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Swimming Through Libraries
Humanities (2009)
  • James Williford
“Call me Ishmael” is undoubtedly the most famous sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; but it is not, despite popular belief, the first—at least, not exactly. Between the novel’s title page and Ishmael’s self-introduction are two chapters of decidedly bookish front matter: first, an “Etymology” of the word “whale,” including its Hebrew, Latin, and Greek forms; and, second, a collection of whale-related “Extracts” drawn from the Bible, Pliny’s Natural History, Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, James Fenimore Cooper’s Pilot, and a remarkable variety of other sources. The narrator claims that these prefaces were compiled by “a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School” and “a poor devil of a Sub-Sub” librarian, respectively. But, of course, both the “usher” and the “sub-sub” are inventions: It was Melville himself who had, as he put it, “gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane.”
Publication Date
July, 2009
Citation Information
James Williford. "Swimming Through Libraries" Humanities Vol. 30 Iss. 4 (2009)
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