‘There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method’ – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, 1851.
Even people who haven’t read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) know how it begins. ‘Call me Ishmael’ ranks highly in lists of the most famous first lines in literature, and has provided the title for works of criticism inspired British indie musicians, and spawned Carly Rae Jepsen parodies. (Listen to the last one; really, it’s great.)
The problem is that ‘Call me Ishmael’ is not the opening line of Moby-Dick and citing it as such, according to Professor Valentine Cunningham in this letter to The Guardian, is ‘one of literary history’s most arrestingly bad traditions’. Or rather, it’s not the only opening line of Moby-Dick, because if Moby-Dick has one of the most famous beginnings in literature, then it also has one of the most complicated.
The first publication of Melville’s Great American Novel was not in America and was not called Moby-Dick. In 1851, due to the lack of effective international copyright treaties between Britain and America, American authors who wanted their works to be protected in Britain had to ensure that they were published first in Britain. Melville, therefore, arranged for his novel to be published in London by Richard Bentley on 31 October 1851; two weeks before Harpers published the American first edition. Bentley’s publication was titled The Whale, or Moby-Dick and did, indeed, begin with the line ‘Call me Ishmael’ (following a dedication to Nathaniel Hawthorne and a quotation from Milton on the title page). This version of Moby-Dick, however, did not have an epilogue, causing some contemporary reviewers to question how Ishmael narrated the story if he died in the wreck of the Pequod. Instead, the destruction of the Pequod by the white whale is followed by an ‘Etymology’ of the word whale in different languages and a collection of ‘Extracts’ on all things cetological.
Harper’s American first edition was somewhat different. It was called Moby-Dick, or The Whale and concluded with an Epilogue which describes how Ishmael, left behind during the whale hunt, floats away from the wreck of the Pequod on a coffin-turned-life buoy. Furthermore, ‘Etymology’ and ‘Extracts’ now appeared at the start of the text, making the first line of the American Moby-Dick (excluding dedication and chapter headings) the rather less quotable: ‘The pale Usher – threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now’. Scholars are still uncertain as to why the two first editions differ so much; arguments include Melville making last minute changes, and Bentley rearranging the material to create a book with greater commercial appeal (these are summarized in the Historical Notes to the Newberry-Northwestern edition of the text). Almost all modern editions of the book, however, follow the American first edition, meaning that the copy of Moby-Dick you pick up in a library or bookshop won’t begin ‘Call me Ishmael’.
But despite being the real beginning of Moby-Dick, ‘Etymology’ and ‘Extracts’ are frequently overlooked in treatments of Melville’s novel, much to the pain of Melville pedants like myself and, apparently, Professor Cunningham. The recent Moby-Dick Big Read– a project in which members of the public and famous faces (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Cerys Matthews and David Cameron) each read a chapter of the novel – did not include these sections, although I appreciate that they would have been difficult to read aloud.
Recently, however, some scholars have been arguing for their importance. Robert Tally suggests that the polyphony and geographic breadth of the two opening sections demonstrates how Melville’s novel resists reduction to a single, nationalized narrative perspective. Hester Blum sees them as indicative the way Moby-Dick, and other sea narratives, produce meaning from a mixture of book knowledge and labour. Blum even argues that we could relocate the centre of the novel to the ‘Extracts’, reading Ishmael’s narrative as a commentary on them. But both Tally and Blum agree that returning the beginning of Moby-Dick to ‘Extracts’ and ‘Etymology’ destabilizes the text. Instead of the single narrative perspective of Ishmael, we have multiple creators, multiple languages, and multiple texts. By beginning with this ‘careful disorderliness’, Melville’s enacts Ishmael’s assertion, in Chapter 23, ‘The Lee Shore’, that ‘in landlessness alone resides the highest truth’; it is only when we abandon the solid shore that we can hope to see the infinite.
My own research on Melville examines the ways in which his novels engage with and represent the material text (that is, the book as an object) and the conditions of literary production in antebellum America; a period in which the print trade was transformed through industrialization of book manufacture, the economic growth of the literary marketplace, and the expansion of the reading public. From this perspective, it is not only the polyphonic texts of ‘Extracts’ and ‘Etymology’ that might influence readings of Moby-Dick, but what Melville tells us about their authorship and the process by which they were disseminated.
I would argue that the sense of instability identified by Blum and Tally also stems from the way in which these sections gesture backwards to a place and time that is inaccessible to the reader. Both ‘Extracts’ and ‘Etymology’ are preceded by a heading which notes that they have been ‘supplied by’ a ‘Late Consumptive Usher ’ and a ‘Sub-Sub Librarian’ respectively, and short paragraphs that describe their narrators, both of which are in parentheses. The narrator of these paragraphs is not named; it might or might not be Ishmael, but in either case we cannot yet call him Ishmael because he has note not yet invited us to do so. But, if this is not the narrator of the rest of the novel, then how did he get hold of Ishmael’s story? And what has he done to it since? Instead of the oral narrative suggested by ‘Call me Ishmael’, we could instead have a text that has been altered and prefaced by an unknown editor. The invisible hand of this editor would complicate, or even ironize Ishmael’s statement that ‘I have had to do with whales with these visible hands’; rather than artisanal craftsmanship, we begin with an arranging of texts that appears rather mechanical.
Furthermore, ‘Extracts’ and ‘Etymology’ are texts which have been supplied – we might presume in response to a demand, perhaps from this unnamed narrator-editor or from Ishmael himself. Although this specific commissioning is not the same as Moby-Dick’s own circulation in a commercialized literary marketplace, it nevertheless constructs texts as economic objects which can be circulated through trade. Additionally, they are not written by full-time authors, but by men who have day jobs; clerical occupations that are not properly professional, but nevertheless require good levels of literacy. As John Evelev observes, in his study of Melville and professionalism, writers occupied an unfixed position in antebellum society; the role of the author was transformed by a wider nineteenth century shift towards professionalization, but other constructions of authorship (amateur, gentlemanly) were also possible.
It is, of course, nothing new to suggest that Melville was preoccupied with the realms authorship and publication, and that he explores these concerns in Moby-Dick. However, by relocating the novel’s opening from one voice asserting a singular, if equivocal identity, to a beginning which suggests that texts are composite and exchangeable objects, we can begin crafting new perspectives Melville’s engagements with his contemporary print culture.
Hester Blum, The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).
John Evelev, Tolerable Entertainment : Herman Melville and Professionalism in Antebellum New York (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston: Northwestern University Press; Newberry Library, 1988).
Robert T. Tally, “Anti-Ishmael: Novel Beginnings in Moby-Dick,” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 18, no. 1 (February 27, 2007): 1–19.