In his article, “The Chain of Awesomeness” (July/August 2016 issue of Writers Digest), Jeff Somers explained why the classic opening to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was an effective one-liner. It’s an iconic sentence: Call me Ishmael.
Here’s what Jeff said: “Moby-Dick‘s first line seems straightforward, but look closely and you’ll notice it instantly raises questions. Why not simply say, ‘My name is Ishmael’? The ‘Call me’ implies there’s something else going on, and in order to find out what it is you’re going to have to keep reading.”
Jeff is right, of course. The sentence is an attention-grabber, but I think he missed the reason why the sentence is such a great one. It all lies in the name Ishmael.
When Melville first released Moby-Dick in 1851, I imagine the bulk of his fans knew precisely who Ishmael was, so no doubt the first question his readers asked was, “Who would name their character after Abraham’s bastard son?”
Has the day come when names from the Bible and the classics are no longer known? Does anyone know what a Lilliputian is? Who Sir Gawain was? Or Jo March? Have we stooped so far as to not recognize a Capulet?
Sometimes I wonder about the state of our public education. I feel like an old woman, crying out with a tone of suspicion blended with surprise, “What are they teaching you up there at that school?”
Before I get too carried away in my rant, I have to admit that there are references to contemporary things that are totally lost on me. There is an entire vocabulary known only to Dr. Who fans — not to mention the one wrapped around the tongues of Star Wars fans, Harry Potter fans, and fans of a multitude of other contemporary shows and movies.
I’m old. A point driven home not long ago by someone asking me who John Wayne was. Driven home farther by finding things I grew up with in antique stores.
Still, I thought people would understand the significance of Ishmael’s name in Moby-Dick. But then again, maybe I should be surprised anyone is familiar with Moby-Dick at all.