The month of May is come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom and to bring forth fruit! If you're literary enough to recognize that quote from Thomas Malory, you might also know that May is one of the best months of the year to be a bookworm, what with Independent Bookstore Day and National Library Legislative Day, not to mention the birthdays of Whitman, Emerson, and Thomas Pynchon. But you might be surprised by how much of what you think you remember about American literature is wrong. Luckily, Jeopardy! champ and man of letters Ken Jennings is here to set us straight. Let every lusty brain begin to blossom and bring forth fruit!
The Debunker: Does Moby-Dick Begin "Call Me Ishmael"?
The 1851 novel Moby-Dick was originally a major critical disappointment, selling only 3,200 copies during the long lifetime of its author, Herman Melville. But today, it's an indisputable American classic. Even if you've never read a word of Moby-Dick, you probably know about the great white whale, the obsessed one-legged Captain Ahab, that famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael"…
Well, two out of three ain't bad. "Call me Ishmael," perhaps the most famous opening line in literary history, is in fact not the first line of Moby-Dick.
Yes, Chapter 1 ("Loomings") of the novel begins with Ishmael introducing himself. But the so-called first chapter is more like the book's third, thanks to two rambling introductory chapters respectively titled "Etymology" and "Extracts." In these sections, Melville introduces us to two fictitious researchers (a grammar school usher and a "sub-sub-librarian") who begin to educate us on cetology, the study of whales. Many novels begin with an epigraph, a little apropos quotation that precedes the opening lines. But these two chapters go way beyond that, supplying no fewer than eighty epigraphs. They foreshadow the novel's frequent digressions away from the nominal plot into the minutiae and lore of whales and whaling. And they're absolutely part of the novel proper, which means that the first line of Moby-Dick is not "Call me Ishmael," but rather this beauty: "The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now." Hmm, maybe Melville would have sold more copies if he'd tightened that beginning up a little.
Quick Quiz: In the book of Genesis, Ishmael is the first son of what important figure?
Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.