw the future, way up in the middle of the air.

Were the lash, the dungeon, and the night for him? And the sea for him? And the grave for him? (James Baldwin, Go Tell It On The Mountain, 1952)[33]

5. The Chapel

In printing terms, the ‘chapel’ was the printing-house, and by extension the organization of journeymen in one firm. Benjamin Franklin explains in his Autobiography how, as a journeyman printer in London in the mid-eighteenth century, he made himself unpopular by refusing to ‘treat’ his fellow workers to drink and in exchange ‘had so many little pieces of private mischief done me, by mixing my sorts, transposing my pages, […] if I were ever so little out of the room, and all ascribed to the chappel ghost’.[34]

Surviving pictures of workshops in the first century of printing in Europe generally feature the different workers each performing their interdependent tasks: two setting type, another pair operating the press, a reader correcting the proofs, and a boy carrying a stack of paper. Franklin’s memoir reveals that relations were not always so harmonious. During the nineteenth century the proliferation of print and increasing mechanization changed the picture even further. There was no single image to represent printing as a trade. Some firms installed the huge machines displayed at the Great Exhibition, churning out newspapers and books; on the other hand, ‘nearly every small town [in the United Kingdom] had its printing office, turning out a local paper in addition to jobbing work’.[35] These small-scale outfits, like those depicted in movie westerns, enabled the imperial reach of printing. 

Many readers have pointed out that Moby-Dick, though a tale of adventure on the high seas, is set in the industrial landscape of whale oil extraction. The original purpose of the Pequod’s journey is to kill many whales, not to kill Moby-Dick in particular; that is only Ahab’s ulterior motive, which casts aside the investors’ profits in pursuit of revenge. In the same way, Melville’s novel as a work of art emerged from a partly mechanized printing trade, in which humans were working alongside machines.  In the year that Moby-Dickwas published most printing firms employed six people or fewer while the largest firms employed a hundred or more. [36]  Hundreds of hand-compositors were hired to keep pace with printing machines. Moreover, the paper-carrying boy seen in the early illustrations of printing workshops did not disappear from the picture. In 1856 in L. Johnson’s Philadelphia firm, children finished the type made by machines. In Britain, the Children’s Employment Commission of 1866 condemned the long hours, exploitation of child labour, and unhealthy working conditions in many offices.[37] Karl Marx deplored the degradation of child workers whose only job was to feed the machines with paper.[38]

At the same time as printing was becoming mechanized, another set of people became interested in using cast-iron hand-presses.[39] The idea of producing a printed text from all the multiple ‘sorts’ or characters, using the skill of one’s hand and the sweat of one’s brow, is the romantic impulse which inspired the craft revival of hand-press printing in the later nineteenth century. Perhaps it is not surprising, when we think of the multiple births of Moby-Dick, that the revivalists looked for inspiration to a period before the industrial printing of their own time. David McKitterick notes that, ‘[b]y using iron hand-presses rather than machine presses [William Morris] demonstrated the importance of the skilled workman having as complete control as possible over his task.’[40]

Others have illustrated every page of Moby-Dick, or produced further works elucidating Melville’s sources and legacy, or organised readathons.[41] The absorption of these readers in the work is summed up as a feeling that ‘Moby-Dick is a book about everything’.[42] Without their talents, but with an interest in the mechanics of book production, I took to printing in an effort to join them. We seem to be attempting to constantly refresh our encounters with the work, and for me this means repeatedly setting out the letters and then gathering them back into the cases. Far from warning against this project, the multiple, confused first printing of Moby-Dick opens the map to new possibilities and helps to show where this new edition can, and will, stumble in meshing human craft with machine work.

Letterpress printers today are more supportive of newcomers than Ben Franklin’s eighteenth-century workmates. Rivalries tend to be sublimated into comparisons of expertise and artistry. It is from this group that I learn, slowly, the standards of the craft. This community gives minute attention to typography and to the infinite gradations in quality of ink on paper. That interest has inspired tentative forays into illustration or decoration of each chapter: a mock theatre poster as the wrapper of Chapter 1 echoing Ishmael’s idea of his voyage as a side-show to history’s great events; dark squares depicting the ‘blocks of blackness’ on the night-time streets of New Bedford in Chapter 2; and, with the help of the found printing block, that portentous painting on the wall of the Spouter-Inn in Chapter 3, the ‘unaccountable masses of shades and shadows’ possibly depicting a foundering ship and exasperated whale.Only 132 chapters to go.

[1] ‘cast, v.’ Oxford English Dictionary [online], <; [accessed June 21 2020].

[2] ‘composition’, in The Oxford Companion to the Book [online] ed. by Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) <doi: 10.1093/acref/9780198606536.001.0001>.

[3] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or, The whale (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851), p. 2, in Moby-Dick Side-By-Side: The American and British First Editions [online] <> [accessed 20 June 2020]. Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text.

[4] David McKitterick, ‘Introduction,’ in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, ed. David McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) VI, pp. 1–74, (p. 3) <doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521866248.002>

[5] Paul Fyfe, ‘A Great Exhibition of Printing: The Illustrated London News Supplement Sheet (1851)’, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 84 (2016) <>.

[6] Reynolds Stone, The Albion Press (London: Printing Historical Society, 2005), p. 58.

[7] Hester Blum, The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

[8] The Repertory of Patent Inventions. Vol. 1851 (London: Published for the proprietor, by Alexander Macintosh, 1851), p. 190, in The Making of the Modern World <; [accessed 19 June 2020]. The firm displayed a ‘self-inking press’ at the Great Exhibition: ‘UNITED KINGDOM.—West End of Building,’ in Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 5-155

[9] History of Oxford University Press, ed. by Ian Anders Gadd, Simon Eliot, William Roger Louis, Keith Robbins, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), II (2013), p. 177.

[10] ‘copy,’ in The Oxford Companion to the Book [online] <; [accessed 20 June 2020].

[11] W.W. Greg, ‘The Printing of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” in the First Folio’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America45:4 (Fourth Quarter, 1951): 273-282; Ben Higgins, ‘Printing the First Folio,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s First Folio, ed. by Emma Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 30-47.  

[12] G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘Historical Note, Section VI,’ and ‘Note on the Text,’ in Herman Melville, Moby-Dick: or The whale, ed. by H. Hayford, H. Parker & G. T. Tanselle, The Writings of Herman Melville: The Northwestern-Newberry Edition, Vol. 6 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988). Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (2017) <doi:10.1093/actrade/>.

[13] ‘R. Craighead, Printer and Stereotyper, 53 Vesey Street, New York’ is listed in the colophon to John James Audubon and Robert Bachman, Quadrupeds of North America, 4th edn, 3 vols (New York: Victor Audubon, 1852-4), I (1852).

[14] ‘Contract between Herman Melville and Harper & Brothers for “The Whale,” [Moby Dick],’ in Columbia Digital Library Collections, <; [accessed 20 June 2020].

[15]  Herschel Parker, ‘Historical Note, Section VII’, in The Writings of Herman Melville, VI (1988), pp. 708-9. For a comparison, see Moby-Dick side-by-side: the American and British first editions, [online]. <> [accessed 20 June 2020].

[16] Tanselle, ‘Historical Note, Section VI,’ in in The Writings of Herman Melville, VI (1988), pp. 679-680.

[17] Samuel Otter, ‘Reading Moby-Dick’, in The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, ed. by Robert S. Levine, Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 68-84 <doi:10.1017/CCO9781139149952.007>.

[18] Tanselle, ‘Note on the Text,’ in The Writings of Herman Melville, VI (1988), p. 783.

[19] G. Thomas Tanselle, A checklist of editions of Moby-Dick, 1851-1976: issued on the occasion of an exhibition at the Newberry Library commemorating the 125th anniversary of its original publication (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1976), pp. 11-12. 

[20] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1992), p. 495.

[21] Tanselle, ‘Note on the Text,’ 783.

[22] Melville (1992), p. 7.

[23] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or, The White Whale (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1907, repr. 1928), p. 1.

[24] Peter Shillingsburg, ‘The Three Moby-Dicks’, American Literary History 2, no. 1 (1990), 119-130 (p. 122).

[25] ‘casting off copy,’ in The Oxford Companion to the Book [online] <>  %5Baccessed 20 June 2020].

[26] The typeface is Dante on a 14-point body. From a letter of Melville to Evert Duyckinck, 24 Feb 1849: ‘I am mad to think how minute a cause has prevented me hitherto from reading Shakespeare. But until now, every copy that was come-atable to me, happened to be in a vile small print unendurable to my eyes’. Quoted by Alex Calder, ‘Herman Melville’, in Emerson, Melville, James, Berryman: Great Shakespeareans Volume VIII ed. by P. Rawlings (London: Continuum, 2011), pp. 51-94 (p. 52).

[27] ‘composition by formes,’ in The Oxford Companion to the Book [online] <>  %5Baccessed 20 June 2020].

[28] Gabriel Egan, The Struggle for Shakespeare’s Text: Twentieth-Century Editorial Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010), pp. 73-75. <doi:10.1017/CBO9780511781742.005>.

[29] ‘L. Johnson & Co.’s Type and Stereotype Foundry, Sansom Street, Philadelphia’, Godey’s Lady’s Book 52, no. 4, 1 April 1856, pp. 299-305. <,uid&ppid=divp19&lpid=divl8&gt; [accessed 20 June 2020].

[30] Godey’s Lady’s Book 52, no. 4, p. 302.

[31] Sebastian I. Sobecki, The Sea and Medieval English Literature (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007), p 66.

[32] Calder, pp. 51-94. 

[33] James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain (New York: Vintage International, 2013), pp. 203-4.

[34] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Lerner Publishing Group, 2018), p. 31. <; [accessed 20 June 2020].

[35] A. E. Musson, The Typographical Association: origins and history up to 1949 (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 19 <$b675136&view=1up&seq=33&gt; [accessed 26 June 2020].

[36] Musson, p. 19.

[37] Musson, p. 82.

[38] W. Falk, H. Behrend, M. Duparré, H. Hahn, & F. Zschaler, Karl Marx: Capital. A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, London 1887 (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Akademie Forschung, 1990), p. 424. <doi:;.

[39] James Moran, Printing Presses: History and Development from the 15th Century to Modern Times (London: Faber, 1973), p. 99.

[40] McKitterick, ‘Changes in the Look of the Book,’ in Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, VI, pp. 83-84.

[41] Matt Kish, Moby-Dick in pictures: one drawing for every page (Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2011). Kish used the Signet Classics edition to define the pages he illustrated. Philip Hoare, Leviathan, or, The Whale (London: Fourth Estate, 2008); George Cotkin, Dive Deeper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[42] Kish, Moby-Dick in pictures, pp. vi-vii.

I am grateful to Veronica Watts, Jonathan Jong, and Richard Lawrence for their advice and assistance.