University of Virginia Library

Search this document 



No Page Number


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long
precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing
particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about
a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have
of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever
I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it
is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself
involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up
the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my
hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong
moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into
the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I
account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my
substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish
Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the
ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it,
almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very
nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted
round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds
it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you
waterward. Its extreme down town is the battery, where that
noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which
a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the
crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon.
Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by


Page 2
Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent
sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands
of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the
spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the
bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging,
as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are
all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied
to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then
is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the
water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing
will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering
under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No.
They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can
without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—
leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets
and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all
unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the
compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

Once more. Say, you are in the country; in some high
land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one
it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in
the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded
of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on
his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to
water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be
athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your
caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor.
Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for

But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest,
shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape
in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element
he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk,


Page 3
as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his
meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage
goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a
mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed
in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus
tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like
leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the
shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him.
Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of
miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies—what is the
one charm wanting?—Water—there is not a drop of water
there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you
travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet
of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver,
deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly
needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway
Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a
robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go
to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you
yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you
and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the
old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it
a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is
not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that
story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting,
mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and
was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers
and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of
life; and this is the key to it all.

Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea
whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be
over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred
that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger
you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless


Page 4
you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick—
grow quarrelsome—don't sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves
much, as a general thing;—no, I never go as a passenger;
nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever
go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon
the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like
them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable
toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is
quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without
taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not.
And as for going as cook,—though I confess there is considerable
glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board—
yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;—though once
broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and
peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not
to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of
the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis
and roasted river horse, that you see the mummies of those
creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids.

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before
the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the
royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and
make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a
May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant
enough. It touches one's sense of honor, particularly if you
come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers,
or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all,
if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have
been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest
boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I
assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong
decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and
bear it. But even this wears off in time.

What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to


Page 5
get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that
indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New
Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything
the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey
that old hunks in that particular instance? Who aint a slave?
Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may
order me about—however they may thump and punch me
about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right;
that everybody else is one way or other served in much the
same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view,
that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all
hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content.

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make
a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay
passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary,
passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the
difference in the world between paying and being paid. The
act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that
the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,
what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a
man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so
earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and
that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how
cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome
exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in
this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from
astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so
for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his
atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle.
He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same
way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other
things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it. But


Page 6
wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a
merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a
whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who
has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and
influences me in some unaccountable way—he can better answer
than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling
voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that
was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief
interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take
it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.



Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage
managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a
whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent
parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel
comedies, and jolly parts in farces—though I cannot tell why
this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I
think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being
cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me
to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into
the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased
freewill and discriminating judgment.

Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the
great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster
roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where
he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of
the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand
Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish.
With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been
inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting
itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and


Page 7
land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am
quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it
—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly
terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome;
the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open,
and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two
and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions
of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom,
like a snow hill in the air.