‘If we compare land animas in respect to magnitude, with those that take up their abode in the deep, we shall find they will appear contemptible in the comparison. The whale is doubtless the largest animal in creation.” (Goldsmith, Nat. His.)
There are several names or titles in American culture that are universally known. Agree or disagree, they are historically embedded in our minds. Baseball is America’s past time. The Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team.” Moby Dick is The Great American Novel. Sure, not everyone is going to agree with this. Some people might feel that football is much more suited for the title “America’s past time.” There are certainly enough people who despise the Dallas Cowboys, and strongly disagree that they are America’s Team. Undoubtedly there are people who disagree that Moby Dick is The Great American Novel. Even so, it has been known as this for years, and will go down in literary history. Much like the whale is “doubtless the largest animal in creation”, Moby Dick is implied to be the greatest novel in creation. In relation to the quote, if we compare all other books in history to Moby Dick, they will appear contemptible in the comparison. Moby Dick is doubtless the greatest novel in American literature.
Through this reference, I think that Melville was prefacing the importance the whale, and thus the importance of his novel. Though he is only mentioning the size of the whale, stating a fact that it is the largest animal in creation, he is implying something greater. His point of using these extracts is to stress the importance of the whale, and further more the importance of the novel in literary history. Whales are not something that I think about often, and I don’t place much importance on them. When thinking of literary whale references, I probably would have stopped after remembering Moby Dick centered around a whale. And yet, Melville was able to compile thirteen pages filled with literary and scientific references about whales. Eighty-two sources where whales are mentioned, ranging from Paradise Lost to the New England Primer, to Hamlet and even Darwin’s Voyage of a Naturalist. “In addition to its historical and geographical scope, ‘‘Extracts’’ also introduces the Bakhtinian, multiformal character of Moby-Dick, in as much as it represents all manner of forms or ‘‘stylistic unities,’’ literary and non-literary, poetic and scientific, travelogue, oratory, law, and so on.13 These various forms—combining the sublime (as in The Faerie Queene excerpt ) and the mundane or commonplace (as in Cuvier’s ‘‘The whale is a mammiferous animal without hind feet’’ )—proliferate throughout the novel, forming, as the ‘‘higher unity of the work’’(Bakhtin 262) a sprawling image of the world, including, of course, the literary world of these forms.” (Novel Beginnings in Moby Dick.) Well, maybe whales are more important than I previously thought.
“Moby-Dick, through its very excess, through its ‘‘outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep’’ (‘‘The Fossil Whale’’ 478), announces in its opening pages that it is not, and cannot be, the representative American national narrative that it has become for many; rather, it is a cartography of a world of ambiguity, within which the American imperium and American national narrative (with its representative national subject) are subsumed.” (Novel Beginnings in Moby Dick.) Many books contain a preface to the novel, which basically states the general purpose of the novel. The fact that Melville gives no explanation and instead simply references eighty-two sources says a lot. It says that Moby Dick is going to build upon all of these literary sources. This is quite the grand claim. Melville is not simply building upon a statement such as, “Whales are large,” or “Whales are important.” Instead, he is encompassing hundreds of years of previous literature into one novel. This implies that the literary importance of the eighty-two sources is combined into one book: Moby Dick. With the base of Shakespeare, Darwin, Hamlet and Milton, how could Moby Dick not be The Greatest American Novel? After considering this, it seems to become less and less a matter of opinion, and more a cold hard fact. The whale is the largest animal in creation. Moby Dick is the greatest novel ever written.
Tally, Robert T. "Anti-Ishmael: Novel Beginnings In Moby-Dick." LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 18.1 (2007): 1-19. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.