The Names Ahab and Ishmael in Early Massachusetts

Notes and Queries, 62(3): 417-418, September 2015

2 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2015 Last revised: 27 Aug 2015

Date Written: September 1, 2015


This paper corrects an error in the comprehensive Explanatory Notes to Luther Mansfield and Howard Vincent’s scholarly centennial edition of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). In their discussion of the novel’s opening lines and the narrator’s name Ishmael, Mansfield and Vincent write, “There is no instance of the name [Ishmael] in the Nantucket Vital records to 1850, just as, also understandably, there is no instance of Ahab” (1952: 587). A review of the early vital records of Massachusetts in fact turns up two Ishmaels on Nantucket, along with at least 30 others across the state prior to 1850. And while Mansfield and Vincent are correct that the name Ahab does not appear in the early Nantucket vital records, elsewhere in Massachusetts we can find seven men named Ahab, all of them in the southeastern part of the state near the Rhode Island border. These distinctive names Melville chose for his nineteenth-century Massachusetts characters were thus not pure fictions — as modern readers might expect — but rather were borne in fact by actual people of that time and place. As Melville’s Ahab did glory in his genealogy, so may we likewise take delight in the genealogical authenticity that Melville wove into the text of Moby-Dick.

Keywords: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Ahab, Ishmael, onomastics, vital records, genealogy, Massachusetts, Bible

JEL Classification: Q22

Suggested Citation

O’Hara, Robert J., The Names Ahab and Ishmael in Early Massachusetts (September 1, 2015). Notes and Queries, 62(3): 417-418, September 2015, Available at SSRN:

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