WILKES, Charles (1798-1877)
Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842
Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1845 [text]; London: Wiley & Putnam, 1845 [atlas]. 6 volumes (text: 5 vols.; atlas: 1 vol.), quarto. (12 1/2 x 9 5/8 inches). Text: half-titles. Portrait, 64 plates, 9 maps, numerous vignettes; atlas: letterpress title and contents page otherwise engraved throughout, 5 folding maps backed onto linen (1 hand-coloured).
Expertly bound to style in black straight-grained morocco gilt, covers with double-fillet gilt borders, (text) spines in six compartments with raised bands, lettered in the second and fourth compartments, the others with repeat decoration in gilt, (atlas) the flat spine lettered longitudinally in gilt, marbled endpapers
First "unofficial" quarto edition of the narrative of the first American naval exploring expedition: one of only 150 copies printed (only 100 of which were for sale), here with a very rare variant of the atlas volume with a London imprint.
The importance of the Wilkes Expedition, the first United States scientific expedition by sea, cannot be overstated. Wilkes' six ships ranged from Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and Peru, to Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Singapore. "The chief fields of exploration in this expedition were the coast of the Antarctic continent, the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and the American northwest coast. In total, some 280 islands of the Pacific and adjacent waters and 800 miles of streams and coasts in the Oregon country were surveyed and 1600 miles of the coast of Antarctica were charted" (Hill). Perhaps the expedition's most notable achievements were the extensive survey of the American northwest coast and the exploration of the Antarctic coast, which finally proved "the existence of the seventh continent. Equally important, the Expedition collected and described natural history specimens from all parts of the globe - specimens that eventually came to the fledgling Smithsonian Institution, making it the National Museum of the United States. In a wider sense, the Expedition led to the emergence of the United States as a naval and scientific power with worldwide interests" (Magnificent Voyagers, p.9).
The publication of Wilkes's narrative is complex, though well described by Haskell in his bibliography of the expedition's publications. The first issue of the first edition (Haskell 1), called by Haskell the "official edition," was published in November or December 1844, appeared in quarto format, with the title bearing the imprint of the printer Sherman and dated 1844. Only 100 copies of this issue were authorized and ordered by Congress, of which 25 were destroyed in a fire. This original "official" issue was almost exclusively used for presentation to states and foreign governments and is virtually never seen on the market: "virtually all copies are in institutional libraries" (Rosove).
In January 1845, Wilkes, who had retained the copyright for his narrative ("to protect my reputation, being unwilling that a garbled edition should be printed by others") had published the first "unofficial" edition (Haskell 2A). This quarto edition is identical in every respect to the first official edition, with the exception of a change in wording to the half-title (i.e. without "By authority of Congress") and with the title bearing the date 1845 and with Lea and Blanchard's imprint on the title recto with Sherman's imprint moved to the verso. Only 150 copies of this issue were printed, which according to Wilkes was "for the purpose of presentation to my friends and for sale to those who should desire a book of that size." Wilkes would retain for presentation twenty-five copies of this issue, while a further twenty-five sets were used to replace copies of the "official" issue destroyed by fire; the remaining 100 were available for sale [present set].
In the same year as the first "unofficial" issue, an edition of 1000 copies was published for wider, more public distribution(Haskell 2B). This issue appeared in large octavo format and with the text completely reset in smaller type, with some textual changes. It is this edition of the narrative which is generally encountered in today's marketplace.
Each of the above issues were accompanied by an atlas. Haskell lists four issues or editions of the atlas: three corresponding to the above three issues (Haskell 16, quarto "official" issue, 100 copies printed; Haskell 17A, quarto "unofficial" issue, 150 copies printed; Haskell 17B, imperial octavo "unofficial" issue, 1000 copies printed); and the fourth (Haskell 18), and perhaps the rarest, bearing a London imprint [as the present example]. Haskell records but one known copy of this London issue.
Haskell 2A (text) & 18 (atlas); Hill 1866; Howes W414, "b"; Rosove 353.A2; Spence 1262; Tweney Washington 83.