Ishmael, meet Queequeg: the estranged genius of Melville

In a dazzling essay on the true story behind “Moby Dick,” Carl Safina reminds us of the opening of that great novel, in which the seafarer Ishmael meets Queequeg, a sailor of “cannibalistic” heritage. They are thrown into bed together, much to Ishmael’s discomfort, but he ends up respecting Queequeg all the more, after sleeping with him. It’s as great an introduction of a character as I can recall in American literature.

From Safina:

When Ishmael finds himself compelled to share a blanket at the sold-out Spouter Inn, he declares, “No man prefers to sleep two in a bed.” But he settles in, waiting for his mysterious South Seas roommate who, he’s informed, is peddling a shrunken head on the streets of New Bedford. Queequeg’s appearance terrifies Ishmael mute. But after things equilibrate, Ishmael reconsiders: “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal … a human being just as I am. … Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

In the morning Ishmael wakes to find Queequeg’s arm “thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Now there’s no panic. Eventually Queequeg rouses and, by signs and sounds, makes Ishmael understand that he’ll dress and leave. “The truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy,” Ishmael editorializes. “It is marvelous how essentially polite they are. … So much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness.” Reflecting on Queequeg’s tatted visage, he concludes: “Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face — at least to my taste — his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. … Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”

Mates now for life, they find a ship…

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