“Ishmael is Ahab, You Firkin Ash-holes,” by Brian Borrough

Nov 15th, 2017 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Item 151. Perhaps the most important literary correspondence we’ve ever offered: an unrecorded handwritten letter from Herman Melville to G.P. (George) Putnam, publisher of Melville’s first novel (Typee) and several of his short stories. This letter doesn’t appear in The New Melville Log or Correspondence, but its provenance is an unbroken chain, and the handwriting unquestioned. All pages have minor foxing; a few unobtrusive tears on page two; one coffee-ring stain on page one partially obscuring the date; several large (including one full-page) blue-pencil question marks scattered throughout. Important, compelling, and rare.

Endnotes and bracketed references are ours.

Price on Request


GP Putnam, Esq., 1854



I remain crestfallen over Moby Dick’s US failure (barely 2,000 copies sold…). Did Harper’s run their ads in Gaelic? Disappearing ink? And so soon after it face-planted as “The Whale” in England. (Not even 200 first printings sold!) Didn’t help that Bentley yanked the Epilogue & slapped a flukin’ Right Whale on the spines—did he even read the book? I had hoped the title & missing Epilogue were the only problems in England. Admittedly, “The Whale” is not catching; it’s as creative as the dolt who named the orange. And the Epilogue; nothing strains credulity like the narrator telling you how he died.[1]

Clearly, there were larger issues. [Illegible] warned this novel was over my readers’ heads & I disagreed. He was right; for the wrong reasons. Despite numerous clues, everyone missed my experimental subtilties [sic]. It seems that to make my point, I must twist a harpoon up my readers’ hawse-holes.

The UK reviews did’nt [sic] help. London Spectator, my writing “induces weariness and skipping”?[October 1851]  Would that I could grow weary of skipping stones off their balls. Or the math savants at Albion: “9/10ths” of Ahab’s dialogue is “spouted nonsense”?[November 1851] Cute, but the 1/10th that remains beats 11/10ths of anything those limey pricks’ve penned. Keel-haul the US critics, too. Did the Democratic Review conjure Allan Sr.?[2] Just for them, here’s another sample of my “bad rhetoric, involved syntax, stilted sentiment & incoherent English”[January 1852] —go stuff your blowholes with futtock-timbers & seamen you feckless has-beens & never-will-bes. I presume you’ve seen the Boston Post review? They think the $1.50 price of my “crazy, conceited, affected affair” a “poor speculation” but vouchsafe it might be worth “twenty-five cents”?[November 1851] If it’s two bits they need, I have them right here: ‘eat’ & ‘shit’. My, it’s easy to criticize; but truthfully I care not a fig about those bible-thumping news-lubbers.

I digress; channeled my inner Ahab there. Which brings my point: George, given the ass-chapping nature of my narrative structure & point of view handling, I beleive [sic, throughout] a clarifying author’s introduction, in a new Putnam edition could make Moby Dick ascendant. (My brother Allan is confident Harpers will sell the rights to Putnam’s for a rhyme as their purse is strained since the warehouse fire, & they think me crazy.) Here’s the subtilty everyone missed: there is no Ishmael, he’s a cipher—Ishmael is Ahab, & they are both…sides of me. Therein lies the meta-fictional mystery within my soul-rending work of top-gallant genius.

Follow me: ‘Character’ Ishmael, the green-hand kicking around Nantucket and working aboard the Pequod, is shades of young Ahab, & ‘narrator’ Ishmael is the hoary, wizened Ahab, humbled & repentant at last, sabbee?—the same empathetic, humane Ahab who resurfaces in “The Symphony.”

The clues, which I’d spell out far better in the introduction to our new edition:

1) “Call me Ishmael.” Who says that? Right out of the gate, the narrator’s coy about his given name. This syntax is relegated to liars, swindlers, & ladies of the night (not that I’d know). The name, of course, is from Genesis, whose Ishmael was “a wild mule,” “his hand against everyone…living in hostility toward all his brothers.” Who’s that sound like? (Hint: peg-leg)

2) Dear reader, whose Point Of View besides Ahab’s could report on Ahab’s soliloquies, his visit (sans ‘Ishmael’) aboard the Samuel Enderby, his private come-to-Ahab talks with Starbuck, his whaleboat lowerings, captain’s table dinners, personal thoughts(!), motivations, & nightmares? How’d you imagine the narrator (don’t call him Ishmael) divined his fulsome Ahab-insight despite never speaking to the Captain in the entire novel? Phrenology from the foremast? Did no one wonder why the bookish, foc’s’le-hand narrator admitted that “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine”?[Ch. 51] I left crumbs everywhere…

Non-beleivers will be directed to re-read “The Gilder”: here’s the brackish POV delta, Ishmael’s river churning with the gulf of Ahab; honestly, in the re-drafting I never knew who the hell was speaking the “Ifs Eternally” speech.[3] That’s why I dropped the quotation marks.

I was certain these repeated POV-fails were blatant clues, but readers (all fifty of them) didn’t notice, & half-wit critics wrote-off the style as “sufficiently absurd”[Evening Courant, November 1851] or “hastily, weakly or obscurely managed.”[Athenaeum, October 1851] Daggoo, please! I have an ‘eerie’ canal to sell the frigate idiots who think I made those POV decisions in err or unwittingly. I’m Herman Melville, dammit!

3) The biggest clue, of course, was half the goddamn book. How does the “wholly ignorant of whaling”[Ch. 12] narrator (call him Ishmael, see what happens), on his First whaling voyage, later narrate thirty-four chapters of pedantic tangents on whales—cetology, taxonomy, anatomy, history, archaeology, mythology, &c., plus idiosyncrasies of the hunt privy only to veteran whalers? Nightly pillow talk with Queequeg? Did even the critics beleive this novice boned-up after the fact? Halloo! daffy readers, it’s Ahab! The captain of forty years’ experience who “sometimes masked himself”[Ch. 33]; he’s your narrator: he spouts like Shakespeare, riffs on the Bible, divines problems in everything, & is monomaniacally obsessed with whales—all like the narrator! For fuck’s sake! Those chapters of whaling exposition are Ahab’s monomania ‘sublimed’ & tethered to the more acceptable pursuit of obsessive-ass research.

(Hawthorne picked up on these clues. At our last card game before he vamoosed, he noted with a wink that Ishmael seems whale-wiser than Ahab, and must needs be either Tristram Shandy or a clairvoyant parrot perched on Ahab’s shoulder to narrate so broadly. And you wonder why I’m man-crushing on him.)

4) The Epilogue’s revelation: “Because one did survive the wreck”—here again coy on names: Not “I,” nor “Ishmael” survived. Why? Because, abracadabra, Ahab alone survived. Not the proverbial, nor a defensible, position for the captain of a sunk ship—thus the Ishmael cipher. Note I never wrote Ahab perished, only that he was de-boated by Moby Dick, as was the narrator earlier in the same chapter, same chase: there are no coincidences. And according to the narrator (let’s call him Ahab), who is the sole survivor rescued by the Rachel? “Another orphan”—& Who is the orphan lodestar of the story?[Ch. 16] (Hint: human lighting rod). Everyone missed what I did there—the opening & closing words were bookend clues. “Call me Ishmael…another orphan.”

Is my style still “maniacal, gibbering, screaming—mad as a March hare,”[July 1853] New Monthly Magazine? You know those jerk-offs, George – tell them I said ‘Ishmael Is Ahab, you firkin ash-holes.’

These are but a few hints. I’ll share more, including Starbuck’s role, over a tall, overpriced coffee next month. Let’s fix this thing. I still beleive it’s my finest work, even when I’m not pounding brandy. I dont’ [sic] want to be known to eternity as Herman Melville, author of cannibal-romances[4] & “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (another story no-one besides you fucking gets).

Alas, it grows dark, my eyes sting, & I’m nearly out of lamp oil & booze. I’m anxious for your thoughts. If you & Charles are fain to proceed, please send Allan (14 Wall St) a contract for a new edition. If you’re not fain, you may hie to blazes & I shall go & try my hand at poetry.


Call me H-Mel



[1] Melville’s British publisher (Richard Bentley) excised the Epilogue, which confirmed the narrator as the Pequod’s sole survivor, from the London edition.

[2] Melville’s father, who once wrote that young Herman was “backward in speech…slow in comprehension.”

[3] Critics have long debated whether Ishmael or Ahab speaks this part.

[4] Melville’s first two novels, “Typee” and “Omoo”, the best-selling of his lifetime.


Brian Borrough lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and daughter. He is a consultant and adult literacy tutor. His writing has appeared in Every Day Fiction and received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. He earned the coveted two-star-sticker honor for his seminal 5th grade paper: “Why Barry Sanders is so Much Better than your Favorite Running Back.” Follow him only after signing the online waiver & release.

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.