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MOBY-DICK:HISTORY OF A LOOSE-FISH: MANUSCRIPT, PRINT AND CULTURE Curated by John Bryant ooks can be powerful things. But by and large, they are not. Since 15100and the beginning of print publishing in BWestern culture, hundreds of thousands of titles have circulated among English-speaking societies alone; however, only a modest fraction have survived, and this is true only because of a good deal of luck and the prolonged efforts of scholars, librarians and enthusiasts. Books are an enduring technology, an efficient means of preserving words for generations and generations. However, like anything else that lives, a book is only mortal. True, it may last for centuries loager than the writer, editor and publisher who first handle it; its mortal coil is not shuffledoff so easily as human flesh, and in this regard, books possess a curious mechanism for creating something close to immortality. But that mechanism cannot work without a reader. A book can sit on a shelf and hold in reserve the thoughts, feelings, dreams and fictions of a mind; it can be a gravestone of a world long gone. But the moment that book is opened and read, the mind and world return. This is a kind of immortality, and it is no wonder that Herman Melville, who knew books and book making first hand, but failed as a professionalwriter, continued to create books privately - little volumes of poetry - well past the time when his contemporaries were reading him. He was setting himself up in print, creating a time capsule for readers to come. Books are transcenders of time, and with luck and a persistent crew of readers, they can be powerful things. Today, Moby-Dirk is regarded as one of our culture’s most powerful books. But this was not always the case, for its readership , now worldwide, had dwindled almost at the moment of its publication in October 1851. And it is safe to say now, 150 years later, that in only the latter half of those years in existence has the novel achieved the readership Melville (himself long gone) might have hoped for and the popularity it deserves. Of course, the power of a book and its popularity are separate things. Moby-Dick is now an icon among academics and general readers alike, so much so that individuals may “know of” the book through popular images of its one-legged monomaniac and white whale in everything from New Yorker cartoons to seafood eateries well before attempting to read the book itself. That is a form of transcendence I know Melville did not anticipate, or much hope for. “Knowing of” Moby-Dick has become an emblem that comes with the territory of our culture, both high brow and low. “Knowing” Moby-Dick requires some reading, and a lifetime of growing. The exhibition for The Melville Society’s third international conference, Moby-Dick 2001, celebrates a small but vibrant fraction of the impact of Melville’snovel on modern life. Robert K. Wallace and Elizabeth Schultz have assembled works of contemporary artists inspired by Moby-Dick and of illustrators working in the past century to render Melville’s images on the printed page beside the printed text. In conjunction with these artworks, which are both expressions and interpretations in their own right, I have assembled a modest collection (and only a fractional selection at that) of objects that represent the Thing Itself, not simply the text of Moby-Dick (which scholars tell us is actually intangible) but its various manifestations in manuscript, print, and other cultural artifacts. As we shall see, this “thing”called Moby-Dick is what Ishmael might call a “loose-fish.’’ 1.Loomings When Melville set sail in the whaling ship Acushnet in January 1841, he triggered a series of physical events and creative acts that would change his life and American letters. At the time he was simply a common sailor running about the world, hoping to find himself. After 18 months of that, he was ready to jump ship and did so in the Marquesas on the island of Nuku Hiva. His four-week 37 ARTISTS AFTER MOBY-DICK MOBY-DICK: HISTORY OF A LOOSE-FISH: MANUSCRIPT, PRINT AND CULTURE...


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