|My first Moby-Dick, price $1.25|
The first copy of Moby-Dick that I owned was the Signet Classics edition with an "Afterword" by Denham Sutcliffe, circa 1977. In the 1970s and '80s, Signet Classics posed the main American competition for Penguin Classics. While Penguins had soigné covers with black borders and period paintings, and held their trade-paperback heads high above the surrounding mass-market riffraff, Signet Classics had original artwork on their covers and did not disdain to mix it up with Chariots of the Gods and Them in brick-like mass-market format. Penguins had higher prices, wider margins, and paper that flopped open like wilted lettuce (it also seemed to turn brown overnight). Signets were cheaper, stiffer, brighter, and altogether more compact.
Signet Classics were (and are) an imprint of New American Library, or N.A.L. N.A.L. was established in 1947 by Kurt Enoch (1895-1982), a German immigrant who had worked in publishing in Germany, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, and Victor Weybright. Prior to taking the helm at N.A.L., Enoch served as a senior executive of Penguin Books. Some sources state that N.A.L. was originally a Penguin division and that Enoch and Weybright split it off, but the New York Times obituary of Enoch (published Feb. 17, 1982) reports that Enoch left Penguin and then started N.A.L.
In 1960, N.A.L. was acquired by Times Mirror Company. Twenty-seven years later, after passing through the hands of another acquirer, N.A.L. came into the growing Penguin fold, where it remains today.
As I mentioned, back before Penguin acquired N.A.L., Signet Classics had distinctive original artwork on their covers. Moby-Dick, for example, sported a woodcut-style image of Ahab superimposed with a white whale spouting blood. The first page of each Signet Classic bore a line-drawing portrait of the author and a one-paragraph biographical sketch. Most distinctively, instead of critical introductions, the Signets wisely put the interpretive material at the end, in an Afterword, protecting the careless reader against spoilers.
Signet Classics are still published in the democratic mass-market size, but in most other respects they've come to resemble Penguin Classics. No more original artwork; no more Afterwords.
The current Signet Classics edition of Moby-Dick.