Moby Dick "To Produce A Mighty Book, You Must Choose A Mighty Theme"

Herman Melville

"To Produce A Mighty Book, You Must Choose A Mighty Theme"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: At the beginning of this chapter Melville begins to write in an almost florid style, in keeping with the subject matter of the chapter; as he says, "From his mighty bulk the whale affords a most congenial theme whereon to enlarge, amplify, and generally expatiate." Using the old-fashioned terminology of the printers and bookbinders in the seventeenth century, he says that the only appropriate treatment of the whale should be done in an "imperial folio." Saying that he will now treat of the whale "in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view," in portly terms "unwarrantably grandiloquent" for any creature but the Leviathan, Melville comments that for his present purpose he uses only a huge quarto edition of Dr. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, it being the only lexicon, and its author the only lexicographer, appropriate to the subject. Melville says how he feels about writing on the subject of whales, and one senses that the passage is only partly humorous in tone:

One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.