Melville and oceanic studies

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12 Scopus citations


Call him Tommo; call him Typee, or Paul, or Omoo; call him Taji; call him White-Jacket. Moby-Dick’s “Call me Ishmael” may be the line that lingers in cultural memory, but a nom de marin (as we might call it) is enlisted as well in Typee, Omoo, Mardi, and White-Jacket. Of the six first-person sailor narrators in Melville’s first six novels, only Wellingborough Redburn – a novice on a one-time voyage, no Jack Tar – tells us his real (however baroque) name. Other notable Melvillean narrators without formal names include the anonymous sailor who sketches “The Encantadas,” and, in perhaps the most extreme form, the multiply shape- and name-shifting titular character in the riparian Confidence-Man. What is not always clear, though, is how arbitrary the narrator’s name and its meaning are supposed to be: that is, whether the sailor chooses the new name (as Ishmael seems to) or finds it imposed or picked up as a routine practice within the drift of nautical existence. There are many dozens of minor characters nicknamed according to their places of origin, nautical association, or appearance in Melville’s novels, from the Manxman and the Skyeman to Selvagee and Doctor Long Ghost; these are drawn from a comic tradition of genre fiction (such as that of Tobias Smollett or Walter Scott) in which characters are reduced to types. Such is not the primary case with Melville’s first-person narrators whose personhood is pseudonymized; even when they move from the center to the periphery of their own narrative, as Ishmael does, they are not types. What form of handle do these names provide for sailors – or readers – to grasp? What do the pseudonyms keep at bay? There is something about maritime life, perhaps, that invites such provisional naming.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781139149952
ISBN (Print)9781107023130
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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