Omoo, by Herman Melville, Oxford University Press for the Limited Editions Club (1961)

Ever since I read Herman Melville‘s Typee a few years ago, in the wonderful 1935 Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition from The Harbor Press, I have wanted to read Omoo, Melville’s second work and the sequel to Typee.  Luckily, the LEC also published Omoo, twenty six years after Typee, in an almost equally nice edition, this one printed by by Vivian Ridler of the Oxford University Press in 1961. Like the production of Typee, the LEC’s Omoo is a masterwork of fine press involving a number of people at the top of their trade.

The aforementioned Vivian Ridler, CBE (1913-2009), was Printer to the University of Oxford from 1958 until 1978, and founder of Perpetua Press which ran from 1931-1936, and again after his retirement from Oxford. He was a founder of the Institute of Printing and President of the British Federation of Master Printers in 1968.

The LEC Omoo was designed by John Dreyfus (1918-2002). Mr. Dreyfus was the typographic advisor to Cambridge University Press,as well as to the British Monotype Corporation (succeeding Stanley Morison), President of the Association Typographique Internationale, President of the Printing Historical Society in Britain, and served as European consultant to the LEC from 1956 to 1977. In these roles and others, Mr. Dreyfus played a significant role in postwar European type and book design. He also wrote some well thought of works, including a work on Jan Van Krimpen (a type designer well familiar to LEC collectors), a history of the Nonesuch Press, and the story of the Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Four Gospels.

John Dreyfus wrote to the LEC about finding an artist for this edition of Omoo:

The artist we need must be strong on ships, as well as on flora and topographical detail. I know a man who has precisely these qualities and who is one of the finest wood-engravers in the country — Reynolds Stone. Before he became a wood engraver, he was a passionate ship-modeller, and studied the sailings ships in Bridport Harbor where he lived.

It was an inspired choice, as you will see in the samples below. Reynolds StoneCBERDI (1909–1979) was a very accomplished wood engraver, typographer, painter and stone engraver. His commercial work is very well known, including the clock logo of The Times, the £5 and £10 bank notes, the Royal Arms for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, and the official coat of arms for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1955 (used on the cover of British passports to this day).  He carved the memorial to employees of the museum who died in World War II in the Grand Entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum (as had Eric Gill for those who died in World War I), the memorial to Winston ChurchillT. S. Eliot and the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in Westminster Abbey. Mr. Stone also illustrated the LEC’s Saint Thomas Aquinas (1969) and The Poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1974). Books and Vines also highlighted his work on The History of Saint Louis (1937) from Gregynog Press.

For this edition of Omoo, noted American historian and literary critic Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) wrote the introduction. His The Flowering of New England (1936) won the second National Book Award for Non-Fiction from the American Book Sellers Association and the 1937 Pulitzer Prize in history. The LEC published a fine edition of The Flowering of New England in 1941.

What an excellent line up, and the group did not disappoint. Mr. Stone provided 39 wood-engravings that I think perfect for this work. The specially manufactured paper, to specifications from John Dreyfus, by Cowan and Sons, Scotland, is firm and just slightly off-white. It provides a nice vehicle for the engravings as well as for the 11 point Monotype Plantin type. The binding, in white linen with a hand-marbled pattern of ocean waves in black and gray by Douglas Cockerell & Son in Hertfordshire, is, to use a technical term, “cool”. The square shelf back has a sea-green leather label gold-stamped with the title lettered by Reynolds Stone. The boards themselves are heavy bevelled. Finally, it all comes in a slipcase made of, appropriately, white canvas. While this is certainly not in the very top tier of LEC productions over the years, it is quite nicely done and a credit to all involved.

So the book is nicely done, but how is the story itself?  Like Typee, I found it fantastic. According to Van Wyck Brooks, the word ‘Omoo’ is Marquesan, and it means “a rover, a wanderer among the islands, or a beachcomber. ”  While Typee was partly based on Melville’s experience in 1842 as a captive on the island Nuku Hiva, Omoo (first published in 1847) picks up when Melville found his was to Tahiti after leaving Nuku Hiva on a whaler. Brooks writes that:

It is known that Melville kept no South Sea journal, and it is known that he spelled Polynesian names and words simply as he remembered how they sounded. But there is little doubt that, in almost every detail, he related just what happened to him, and, ethnologically speaking, there is no count he was a most veracious observer and recorder. This was in part because he made careful studies of previous voyages, but it was also because of his own accurate eye and ear.

None-the-less, later scholarship has shown that Melville did invent some episodes and dramatized others, as well as  added context and information from a number of sources. However, Melville never claimed these to be strict histories, they are stories based on his experiences, and they are all the better for his way of weaving it.

About the Edition

  • Designed by John Dreyfus
  • Printed at Oxford University Press by Vivian Ridler, Printer to the University
  • Thirty-nine wood-engravings by Reynolds Stone
  • Introduction by Van Wyck Brooks
  • 11 point Monotype Plantin
  • Specially manufactured paper, to specifications from John Dreyfus, by Cowan and Sons, Scotland
  • Bound by Russell-Rutter Company in white linen with a hand-marbled pattern of ocean waves in black and gray by Douglas Cockerell & Son in Hertfordshire
  • The square shelf back has a sea-green leather label gold-stamped with the title lettered by Reynolds Stone
  • Slipcase made of white canvas
  • 6 1/8″ x 9 3/4″, 296 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Reynolds Stone

Pictures of the Edition

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Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Cover
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Cover
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page #2
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page #2
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample text (Introduction)
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text (Contents)
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Contents)
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3 (Melville Introduction)
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #8 with Text
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
Omoo, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

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