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Front Matter and End Matter

For both Infinite Jest and 2666, I wrote posts about front matter. I’ll do the same for Moby-Dick. At the beginning of the book, you’ll find a list of extracts from other works of literature that treat of whales. What a curious thing this seems upon a first read. Is it an extended set of epigraphs? Is it something that you really need to read at all? Should it be front matter or should it be an appendix (if it should even be there)?

The London publishers seem to have had similar questions, for they placed the extracts at the end of the book. At the time of the book’s publication, there were issues with getting a copyright in England on previously published work. To skirt these issues, it was apparently the habit of American authors to publish their books first in London and then, a week or a few weeks later, in America. So Melville sent his book off to the care of his London publisher, who proceeded to have the book corrected. The corrections weren’t limited to adding that wacky extra “u” to words like “color,” though. The book was downright bowdlerized, with a number of diction changes and with certain scenes removed or edited so as not to offend the religious (and other) sensibilities of the British reader. One chapter was removed wholesale because it was considered less than flattering to the crown. Perhaps most shockingly, the epilogue was removed, and with it any satisfying closure. (Oh, there was closure alright, but it wasn’t satisfying, and plenty of London critics latched onto this false ending in their criticism of the book.)

There’s speculation that moving the extracts to the end of the book may actually be responsible for the lost epilogue, the single sheet lost amid the many pages of extracts as they were moved. The move seems to have been something close to catastrophic for the reception of what must have seemed to that audience like an unfinished book.

But the shifting of the extracts seems all wrong to me for another reason as well. Placed at the beginning of the book, the extracts set a sort of tone. They establish the book almost as a compendium or encyclopedia or reference work, which in fact to some degree it is. They make something of a grand statement about what’s to come. A book that has epigraphs (of a sort) from so many important prior works must itself be very grand indeed. And they say something about the obsessive cataloging of whales and whaling in the book. A work that foregrounds such extracts is the work, perhaps, of an obsessed mind, or at least a thorough one. To understand the world may not be possible, but to catalog it is to some degree possible and perhaps represents a way of understanding the world.

Moving the extracts to the end relegates that sheaf of pages to the status of appendix. Here they become simply extra information, an optional chunk of text for the aficionado rather than a sort of invocation. In fact, maybe Melville’s extracts serve a similar purpose to that of the invocations of the great epics, suggesting that the extracts represent in a way what he’ll be writing about, but with a subtext that he’s improving, or at least expanding, on them. What better muse to invoke than the greats who have written of whales in the past?

To move the extracts, then, was to remove a vital structural, tonal, formal element that sets up expectations for what is to come.

Also worth noting, in terms of setting up expectations, is the form in which the book was bound and published. It was the habit of the period in England to publish romances (different meaning than at present) in three volumes. Moby-Dick was so published, though it was by no means your typical romance. Accordingly, purchasers may have expected one sort of book and gotten another sort altogether.

So, then. Are the extracts required reading? I have to admit that I found them a bit tiring when I first encountered them. I might have skimmed. Maybe they’re not entirely necessary, or maybe it’s not necessary to read them intensely. Still, it’s worth considering why they’re there and how they set up the text. It’s worth trying to imagine how one might receive the work differently without the extracts. How thoroughly will you read them, if at all?

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  1. Joan
    May 18, 2010 at 7:17 am

    I think the extracts are very important and I hope folks will read them. I completely agree that they set the tone, working as an appetizer of sorts, at least for me, and servie to demonstrate that Melville is not just tossing off a story based on his experiences but is delving deeply into the subject. If they are at the end, I think most readers would overlook them for just the reasons you give – you’ve finished the book, why read the appendices. Andrew Delbanco does the same at the beginning of his book on Melville, with the wonderful twist that a sub-sub-sub has compiled them. His provide a compilation of Moby-Dick references from the time of publication up to today.
    Another quick note on the differences between the British and American editions – I’m reading the Longman Critical Edition of Moby-Dick and it has extensive coverage of the deletions and changes between the two. The main text is the American, as close to the original as they could get, with highlighted sections indicating passages that were changed in the British and providing extensive notes on what was changed and how. Now I have to go back and see what they say about the movement of the extracts and the loss of the epilogue.

  2. May 18, 2010 at 9:07 am

    I found Delbanco’s extracts to be a little gimmicky (in the way that it’s gimmicky and, to me, irritating, when people writing about DFW make self-conscious use of footnotes), but I guess it was inevitable. I’m partway through chapter six and am really enjoying his book.

    The Northwestern-Newberry edition (sort of the official authoritative edition) has emendations detailing the differences between the London and American editions, sometimes with fairly detailed analysis. This is in addition to a 200+ page historical “note” and other end matter.

    One thing I found interesting about the extracts that I hadn’t previously known is that he actually fabricated at least one of the entries (the one near the end from what he labels an unknown or unspecified source), and he takes liberties with others, at times doing things like changing pronouns because he cut out a bunch of intervening lines and needed pronoun agreement in spite of the cuts.

    Something else I’m pondering is why the sub-sub-librarian and the consumptive grammarian? Why this distancing? He does the same in a way with the narrator. “Call me Ishmael” doesn’t necessarily mean that his real name is Ishmael. Melville does the same thing in Typee (which is presented as travelogue more than as fiction), in a humorous little scene in which he tells the natives his name is Tom because he thinks they’ll have an easier time saying it than his real name (it turns out they can’t say it, wanting to add a vowel, so Melville becomes Tom becomes Tommo). It registers with me as a sort of distancing tactic, though, a hiding of identity.

  3. Joan
    May 18, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    That is interesting that he fabricated and altered some of the extracts – I hadn’t known that before.

    I don’t know why the sub-sub-librarian and the consumptive grammarian – maybe he meant for the reader to look at them with a grain of salt? That view kind of goes against my idea that the extracts were meant to give it more weight and distance it from his earlier work so as not to be seen as another travelogue. I’m not as far as you are in the Delbanco – maybe he’ll shed some light on it or some of our other commenters can chime in. I do have to admit that the consumptive grammarian made me laugh, even more so because it’s footnoted in my edition!

    The distancing seems to be a thread in most of his books. Certainly something to work on as we make our way through the read.

  4. May 19, 2010 at 11:16 am

    The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville by Kevin J. Hayes argues that front matter was very important to Melville in general, and says that “he took the somewhat unusual step of arranging to have [Moby-Dick] stereotyped himself,” possibly to gain “the ability to control the physical appearance of the finished book.” Apparently the original layout of the front matter is typically ignored in current editions, but may have been significant. The bit about the late consumptive usher appears facing the definitions and etymologies themselves, “suggest[ing] that a man’s work is a reflection of himself and that man must face up to whatever he does.” The extracts pages also have the sub-sub facing his own extracts. Hayes claims in addition that this is the beginning of all the “doubling” that will go on throughout the novel.

    Whether or not I take things that far, though, I think the front matter is critical; I don’t think Melville did much just for the hell of it, at least not by this point in his writing career.

  5. May 19, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Thanks for these tidbits, nicole. Although I was aware that Melville had had the book typeset himself (which I frankly don’t fully understand the mechanics of — he had the type done but then sent it to England, where the text was then bowdlerized and changed; how does that work?), I hadn’t known that he was so fussy about the physical appearance. Delbanco suggests that though Melville was initially very involved in proofing the book, as he moved forward (and wanted to work more and more on Pierre, in which he addresses stuff having to do with publishing and writing), he seemed to get tired of working on the final preparation for the book, handling the biggest issues but leaving others for whoever to address. Very interesting stuff.

  6. May 19, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Resisting the impulse to take issue with the wackiness, or otherwise, of the British ‘u’, but I did enjoy the extracts at the beginning of the book. The temptation was to skip, but I am glad that I did not. Had they been relocated to the back of the book I can guarantee they would never have been read by me.

    The sub-sub-librarian adds a reassuring touch of comedy.

  1. May 27, 2010 at 9:11 pm
  2. May 27, 2010 at 9:14 pm
  3. June 14, 2010 at 1:18 am

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