Call me Ishmael: Greatest Opening Lines in All of Americana

These words are the foundation of Americana and the American literary soul. If you are unfamiliar with these works, in their entirety, you cannot write Americana.

Dear Readers, three authors and scholars of literary Americana have submitted their choices. Much thanks to all of them. I highly recommend their work. Read something for god’s sake. Put down the remote. 

‘Call me Ishmael.’


Not only the greatest opening line, but the greatest opening paragraph in all of American Literature.

‘I sing the body Electric,’


Epic Americana from “Leaves of Grass” Possibly the singular greatest work of American poetry.

‘TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both’


Some say it echoes Dante, and the rhythm of the poem and the style clearly evokes the spirit and tempo of Dante’s mystical work. The second greatest work of American poetry.

‘By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.’


Singular greatest statement of the American Revolutionary Spirit: the purest echoes of the American Ethos. In these sad days of repression of speech and spying, possibly the most dangerous phrase an American could utter.

‘When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…’


Declaration of Independence. Dangerous words in dangerous times. Would anyone dare utter them today?

‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…’


The U.S. Constitution. Greatest literary work of the Enlightenment.



Lauren Groff author of The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia:

“My name is Ruth,” from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (parallelling Moby-Dick).

“124 was spiteful,” from Beloved.

“A screaming comes across the sky,” Gravity’s Rainbow.



Barton Paul Levenson author of Year of the Human and I Will:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. -Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea.”

You see, I had this space suit. -Robert A. Heinlein, “Have Space Suit, Will Travel.”

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. -L. Frank Baum, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. -H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulu.”

It was a pleasure to burn. -Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451.”

True! – nervous – very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? -Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. -Stephen King, “The Gunslinger.”

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. -Shirley Jackson, “The Haunting of Hill House.”

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. -Richard Matheson, “I Am Legend.”

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. –Louisa May Alcott, “Little Women.”



Marly Youmans – author of The Wolf Pit and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage:

Herman Melville, Moby Dick:  Call me Ishmael.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gimpel the Fool: I am Gimpel the Fool.

Emily Dickinson, “I taste a liquor never brewed”: I taste a liquor never brewed –  / From Tankards scooped in Pearl –  / Not all the Frankfort Berries / Yield such an Alcohol!

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:  I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland.

Robert Frost. “Acquainted with the Night”: “I have been one acquainted with the night.”

Jean Toomer, “Reapers”: Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones / Are sharpening scythes.

Wallace Stevens, from “Bantams in Pine Woods”: Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Louise Bogan, “Medusa”: I had come to the house, in a cave of trees, / Facing a sheer sky.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, / And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, / I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Willa Cather, My Antonia: I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America.

Elizabeth Bishop, “The Unbeliever”: He sleeps on the top of a mast / with his eyes fast closed.

Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables: Halfway down a by-street of one of our New England towns stands a rusty wooden house, with seven acutely peaked gables, facing towards various points of the compass, and a huge, clustered chimney in the midst.

Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”: During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear and Loving Husband”: If ever two were one, then surely we. / If ever man were loved by wife, then thee; / If ever wife was happy in a man, / Compare with me ye women if you can.

Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”: It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper’s literature without having read some of it. And the immortal Huckleberry Finn: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona: It was sheep-shearing time in Southern California, but sheep-shearing was late at the Senora Moreno’s.


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