Anne Fleming

Moby-Dick: more front matter

And now has it begun? Have we yet moved from roman numeral pages to arabic numeral pages? Can we call him Ishmael yet?

No. We cannot.

What follows the etymologies of “whale” is “Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-sub-librarian).” Melville’s made up this “poor devil of a sub-sub” to frame a collection of quotes about whales. Eighty-one of them. Not eight, not twelve, not fifteen. Eighty-one quotes mentioning whales, from the Bible to Darwin (writing just eleven years before Melville). Poking a little fun at yourself, sub-sub Herm? Here is Pilgrim’s Progress: “Silly Mansoul swallowed it without chewing, as if it had been a sprat in the mouth of a whale.” Here is Ulloa’s South America: “…and the breath of the whale is frequently attended with such an insupportable smell, as to bring on a disorder of the brain,” which is indeed an insupportable smell.


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