Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale
We now think of Moby-Dick as the canonical American novel. During Melville’s lifetime, however, his “wicked book,” as he called it in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a popular failure. The book sank into obscurity along with Melville’s reputation until 20th-century readers recovered the novel and refashioned it as a neglected masterpiece. Nominally the story of a monomaniacal sea captain’s pursuit of revenge against Moby Dick, the great white whale, this encyclopedic novel synthesizes a bewildering array of questions about (among other things): obsession, ethics, knowledge, chaos and divine order, the nature of the self and the social order, nationhood, race, ethnicity, slavery and abolition, masculinity and desire, labor and war, 19th-century popular culture, justice and injustice, ecology and zoology (particularly cetology—the study of whale physiology and habits), literary history, aesthetic value, and the limits of representation. Part rollicking maritime adventure tale, part philosophical inquiry, part treatise on sea-going ecosystems, Moby-Dick is a text of radical, maddening plethora. As the socialist historian C.L.R. James remarked (in a work written while James was detained by the Department of Immigration on Ellis Island), “the whale and whaling turn out to be a thread on which is hung a succession of pictures portraying the history of the world . . . [h]e wishes to include in his book everything.” Where to begin with a novel that sets out to swallow the universe?
Our consideration of the white whale will resist, at all costs, the attempt to restrict Moby-Dick to a single overarching moral, theme, or symbolic meaning. Instead, we’ll start from the premise that ambiguity—the multiplicity of meanings readers can assign to both the novel and the white whale—is central to how Moby-Dick asks to be read, how it has mattered historically, and how it matters today. The poet Charles Olson said of Melville’s book that “it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root.” Even this grand claim may be, in the end, too narrow. In addition to supplementary texts by Melville and his contemporaries (Dickinson, Douglass, Fuller, Hawthorne, Marx, and Whitman among them), this class will feature selections from Moby-Dick’s critical and creative inheritance. The latter are likely to include Lawrence Buell, E.M. Forster, Judith Goldman, D.H. Lawrence, James, Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Raymond Weaver, and others.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
May 13 — June 03, 2020
Please email us to be placed on the waiting list.