CALL ME ISHMAELIshmael . . . sail about a little and see the watery part of the world: In Genesis 16 and 21, Ishmael is the son of Abraham and his servant Hagar; but when Abraham's wife, Sarah, gives birth to Isaac in her old age, Abraham disowns Ishmael and Hagar, casting them out into the desert. In Melville's day an "Ishmael" referred to an outcast and wanderer in conflict with others, while in Jewish and Islamic traditions Ismail is the progenitor of the Arab peoples. Modern writers have played with the novel's famous first line: Ray Bradbury, for example, quotes it in his radio drama Leviathan 99 (1966); Philip Roth's baseball saga, The Great American Novel (1973) begins with "Call me Smitty"; an unsettled Native American in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine (1984) applies the line to himself; and in Democracy (1984), Joan Didion teases with "Call me the author." Melville wandered a good deal himself; he had been a merchant seaman in 1839, sailing from New York to Liverpool and back, and in 1841 he set sail for the Pacific on the whaling ship Acushnet, returning in 1844 as an ordinary seaman on the U. S. Frigate United States.. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen,spleen: melancholy or irritation, from the spleen’s supposed fluid or “humour.” and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hyposhypos: short for “hypochondria,” or depression. get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ballpistol and ball . . . Cato: Ishmael may resort to pistol and ball either to commit suicide or fight a duel. Roman Republican Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Younger) committed suicide in 46 BCE rather than submit to Julius Caesar.. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
There now is your insular city of the ManhattoesManhattoes: Residents of Manhattan, New York , in Washington Irving's A History of New York (1809). In form, tone, and detail, the prefatory matter and some later chapters of Moby-Dick show Irving's influence, although Melville is generally understood as disparaging him in "Hawthorne and His Mosses.", belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the Battery Battery: site (near Melville’s birthplace) of a fort on the southern tip of Manhattan island guarding New York harbor. With landfill, the area grew, even in Melville's youth, into what is now Battery Park., where that noble molemole: massive sea wall. is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.
Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hookfrom Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and thence, by Whitehall northward: Ishmael's proposed walk begins at the disreputable Lower East Side tenement area called Corlears Hook (just south of the present-day Williamsburg Bridge) and proceeds down Water Street to the city's southern-most wharf, Coenties Slip, then back up Whitehall Street on the west side to Bowling Green Park and what is now the terminus of fashionable Broadway. to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spilesspiles: foundation posts for piers. ; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarksbulwarks: pronounced BUL-uhrks, a ship’s sides above the deck. of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinchedtied . . . nailed . . . clinched: a series of increasing entrapments. to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?
But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady leelee: the side protected from the wind. of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leaguesleague: three nautical miles. . Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
Once more. Say, you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desertgreat American desert: the then largely unknown semi-arid plains between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. , try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco Saco: scenic central New Hampshire valley and a common subject for painters. . What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd’s head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd’s eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him. Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies—what is the one charm wanting?—Water—there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennesseepoor poet of Tennessee: not identified and probably Melville’s invention., upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway BeachRockaway Beach: On Long Island’s southwestern shore, a popular resort for New Yorkers. Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old PersiansPersians . . . brother of Jove?: According to Greek historian Herodotus, the ancient Persians sacrificed to the earth, sun, and moon as well as to wind, fire, and water. Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea and brother of Zeus (the Roman Jove). hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of JoveREVISION NARRATIVE: and own brother of Jove // Ishmael’s question—intended to mean something like, Why did the Greeks make the sea a separate deity and make him Jove’s own brother?—seems incomplete as written. Either Melville or a British editor inserted the words “make him the” to give “and make him the own brother of Jove,” thus only marginally improving the sentence. The NN edition adds the British revision to its text; MEL makes no change. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin.? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of NarcissusNarcissus: Modern readers assume that in Greek myth, Narcissus after falling in love with his image in a fountain, drowned himself because he could not embrace it. Classical sources, however, generally depict Narcissus either wasting away or killing himself on land—turning into the flower named for him. But Melville was familiar with authors who allude to a watery death, including Plotinus (201–270 C.E.) in the Enneads, and Shakespeare in “The Rape of Lucrece.”, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;—no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a CommodoreCommodore: then the highest rank in the U.S. Navy. , or a Captain, or a CookCook: The capitalization of “cook” allows Melville to pun on the name of well-known British explorer Captain James Cook (1728-1779).. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schoonersships, barques, brigs, schooners: common sailing vessels in descending size., and what not. And as for going as cook,—though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board—yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;—though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted river horseriver horse: hippopotamus. , that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids.
No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mastbefore the mast: that is, living in the forecastle, the common sailors’ dormitory at the bow of a ship, in front of the foremast. Melville greatly admired his "sea-brother" Richard Henry Dana, Jr., whose Two Years Before the Mast (1840) made this sailor term generally known. In his May 1, 1850 letter to Dana about his writing of Moby-Dick, Melville stated that he was “half way in the work” and that, when completed, “it will be a strange sort of a book” (NN Correspondence, 162)., plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-headroyal mast-head: top of the highest section of a mast. . True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to sparspar to spar: from one wooden sail support to another., like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one’s sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaersvan Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes: both of Melville’s grandfathers were high-ranking officers in the Revolutionary War, and he descended on both sides from distinguished merchant families, including an uncle who was a prominent Albany banker and lawyer. Although Melville was distantly related to the New York Van Rensselaer family, which dates back to Dutch colonial days, he did not have a share in their significant wealth. The Randolphs were southern aristocrats. Hardicanute, facetiously referred to here, was an early and notorious Danish king of England., or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmastercountry schoolmaster: Melville taught in the Sykes school district, near Pittsfield, MA, in 1837, and at the Greenbush and Schodack Academy, near Albany, NY, in 1839-1840., making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the StoicsSeneca and the Stoics: Roman philosopher, tragic poet, and adviser to Nero, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (d. CE 65) advocated emotional restraint and indifference to suffering; when asked by his emperor to kill himself, he did so, stoically. to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.
What of it, if some old hunkshunks: grouch. of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament?
Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance?
Revision Narrative: What the Archangel Gabriel Thinks // Melville’s British editor cut Ishmael’s first question, probably because of its flippant reference to Gabriel, who in the Bible heralds the Judgment Day. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. Who
REVISION NARRATIVE: Ishmael and Slavery // In his rhetorical question "Who aint a slave?" Ishmael adopts an African American dialect to underscore the slave-like conditions of sailors and his own empathy for America's slaves. Ishmael’s rhetoric reflects the frequently-heard arguments of the 1840s that compared northern “wage slaves” to the chattel slaves of the South and alludes in general to the slavery controversy, which, with the passage of laws known as the Compromise of 1850, was growing ever more heated. However, Melville's British editor "corrected" Ishmael's grammar by revising “aint” to “is not,” thus undermining Melville's comic stage-playing. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.
Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid.
The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,—what will compare with it?
Revision Narrative: Adam and Eve as Thieves // In this paragraph about the difference between “paying and being paid,” the British removed these two amusingly blasphemous sentences referring to Adam and Eve as “orchard thieves,” who, because they disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, were punished by, among other things, having to sweat for a living. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin. The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaventhe root of all earthly ills . . . monied man enter heaven: A conflation of New Testament passages: “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy: 6.10) and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19.24, Mark 10.25; and almost verbatim in Luke 18.25).. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!
Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the
Pythagorean maximPythagorean maxim: sixth century BCE philosopher Pythagoras advised against eating beans to avoid flatulence (or “winds from astern”).),
so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it. But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way—he can better answer than any one else.
And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
Providence and Politics on Stage // Melville’s British editor cut two sentences and revised a third, effectively ruining Ishmael’s joke in which God places him on stage sandwiched between two great political events of the day. Previous to these three sentences, Ishmael states that only the “invisible police officer of the Fates” can account for his decision to go whaling. However, in getting to his joke, he shifts, in the next two sentences, to a stage metaphor, comparing God’s will to “the grand programme of Providence” and Ishmael’s whaling voyage to just an “interlude and solo.” Perhaps the Fates of Greek mythology can be treated lightly, but not so Christianity's God; the blasphemous joke had to be changed. But in expurgating both sentences, the British editor also had to revise the next sentence because its reference to “the bill” (i.e., the playbill for the “programme”) would no longer make sense. Thus, words were added to refer the reader back to “the Fates,” earlier in the passage. In the British edition, then, Melville’s mildly blasphemous joke is gone and his original sentence—“I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:”—instead reads “I take it that this part of the bill of those three mysterious ladies must have run something like this:”. Here, the playbill is confusingly linked to “the Fates,” or, more specifically in the revision, to the three old women who spin, measure, and cut the thread of a person’s life. To compare American and British pages, click the thumbnails in the right margin.
“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.
Grand Contested Election for the Presidency . . . Bloody Battle in Affghanistan: Ishmael imagines a theatrical performance in which his whaling voyage, a minor occasion, is sandwiched between the staged re-enactment of two momentous historical events. In 1848, Whig candidate Zachary Taylor lost the popular vote but won the presidency in the Electoral College because of a split between anti-slavery Free Soilers and the largely pro-slavery Democratic party. A revolt in 1841–42 against British colonial rule in Kabul, Afghanistan led to the destruction of a retreating British battalion; only one man survived.
“whaling voyage by one ishmael.
“BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”
Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fatesthose stage managers, the Fates: In The Big Sleep (1939), novelist Raymond Chandler has his hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe say “Fate stage-managed the whole thing.” Compare Ch. 134, note 4; see also Revision Narrative for "And doubtless," directly above., put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces—though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.
Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverableundeliverable: indescribable., nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand PatagonianPatagonian sights and sounds: Patagonia, the southern extreme of South America, is a region of legend and mystery. sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coastsI love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts: Ishmael sounds like a moderate version of Edgar Allan Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket: “My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears . . . in an ocean unapproachable and unknown” (Ch. 2). Melville’s brother Gansevoort owned a copy of Poe’s 1838 novel, which begins in Nantucket and opens with the words “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.”. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges inI am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in: This sentiment seems to have a source in Thomas Hope's, Anastasius (Vol. 2, Ch. 4), bought by Melville in 1849 and marked by him, referring to an Arab sect’s being respectful to the Devil: “they think it wise to make friends everywhere—not knowing where their destiny may ultimately fix them.”. By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceitsconceits: imaginings. that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the airsnow hill in the air: In actuality, a surfaced whale shows only a small fraction of its bulk. Even so, for centuries writers had exaggerated the whale’s appearance, making it a land mass. Melville’s Ishmael plays with this trope..