Call Me Isaac

This week, Dissent unlocked three classic pieces by Irving Howe. In “Strangers” (1977), he explored how American Jews came to find a place in national literature, writing that “with time we discovered something strange about the writing of Americans: that even as we came to it feeling ourselves to be strangers, a number of the most notable writers, especially Whitman and Melville, had also regarded themselves as strangers”:

[T]he Melville book that we knew was, of course, Moby Dick, quite enough to convince us of a true kinship. Melville was a man who had worked—perhaps the only authentic proletarian writer this country has ever known—and who had identified himself consciously with the downtrodden plebs. Melville was a writer who took Whitman’s democratic affirmations and made them into a wonderfully concrete and fraternal poetry. If he had been willing to welcome Indians, South Sea cannibals, Africans, and Parsees (we were not quite sure who Parsees were!), he might have been prepared to admit a Jew or two onto the Pequod if he had happened to think of it.

The closeness one felt toward Melville I can only suggest by saying that when he begins with those utterly thrilling words, “Call me Ishmael,” we knew immediately that this meant he was not Ishmael, he was really Isaac.

He was the son who had taken the blessing and then, in order to set out for the forbidden world, had also taken his brother’s unblessed name. We knew that this Isaac-cum-Ishmael was a mama’s boy trying to slide or swagger into the world of power; that he took the job because he had to earn a living, because he wanted to fraternize with workers, and because he needed to prove himself in the chill of the world. When he had told mother Sarah that he was leaving, oh, what a tearful scene that was! “Isaac,” she had said, “Isaac, be careful,” and so careful did he turn out to be that in order to pass in the Gentile world he said, “Call me Ishmael.” And we too would ask the world to call us Ishmael, both the political world and the literary world, in whose chill we also wanted to prove ourselves while expecting that finally we would still be recognized as Isaacs.