A General Lament

Richard Basehart as IshmaelIn 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.

Sigh.

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.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
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16 Responses to A General Lament

  1. Pegg Thomas says:

    Moby Dick is an all-time favorite of mine! I’ve always loved that opening line. I know the others you mention except “Jo March.” You stumped me there. But someone not knowing who John Wayne was? That is ignorance is its purest form. 😉

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  2. Don’t be discouraged there really are some in the next generation who understand all the references you just made. And now I will add insult to injury. I never made the connection to the name Ishmael, ever. I assumed most people of the period named there family after Biblical Characters. Even Jezebel can be found in the tomes of birth records of the period. I never read Moby Dick. But I’ve seen every version of the movie, including the cartoon starring Mr. Magoo. Let me assure you I’ve read all the other books you refer too.
    How many love this first line. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This book was never on a a reading list in the schools I attended way back in the 70s. I read Tale of Two Cities as an adult. The majority of the classics I read as a young mother. Perhaps with time all those school children with come to understand the same characters our generation holds so dear if they hang on to reading as an adult.

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    • A Tale of Two Cities was probably considered too long back in the day — but I remember Oliver Twist being on our reading list. I wonder if today’s school kids will ever see these classics.

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  3. Her’s something to make you laugh. An older guy( about my age.) in my critique group name a horse character Black Beauty. When I laughed and said really. I got a blank stare. He never read horse books growing up and apparently never watched horse movies either. I suggested he find a more original name. even our own generation suffers from the same malady. 🙂

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  4. Gay Ingram says:

    I think it’s your final comment that resonates with me – <> -the education, or lack of, our younger generations are coming out of school with sometimes astounds me.

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  5. A great post. I do hope that even if some of the characters from classic literature are lost, those from the Bible will not be. I don’t care so much if my kids know who Sir Gawain is, but I do expect them to know Ishmael. Seems the second is much more important than the first.

    And I never cared much for classic literature. Well, I love Austen and many of the more popular books, but I guarantee that when I settle in with a good book, it’s not going to have “Melville” on the title page. (Or Homer or Plato, for that matter.) I had to read Moby Dick in school, and it was what felt like ten thousand pages of pure torture. I was the girl rooting for the whale, so the story would end sooner. 🙂

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    • Well, I’m with you about wanting the kids to know the people from the Bible more than the ones from the classics, and I agree that Moby-Dick was a tedious read, but I still hope schools teach the classics. Yes, when I “settle in with a good book,” I choose something entirely different, but there’s a difference between recreational reading and educational reading. Hidden in the classics is the heritage of the world. I hate to see it lost.

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  6. In regard to reading, I think it is all subjective. I have never read Moby Dick and never plan to. The story line, however wonderful in all the literary sense, has never appealed to me. (I know, I know. You can throw wet noodles at me.)

    I have tried many times to read Steinbeck and I just can’t swallow him. However, I read every, and I do mean every, book my hometown library had on Archeology by the age of twelve. I never cared for Black Beauty, but fell in love with Seabiscut and Man of War. I did read Little Women, but it’s been so long ago I don’t remember any of the characters. I read Last of the Mahicans, but not many similar classics. I loved Tom Sawyer, O’Henry, Ambrose Bierce, and Emma Orczy. And one of my all time favorites, The Wind in the Willows. Yet, it’s been years since I’ve read any of them.

    I do find it alarming how many of our young people do not read. After growing up in a family of readers, it is hard for me to understand. My dad may never have read the classics, except Moby Dick, (Isn’t that ironic), yet he reads voraciously. He always has a book open beside his chair.

    Yet, this younger generation has given us one of the bravest and best trained, volunteer army. They have the blessed us with astounding advances in medicine and technology. They have grown up understanding and using devices our generation believed were science fiction. Each generation has its strength and its failures.

    So, I guess each generation can say, “It was the best of times, and the worst of times.”

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    • There is a lot of truth in what you say, and a lot that’s honorable about this generation. Actually, they grew up with an understanding of devices our generation developed and the following generations perfected. The first computers, cell phones, medical devices, etc. were created long before these kids were born. We walked on the moon before their parents had an inkling of life ahead. That’s not to snub this generation. They will have their own contributions to humanity. Each generation builds upon the one before.

      People our age may not read the classics now, but we did at one time–even if it was required in school, which is my point. The ones I had to read may have been different from the ones you had to read, but we read them, and sometimes, the words and wisdom stuck with us long after we forgot the plots. Because so much history and philosophy is wrapped up in classical literature, I hate to see it ignored in the schools. But I suppose it must go the way of art and music appreciation, and eventually history, I suppose, because things that happened before the here and now no longer seem to hold relevance in today’s 140-character world.

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      • You are right about those points, Linda. Our generation has contributed immensely to our nation. And yes, all students should be introduced to all of the classics. Our mothers introduced new foods to us (especially vegetables) even though we fought her over it. How will we know what we like if we don’t try it?

        However, more important than that, everyone’s education should include the history of art, literature, film, music, country, and the world. We cannot be rounded individuals without a rounded education. I agree our school’s current curriculum isn’t as rounded as it should be, and, great literature offers truth through exceptional stories of human struggle – like Moby Dick. 😉

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        • Right. That’s my thought exactly. I think the arts are important. We focus so much on socio-economic issues and concrete studies like math and science that we tend to ignore a student’s creative side.

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