In December of 1851, the newly formed Harper's Monthly Magazine
began its section of "Literary Notices" with an anonymous
and self-congratulatory puff. "A new work by Herman Melville,
entitled Moby Dick; or The Whale, has just been issued by Harper
and Brothers, which, in point of richness and variety of incident,
originality of conception, and splendor of description, surpasses
any of the former productions of this highly successful author."1
At roughly the same time, The International Magazine of Literature,
Art, and Science-a rival of Harper's in the marketplace for literary
periodicals-published one of the first negative reviews of Moby-Dick.
More accurately, it re-published one of the first negative reviews
of Moby-Dick, appending to it only a brief explanatory paragraph:
The new nautical story by the always successful author of Typee,
has for its name-giving subject a monster first introduced to the
world of print by Mr. J. N. Reynolds, ten or fifteen years ago,
in a paper for the Knickerbocker, entitled Mocha Dick. We received
a copy when it was too late to review it ourselves for this number
of the International, and therefore make use of a notice of it which
we find in the London Spectator.2
out one of Melville's source-texts and freely admitting its use
of a foreign notice, The International Magazine at once challenges
Harper's claims to Moby-Dick's "originality of conception"
and forswears its own "originality." In so doing, the
International Magazine provides a useful corrective to conceptions
of romantic authorship that have, over the course of the last two
hundred years, become commonplace in American culture. For a good
many writers in the 19th century, "originality" simply
was not always at a premium-newness was neither the first nor the
best measure of a book's value.3 The Spectator's notice, which rails
against the "rhapsody run mad" (802) of Moby-Dick's metaphysical
digressions and the unconventionality of its narrative structure,
treats the novelty of Melville's novel with a high level of vitriol.
In what follows, I hope to show how Moby-Dick was at least as contemptuous
of romantic newness as its harshest critics. Although a century
of scholarship has denigrated and obscured its textual copyings
in order to defend the book's "originality," the fact
remains that much of Moby-Dick consists of borrowed excerpts patchworked
over a purloined narrative frame.4 Taken in nineteenth century American
context, this is not such an incendiary statement; even though modern
copyright law would consider Moby-Dick to be at least partially
plagiarized, the word "plagiarism" does not accurately
describe Melville's practice. This is not because Melville "transformed"
everything he borrowed, as the vast majority of Melville critics
argue, but because, as Michael Newbury points out, in the nineteenth
century "literary property simply was not, even in an age of
rapidly expanding industrial capitalism and possessive individualism,
hegemonically understood to be a natural, inalienable, or self-evident
possession of the writer or anybody else."5 Even so, Moby-Dick
is a transgressive work: the very notion of the copied text still
productively disrupts conceptions of art, artistry, and society
built around philosophies of possessive individualism. Here I mean
to suggest that by obscuring the origins of ideas, characters, or
narratives, the copy disturbs that connection between creation and
creator that forms the basis of post-enlightenment subjectivity.6
This essay contends that motivated copying (cited and uncited) is
the key to Moby-Dick's critiques of authorship and liberal citizenship
and is the founding principle of its imagination of a more perfect
To understand the book's copyist ethos, I will explore Moby-Dick's
deployment and development of the "splice."7 A nautical
figure that Melville borrows from his experience as a whaleman,
"splicing" refers to the material practice of interweaving
strands from two ropes together in order to form a single line.8
Noah Webster's American Dictionary of 1828 itself copies from an
unspecified "Mar[itime] Dict[ionary]" to define the verb.
"Splice: To separate the strands of the two ends of a rope,
and unite them by a particular manner of interweaving them; or to
unite the end of a rope to any part of another by a like interweaving
of the strands."9 In Moby-Dick, this interweaving becomes a
controlling metaphor at the level of composition and at the level
of its political and ethical program: throughout the narrative,
the splice appears as shorthand for relationships created through
emulation, citation, and non-proprietary sharing among disparate
texts and disparate persons. To tell its story of the social and
political perils of "monomania" and possessive individualism,
Melville's tale becomes collaborative and polyvocal-it braids multiple
narratives from multiple texts into a single thread.10
In Moby-Dick, the figure who most fervently espouses this method
of composition that disdains literary property and who most eagerly
dismisses the question of "originality" is Ishmael, the
book's narrator and fictive author. As a member of the brotherhood
of "ostentatious smuggling verbalists" (334), Ishmael
continually calls attention to the fact that his book is made from
other books, that his story is the synthetic product of multiple
"authorities" which resist hierarchical arrangement.11
Ishmael figures the appropriation, duplication, and reproduction
of other works as a kind of anti-proprietary "weaving"-always
exploiting etymologies, he insists on the textile nature of his
text. Prefacing the Town-Ho's story-an account of another ship's
encounter with the white whale-Ishmael provides the basic model
of his compositional practices. "Interweaving in its proper
place [a] darker thread with the story as publicly narrated on the
ship, the whole of this strange affair I now proceed to put on lasting
record" (208). Like Moby-Dick, Ishmael's rehearsal of the Town-Ho's
tale reproduces and re-presents its textual ancestors; it braids
borrowed source material into its own logic in the interest of creating
a "lasting record." Without the dark string, there can
be no whole cloth; without the copying, the "weaving"
may not progress.12
This appropriative and textile imaginary is present from the very
first pages of the book; even before the first narrative chapter,
"Loomings," the fabrication of Moby-Dick has begun. The
American edition starts not with a famous imperative ("Call
me Ishmael.") but rather with two chapters of excerpted material,
"Etymology" and "Extracts."13 The former-expressly
borrowed from a "late consumptive usher" (1)-is a lexicographical
history of "whale" that illustrates the word in thirteen
different languages (from Hebrew to Erromangoan) and that reproduces
English derivations from Webster and Richardson. These authorities
conflict: Webster finds the root in the "Sw[edish]. and Dan[ish].
hval. This animal is named from roundness or rolling; for in Dan.
hvalt is arched or vaulted" (1). Richardson, on the other hand,
states that "[whale] is more immediately from the Dut[ch].
and Ger[man]. Wallen; A[nglo]. S[axon]. Walw-ian, to roll, to wallow"
(1). Faced with a choice between derivations, Ishmael prefers not
to choose. Recorded without comment or gloss-each is plausible,
neither is preferable, both are necessary-these etymologies at once
highlight the braided nature of the text and proleptically indicate
the slipperiness and multiplicity of the truth about whales.
Moby-Dick's second (American) section enacts a similar dynamic of
copying and interweaving: "Extracts" takes passages compiled
by a "Sub-Sub-Librarian," and presents them chronologically
as a "higgledy-piggledy of "whale-statements." Although
its products are not to be taken as "veritable gospel cetology,"
Ishmael's commonplace-book approach to the whale-in-language is
the best he can do: "My object...is simply to project the draught
of a systematization of cetology. I am the architect, not the builder"
(118). As architect, he imagines himself to be responsible for the
broad conceptual outlines of the work, not for its perfected realization.
As he insists, "small erections may be finished by their first
architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity.
God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but
a draught-nay, but the draught of a draught" (127-28). In other
words, a complete "cetology" requires the laborious contributions
of subsequent generations of texts-Moby-Dick is not the last word,
but a blueprint to be followed if the world is to arrive at a full
understanding of the whale. But Moby-Dick is not the first word
in the understanding process either: although Ishmael's task is
so "ponderous" that "no ordinary letter-sorter in
the Post-office is equal to it" (118), he is not necessarily
a reliable "originator" of the architectural outline.
Rather, as an "ostentatious smuggling verbalist," and
as a version of the Sub-Sub-Librarian, Ishmael becomes an extra-"ordinary
letter-sorter"-at the very moment that he asks for his text
to be pulled together into someone else's, he insists on pulling
source texts together to form his own.
In the post-structuralist thought that dominates the modern academy,
such arguments about the subsumption of a monological "Author"
into appropriated, interwoven, and multiply imagined discourses
are commonplaces of linguistic interpretation.14 But, as I have
indicated, for Ishmael, this weaving process (which encodes strength
or viability through borrowing, copying, and democratic variegation)
is not limited to the realm of the printed "text" or the
abstract "language." Starting with "Loomings,"
through reveries on "The Line," "The Log and Line,"
and "The Mat-Maker," Ishmael uses splicing and weaving
as overriding metaphors for interpersonal relationship-building
The trope of the splice first explicitly appears in Moby-Dick when
Ishmael arrives at Nantucket and looks for a place to sleep. When
told at the Spouter Inn that the only bed available is already occupied
by Queequeg, a Kokovoko harpooneer and a "dangerous man"
(27), Ishmael objects. But Coffin, the inn-keeper, persists: "'Come,
it's getting dreadful late, you had better be turning flukes-it's
a nice bed: Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced"
(27). The innkeeper's recollection of the bed as integral to the
nuptial process-with "spliced" acting here as nautical
slang for "married"15 -serves as prolepsis for Ishmael
and Queequeg's subsequent matrimonial relationship. In the space
underneath the patchwork text(ile) of "The Counterpane,"
the two men will copy Sal and Coffin, and "splice" together,
plighting their homosocial troth.16 Indeed, Queequeg even reproduces
a South Seas wedding ceremony: "he pressed his forehead against
mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were
married; meaning, in his country's phrase, that we were bosom friends;
he would gladly die for me, if need should be" (53). The bond
between the men, a result of borrowing material practices from distant
islands and heterosexual marriage, is lasting and deep; they ship
as a pair, sail as a pair, and, in Richard Bentley's London version
of Moby-Dick, they die as a pair.17
Soon after their marriage-through-borrowing, the spliced pair of
Ishmael and Queequeg make their way to Nantucket, seeking berths
on a whaler. The one on which they decide, the Pequod, is owned
by Quakers, and Ishmael finds himself required to debate the religion
of his helpmate with its Captains before they will allow the pair
to ship. Standing up for Queequeg against charges of paganism, Ishmael
insists, "Queequeg here is a born member of the First Congregational
Church. He is a deacon himself, Queequeg is" (83). One Captain,
Bildad, does not know which church this is, and Ishmael is forced
"I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you
and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us,
and every mother's son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting
First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong
to that, only some of us cherish some queer crotchets noways touching
the grand belief; in that we all join hands."
thou mean'st splice hands," cried Peleg. (83)
substitution of "splice" for "join" serves as
Ishmael's induction into the lexicon of seafaring. The old captain
provides Ishmael with a new template for use in future arguments-a
template whose copying will indicate membership in the linguistic
fraternity of sailors.
Beyond interpellating Ishmael into the discursive conventions of
the whaler, however, Peleg shows the power of the splice. The recognition
and dissemination of transcendent but non-denominational truths
is a task of interweaving; Ishmael's universalist church is a fabric
to be spliced into, a matter for weavers, not for joiners. The captain's
insistence on the splice works to establish the permanence of a
catholic totality (joined hands may be rent asunder; spliced hands,
as in the marriage bond, may not) as well as the possibility for
individual distinction within that totality. Queequeg's religion
may represent the "dark thread" in the warp of cosmic
verity, but it is nonetheless a necessary part of the rope. In the
splice, "queer crotchets noways touching the grand belief"
are taken up intact into universal truth; "originality"
(here, Queequeg's difference) is acknowledged but subsumed into
the broader pattern of a strong and variegated weave. In the splice,
the line between pagan and Christian remains distinct but unimportant;
each is necessary to the production of the "everlasting First
Congregation of this whole worshipping world." As members of
that braided Congregation, Ishmael and Queequeg are allowed to ship.
The Pequod is several days at sea before its master, the one-legged
Captain Ahab, appears from below decks. In one of his first long
speeches, Ahab reveals the singular object of his desire: "a
white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw...with
three holes punctured in his starboard fluke" (142). This,
of course, is Moby Dick, the quasi-mythical creature who has eluded
the harpoons of countless whalemen, and who has "dismasted"
(143) Ahab on a previous voyage. Although he is hostile to "mortal
inter-indebtedness" (392), and loath to be "down on the
whole world's books" (392), Ahab has no choice but to enlist
the help of his crew in pursuing such an animal.18 He nails a gold
doubloon to the mast, promising it as a reward to the sailor that
first spies the white whale, and begins a famous soliloquy: "Aye,
aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and
round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before
I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase
that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth,
till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men,
will ye splice hands on it, now?" (143). The men agree; they
splice. And once they do, they become "one and all with Ahab,
in this matter of the whale" (144).
Just as Ishmael may not approach a comprehensive cetology without
borrowing from authorities and farming out to followers, Ahab may
not fight the whale alone-he must appropriate the labor of his colleagues.
As an indissoluble bond that allows for identity between disparate
objects and that makes possible the intertwining of one's own teleological
threads into the narratives of others, the splice is ideal for consolidating
power among Ahab's motley crew. As Ishmael has shown, though, a
good splice is variegated-an exhibition of multiple threads and
multiple minds. Yet Ahab's splice is tragically homogeneous. Because
his mad quest is predicated on totalitarian control of the ship
and her crew, Ahab works to turn his crew into putative copies of
himself; the monomaniacal captain braids the wills of the crew into
a monological filament.19 By refusing to hear or incorporate dissenting
voices (particularly first-mate Starbuck's) and by imposing his
own terms on the collective, Ahab splices as a patriarch and master
instead of as just another one of "every mother's sons"
Under these tyrannical conditions the sailors of the Pequod live
for the next several months. They maintain the ship, gam with other
whalers, and harpoon lesser cetaceans, all in the service of tracking
Moby Dick. Ishmael takes the opportunity of this long break in the
narrative action to consider the natural and mythical histories
of whales, the metaphysics of life at sea, and the possibilities
for life on land. At one point, his swabbing of the Pequod's decks
prompts a reverie on the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. "Oh
the metempsychosis! Oh! Pythagoras, that in bright Greece, two thousand
years ago, did die, so good, so wise, so mild; I sailed with thee
along the Peruvian coast last voyage-and, foolish as I am, taught
thee, a green simple boy, how to splice a rope!" (358). In
the phenomenon of metempsychosis, the principle of splicing-finding
unity in copying out of diverse materials-obtains anew. The reincarnating
splice specifically suggested here weaves together past and present
in the text of the singular "simple boy," and serves as
a method for both retaining and reproducing history while becoming
an independent self. That this spliced-self learns rope-splicing
from another, borrows that art from a teacher, again shows the democratic
possibilities encoded in the weave: this is not a proprietary skill,
it is something always to be shared.
In his simplicity and his depth of soul, this imagined boy bears
a resemblance to (or is a metempsychotic copy of) the Pequod's boy,
Pip. The latter, who has seen (in a moment of deep distress and
mad clarity) "God 's foot upon the treadle of the loom [of
the universe], and [spoken] it" (347), arrives on deck a few
moments after Ishmael ends his rhapsody, in the middle of a heated
metaphysical debate over the significance of the doubloon that Ahab
has nailed to the mast. Though he has been marked out for a lack
of sophistication, Pip complicates the situation further. As Stubb
too has been watching all of these interpreters-myself included-and
look now, he comes to read, with that unearthly idiot face. Stand
away again and hear him. Hark!
look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."
my soul, he's been studying Murray's Grammar! Improving his mind,
poor fellow! But what's that he says now-hist!"
look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look."
he's getting it by heart-hist! again."
look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look." (362)
Pip takes the disparate voices of the sailors and finds in them
a common thread: though each mate has come up with a different exegesis
of the doubloon, they are aligned in the act of interpretation.
By quoting "Murray's Grammar," and in getting this text
"by heart," Pip makes clear the idea that while subjects
may differ, the verb can stay the same; even within epistemological
distinction and divergence, copying and incorporating difference
provides the possibility for unification.
As we have seen, this is not a lesson that Ahab either intends to
teach or learns for himself; his foreclosure of dissent invites
ruin, and his monomaniacal mishandling of the splice proves to be
his undoing.20 When the Pequod finally catches up with Moby Dick,
it is destroyed; under Ahab's command, it sinks with (nearly) all
hands. Ahab himself, however, is not killed by the white whale,
but by an errant rope.
The harpoon was darted: the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting
velocity the line ran through the groove;-ran foul. Ahab stooped
to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round
the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim,
he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone. Next
instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope's final end flew out of
the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea,
disappeared in its depths. (468)
"heavy eye-splice" sliding under the sea signals the end
of Ahab's totalitarian command. Standing as a figure for monomaniacal
weaving, the eye-splice is significantly different from other rope
splices: instead of joining two ropes together to form a new and
stronger rope, it weaves a single rope onto itself.21 The disappearance
of this looped line marks the end of Ahab's fatal solipsism; its
sinking is closely followed by the staving of the Pequod and the
end of Ishmael's narrative.
As I noted above, in Richard Bentley's London edition, this is the
close of the book-much to the chagrin of The Spectator.22 In the
Harper and Brothers New York edition, the entangled Ahab and his
ship sink into the depths, but Ishmael pops up, the sole survivor
of the wreck. He writes an epilogue, locating his project in the
textual precedent of Job 1:14-19: "'And I only am escaped alone
to tell thee." Ishmael survives to "tell" the wreck
of the Pequod by grabbing onto Queequeg's coffin and bobbing among
the sharks until he is scooped up by the wandering Rachel. This
coffin, now a "life-buoy" (470), participates in the economies
of borrowing and quotation that Ishmael has used throughout his
text: it is covered with marks transferred from the harpooneer's
tattooed body. Queequeg had spent
many spare hours...in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque
figures and drawings; and it seemd that hereby he was striving,
in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body.
And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and
seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written
out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth,
and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg
in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work
in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read,
though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries
were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living
parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the
from the realm of the "mouldering" "proper person"
through transfer to the coffin, Queequeg's anti-proprietary and
obscurely universal text becomes a salvific article; Queequeg dies,
but his copied marks live on to buoy up his loved companion, and
to enable that companion to narrate his (own) story. The "smuggling
verbalist" lives to narrate his story by floating on a Queequeg
reproduction; without this copy, there would be no text at all.
The contrasting ends of Ahab and Ishmael forcefully illustrate Ishmael's
point about the potency of the variegated splice: the originator
goes mad and drowns, the copyist lives to explore the "little
lower layer" of cetological truth. To begin to limn the philosophical
and political consequences of this principle, I want to return to
a scene that takes place earlier in Moby-Dick. As I've previously
noted, in the book's long middle, Ishmael turns from narrating Ahab's
quest to providing a detailed portrait of the life and activities
of a whaling man. In one of his digressions, he describes at length
the process of flensing a whale-that is, removing its blubber so
that it may be rendered into oil. Flensing is a two man job: a harpooneer
scrambles about on the floating carcass and uses a spade to cut
strips of blubber free; an oarsman stands above him holding onto
a safety line attached to the harpooneer's belt. As Ishmael points
out, the use of this safety line, called the "monkey-rope,"
is common to "all whalers" (271). But Ahab's ship is different:
"it was only in the Pequod that the monkey and his holder were
ever tied together. This improvement upon the original usage was
introduced by no less a man than Stubb, in order to afford the imperilled
harpooneer with the strongest possible guarantee for the faithfulness
and vigilance of the monkey-rope holder" (Melville's note,
Stubb's theory seems to hold true for Ishmael; his experiences flensing
with Queequeg yield a long metaphysical discussion.
It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. For, before
we proceed further, it must be said that the monkey-rope was fast
at both ends; fast to Queequeg's broad canvas belt, and fast to
my narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two,
for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise
no more, then both usage and honor demanded that instead of cutting
the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. So, then, an elongated
Siamese ligature united us. Queequeg was my own inseparable twin
brother; nor could I any way get rid of the dangerous liabilities
which the hempen bond entailed. (271)
another version of the splice, an umbilical rope yokes two disparate
persons into a single organism made of conjoined bodies: whatever
happens to Queequeg will also happen to the "wedded" Ishmael.
The two maintain their individuality-Ishmael on deck, Queequeg on
the whale-but they cannot be sundered, neither for better nor for
worse. Indeed, Ishmael "distinctly [perceives] that my own
individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two: that
my free will had received a mortal wound
As Ishmael's relative powerlessness here indicates, this "hempen
bond" of this state of affairs has its "dangerous liabilities"-but
it is nonetheless the state of affairs for the whole world:
I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every
mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or another,
has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If
your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends
you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding
caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other
evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg's monkey-rope heedfully
as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding
overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I
only had the management of one end of it. (271).
infinitely interconnected "joint-stock" world, where everyone
is spliced by monkey-ropes to everyone else, stands in contradistinction
to the atomism and possessive individualism inherent in a society
that aggressively promotes "originality." Ishmael insists
that there can be no action or reaction that is the product of a
single will; no matter how careful a man is to remain a self-possessed
individual, there is no way for him to separate himself from the
collective.23 At the same time, however, Ishmael assiduously maintains
the "management of one end" of an intricately woven personhood;
no matter how much he insists that he and Queequeg are united, they
are not identical. The end result, then, is an infinite system of
"joint-stock companies" where collectivism and individualism
are always in negotiation, where questions of the many and the one
are always under consideration. Within these companies, "originality"
is, at best, of little use or, at worst, a serious detriment; to
be "original" is to deny (or to sever) the monkey-rope
that binds, is to veer into an undesirable, if not impossible possessive
individualism. An ethics of splicing, however, works the other way,
acknowledging the necessary commonality of thought and emotion even
as it allows for differences in expression and action. Moreover,
the monkey-rope creates a model of citizenship that accounts for
both capitalist interest and republican disinterest-when it becomes
clear that one is spliced to an infinite mass of men, working for
oneself and working for one's fellow man turn out to be exactly
the same labor.
Having reached this conclusion, in "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish"
Ishmael turns to address the specific issue of possession in a society
organized around possessive individualism. He does so by outlining
the salvage laws of the ocean: "I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the
party fast to it. // II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who
can soonest catch it" (331). Thinking through the nominally
Lockeian conception of personal property, Ishmael considers the
moral consequences of possessing anything: "...Often possession
is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian
serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish...What to the rapacious
landlord is the widow's last mite but a Fast-Fish? What to that
redoubted harpooneer, John Bull, is poor Ireland, but a Fast-Fish?
What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas, but Fast-Fish?"
(333). The analogy between a jealous maintenance of "property"
and slavery, cruelty, imperialism, and colonialism is a strong one:
liberal and patriarchal notions of ownership encode a "natural"
hierarchy of "owner" and "owned," which in turn
encodes abuse.24 Against this ugly notion of the Fast-Fish, the
Loose-Fish-that is, the unpossessed fish-figures possibility and
productive contention: "What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish?....What
India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States?
All Loose-Fish." (334). Although the potential for this naturalized
hierarchy of ownership exists, it is as yet unrealized: the Loose-Fish
represents possibility, not mere subjection. Indeed, the Loose-Fish
stands for political and intellectual freedom: "What are the
Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What
all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish?" (334). The chapter
ends with a famous question: "...what are you reader, but a
Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?" (334).
Inviting his reader to consider his or her own status as an object
of property relations, as the living part of this abstract system
of ownership, Ishmael indicates the peculiar flash point that the
nineteenth century American subject/writer occupies within proprietary
discourse: Loose or Fast, open to appropriation as much as to appropriating,
the joy of community and the threat of totalitarianism are always
intertwined and their boundaries must always be negotiated. It is
in this negotiation that Ishmael-and his readers-take the first
steps towards realizing a democratic imaginary and, perhaps, a democratic
praxis. Armed with the knowledge of the possible negative consequences
of their ways of being always in mind, subjects splice into a variegated
social body-text. In this process, single men (readers and authors)
may contain multitudes and the mass of men may enjoy the liberating
possibilities of identification and equality. For Ishmael, then,
the blueprints for the mature nation come not merely from singular
men of singular "genius," but from the copied extract,
the unanswerable question, the variable splice. It is within this
same paradoxically collectivist and individualist ethos that our
work, as critics and teachers and citizens, begins. With epistemological
practices that recognize and celebrate interweaving and iteration
at least as much as "originality" and bounded selfhood,
social and political and epistemological contracts may be endlessly
borrowed and rewritten. This duality ensures the democratic possibility
of the Loose-Fish and the variegated splice for the smuggling verbalists
who follow after us.
1 Harper's Monthly Magazine 4 (December, 1851): 137. A reciprocal
puff appears on the last printed page of the Harper and Brothers
edition of Moby-Dick; or The Whale (1851). Following notices for
Melville's other published books, there is a page devoted to "CHOICE
WORKS FOR LIBRARIES // just published // BY HARPER & BROTHERS,
NEW YORK." First among these is a long notice for Harper's
New Monthly Magazine.
2 The International Magazine of Literature, Art, and Science 4:5
(December, 1851): 602. The review first appears in The Spectator
#1217 (October 25, 1851) 1026.
3 On conceptions of originality and conventions of authorship in
general, see, among many others, David Quint Origin and Originality
in Renaissance Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983),
Mark Rose Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1993), Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi,
eds. The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law
and Literature (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), and Meredith
McGill American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003)
4 To alter slightly Stubb's masthead soliloquy in Moby-Dick, generations
of Melvillians have found that source-books gave the author "the
bare words and facts," but he "[came] in to supply the
thoughts" (360-1). Howard P. Vincent's massive and invaluable
Trying Out of Moby-Dick, (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1949) is the best example, but nearly every source
study of Melville's writings makes the same claim. A notable exception
is Elizabeth Renker, in Strike Through the Mask: Herman Melville
and the Scene of Writing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1996). Renker argues that copying per se is necessary to Melville's
method, but that Melville "anxiously disavows" (5) and
"represses" (3) his "disingenuous" (3) borrowings
because of his sense of the terrible opacity of all (borrowed) written
objects, the tendency of the written work to obscure non-textualizable
truth. As such, the anxiety about copying appears to be a "constitutive
component" of Melville's work, not the copying itself.
5 Michael Newbury, Figuring Authorship in Antebellum America. (Palo
Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997): 187.
6 As Ellen Weinauer writes in "Plagiarism and the Proprietary
Self: Policing the Boundaries of Authorship in Herman Melville's
'Hawthorne and His Mosses'" (American Literature 69:4 [December
1997]), "It is in the domain of identity that the reverberations
of the plagiarist's separation of text and author are felt most
deeply: by stealing the 'thing' that most 'proximate to its maker,'
the plagiarist challenges the relationship between property and
the laboring self.on which the concept of the liberal subject is
predicated" (697). For my purposes, what is true for the plagiarist
is equally true for the copyist under the fluid conceptions of literary
property that obtained in nineteenth century America.
7 A number of recent studies of Moby-Dick have taken the metaphor
of the woven text as a their central conceit. For example, Christopher
Sten's 1996 study The Weaver God, He Weaves: Melville's Poetics
of the Novel, takes a line from "A Bower in Arsacides"
as its title and its epigraph; Harrison Hayford's "'Loomings':
Yarns and Figures in the Fabric" appears in Artful Thunder:
Versions of the Romantic Tradition in Honor of Howard P. Vincent
(1975). In these works, the weaving process is useful shorthand
for describing the complexity of Melville's symbolical, theological,
or characterological systems; in my analysis, the practice of weaving
itself, not merely the intricate text that it creates, is under
consideration. See also Freda E. Yaeger. "The Dark Ishmael
and the First Weaver in Moby-Dick" Arizona Quarterly 41:2 (Summer
8 As Richard Henry Dana writes in The Seaman's Friend, (1841, rpt.
Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 1997): "SPLICING, is putting the
ends of ropes together by opening the strands and placing them into
one another, or by putting the strands of the ends of a rope between
those of the bight" (44). W. Clark Russell defines splice as
"A connexion formed by passing the ends of two ropes through
their strands." See Sailor's Language: A Collection of Sea-Terms
and their Definitions (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, &
Rivington, 1883): 134.
9 Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828,
rpt. San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education,
10 Melville, to Sarah Huyler Morewood, 12? September 1851: "Concerning
my own forthcoming book-it is off my hands, but must cross the sea
before publication here. Dont you buy it-dont you read it, when
it does come out, because it is by no means the sort of book for
you. It is not a peice of fine feminine Spitalfields silk-but is
of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships'
cables & hausers." In Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman,
eds. The Letters of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1960): 138.
11 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or The Whale, Harrison Hayford and
Hershel Parker, eds. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967) Unless otherwise
noted, all parenthetical page references are to this edition of
12 The "Town-Ho's Story" is itself spliced into Moby-Dick
from the October 1851 Harper's New Monthly Magazine, where it appeared
as a stand-alone piece. See Harper's Monthly Magazine 3:17 (October
13 In the first British edition, published by Richard Bentley some
months before the first Harper and Brothers American edition, these
two sections come in an Appendix at the end of volume three; they
are the last words of the book, not the first. For other substantive
differences between the American and British editions, see Hayford
and Parker's survey of "Textual Problems of Moby-Dick"
in the W.W. Norton edition of Moby-Dick, 470-98.
14 Among many others, I'm thinking here of seminal works like Roland
Barthe's "The Death of the Author" in Image-Music-Text,
trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), Mikhail Bakhtin's
Dialogic Imagination Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans.
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) and Michel Foucault's
"What is an Author?" in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul
Rabinow. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).
15 This is not an uncommon nineteenth-century usage, especially
for unreconstructed-mariner types or New Englanders. See, for example,
W.H. Smyth's Sailor's Word Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical
Terms (London: Blackie and Son, 1867), which defines splice as "The
joining of two ropes together. Familiarly, two persons joined in
wedlock" (643). One caricature of New England romance begins
with: "A runaway couple, 'true lovyers' of the most fervent
Yankee stamp, arrived at a small inn near Boston, and wanted the
landlord to send for a minister to 'splice 'em,' and to 'be quick
about it.' Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 11: 63 (August 1855):
16 For more on the erotics of Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship,
see Caleb Crain, "Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and
Cannibalism in Melville's Novels" American Literature 66 (March
17 This is another of the substantive differences between the American
and British editions of Moby-Dick: in the Bentley, there is no epilogue,
no Ishmael scooped up by a passing ship. Much has been made of this
difference: see, for example, Michael T. Gilmore, American Romanticism
and the Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985):
129. Also see note 13 above.
18 Ahab's words curiously echo arguments made before the U.S. Supreme
Court in the landmark copyright case of Wheaton vs. Peters in 1833.
"Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do
away with ledgers. I would be as free as air, and I'm down on the
whole world's books" (Moby-Dick 392). J.R. Ingersoll, one of
the lawyers representing the government, argues that "An individual
mingles what cannot be exclusively enjoyed, with what can,
does upon familiar principles, rather forfeit the power over his
own peculiar work, than throw the chain around that which is of
itself as free as air. The intermixture. . . . must render the whole
insusceptible of exclusive ownership. That which is public cannot
in its nature be made private, but not e contra. In Meredith McGill,
American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003): 61. For an depth discussion
of this case and its implications for literary property discussions
in American literature and culture, see McGill, 45-75.
19 During the final chase of Moby Dick, "They were one man,
not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was
put together of all contrasting things-oak and maple, and pine wood;
iron, and pitch, and hemp-yet all these ran into each other in the
one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed
by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the
crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltlessness,
all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to
that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to"
20 "Stand round me, men. You see an old man cut down to the
stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot.
'Tis Ahab-his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves
upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that
tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break,
ye'll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser
tows his purpose yet" (459).
21 Dana describes the process of making "AN EYE SPLICE
the end of a rope for a short distance, and lay the three strands
upon the standing part, so as to form an eye. Put one end through
the strand next to it. Put the next end over that strand and through
the second; and put the remaining end through the third strand,
on the other side of the rope. Taper them, as in the short splice,
by dividing the strands and sticking them again." (44-45).
22 There is some suggestion that Melville took critiques of his
narrative unconventionality seriously. The Spectator/International
Magazine review ends by pointing out that "It is a canon with
some critics that nothing should be introduced into a novel which
it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus,
he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they
all perish" (International Magazine, 804). The implication,
of course, is that Ishmael could not narrate the story of the Pequod
after having perished in its sinking. The first American edition,
published some months after the British edition, includes an epilogue
that remedies this unconventionality: Ishmael survives to tell his
tale. See Gilmore, 129.
23 Although John Locke is typically considered to be the chief philosophical
advocate for possessive individualism, Matthew H. Kramer convincingly
demonstrates that Locke's thought is characterized by a "complete
interpenetration of communitarianism and individualism
atomism was itself utterly collectivistic. We shall find that a
blending of values [of atomism and collectivism] was out of reach,
for one value engulfed the other entirely." See John Locke
and the Origins of Private Property (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1997): 4
24 Stubb on Pip's jumping overboard: "'Stick to the boat, Pip,
or by the Lord, I wont pick you up if you jump; mind that. We can't
afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for
thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind,
and don't jump any more.' Hereby, perhaps, Stubb indirectly hinted,
that though man loves his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal,
which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence"