After many months of intermittent work, a long and ongoing project is finally complete. I’m very happy to be a part of the international bicentennial celebration of Herman Melville and his 1851 Moby-Dick, as curated by the Centre for the Study of the Book (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford). This project took several months, and is now (as of today) on its way across the Atlantic for collection among 79 other “extracts;” together, these will make up the total set of quotations, allusions, references, and other mentions compiled “by a sub-sub-librarian” at the beginning of the novel. Mine (#58) was drawn from the nonfiction narrative of Mr. Owen Chace, who survived a “stoving in” by whale in the Pacific Ocean.
I was interested in this extract because the Chace narrative was important not only to Melville but also to one of his most ardent readers and advocates in the mid-20th century, Charles Olson. There’s a lot to say about Olson’s Call Me Ishmael—an idiosyncratic poet-scholar’s take on the genesis, themes, writing, and impact of the novel—but I had in the back of my mind Olson’s extrapolation from Moby-Dick of what he calls one of the central facts of America and American life; that is, the sheer broadness of the continent, the expansive space of the place. Or, as he phrases it, “Large, and without mercy.”
With this in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to work with both the whiteness and the bigness of the whale and the sea. And (perhaps again channeling Olson, who turned this sense of space and place into a plastic, typographic poetics of the page—what he called “projective verse”), I wanted to do something where the typography was performative and expressive. Finally, given Melville’s attention to the archive(s) of the whale, and in turn his own contemporary status as part of the literary bedrock (or sub-current) of the American cannon, I wanted there to be more than simply the extract itself (however finely and/or adventurously printed).
What I came up with was a large-format print (larger than the technical size of my press, at 14″ by 22″–deckle to deckle and edge to edge), combining several printing techniques, several sizes of type, and at least one “collision” between the various archives before and after Melville’s Moby-Dick. The final print was executed through four print runs, combining printing from a magnesium die, a plexiglass plate (engraved by laser and then pressure printed), non-orthographic text from 18-line Gothic wood type down to 10-point Craw Clarendon, and a final colophon added outside the normal printing area of the press through the use of a frisket carrier sheet. I include images in the following, with short captions narrating the various stages. I’ll post a high-quality image of the final print soon.