The Whale That Wouldn’t Die

The latest issue of Soundings, a magazine published by MIT’s School of Humanties, Arts and Social Sciences, has a fine feature on MIT English professor Wyn Kelley, a longtime scholar of Herman Melville. Kelley positions Melville as an author who anticipated many of the social concerns of not just the 20th century but the 21st as well, and considers Moby-Dick as a novel that (paging Matt Yglesias!) speaks to a host of contemporary concerns about multiculturalism, environmentalism, religion, and more.

For instance, Kelley argues that Melville, via Ishmael, was more attuned to the cultural diversity of the city than he’s been given credit for:

Ishmael, she notes, serves as Melville’s guide to urban studies in Moby-Dick. “The presence of savages on the streets of New Bedford reminds Ishmael that cities grow out of conflicts between colonizers and natives. At the same time, the town’s shipping industry gives it a diverse, ever changing population; it remixes itself every day,” she writes in Melville’s City.

But Melville’s appreciation for multicultural urban life, as expressed by Ishmael, was viewed narrowly in literary criticism in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kelley says. At that time, “people were talking about Melville’s multicultural perspective in terms of race: the white male author who turns out to be a keen observer of racial divides and politics in the US. And Melville wasn’t alone. Read Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, and you’d think there were only two races worth talking about.

“My MIT students of other backgrounds have put up with this politely for years, but globalism, as economic and cultural and now literary theory, has made those ways of thinking passé,” she says.

Kelley spent a sabbatical year retracing Melville’s travels through Jerusalem and the Galapagos Islands to better understand the author, but she’s has also taken some lighter approaches to her work—including screening Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in class to show how long Moby-Dick‘s shadow is. These days, she says, the book functions much like a wiki for American culture: “In the 19th century, the novel was a new genre, and Melville borrowed from other forms. Today, we add new science, new insights, and new media. Then as now, the text is a whole world.”

3 responses to “The Whale That Wouldn’t Die

  1. Wait, really? Is the value of that book in the way it can be appropriated and reconsidered so that it seems relevant to the progressive movement of the decade?

    Look, there’s a scene in Moby Dick where Ishmael and a bunch of other ‘seamen’ stand together with their elbows buried in whale sperm. So I suppose the value of that scene is the way it enables to read hyper-male cameraderie as the homosocial elevated to homosexual necrophiliacical bestiality, suggesting the modern plight of the gay man, caught between the performance of straight and the hypersexualized constructions of queerness?

    • Hey, sounds like a master’s thesis to me.

      Seriously, though, nothing in the story suggests that professor Kelley admires Moby-Dick solely because of its ability to be leveraged to any old interpretation, nor is she applying the kind of decontextualized interpretation you jokingly concocted—if anything, she seems particularly attentive to how Melville’s life directly connects to the text. To say that Ishmael’s perspective on the city in “Moby-Dick” has something to say to people who study cities today isn’t to say he shares the same kind of political and/or academic concerns that scholars do now. Perhaps I was a bit misleading in saying that Kelley argues Melville “anticipated” these sorts of debates; it may be better to say that her argument is that “Moby-Dick” is rich and all-encompassing enough to speak to present-day conversations about city life and the environment.

  2. My apologies… I think I went polemic a bit prematurely, and I read this blog regularly precisely because of your even-handed, clear-headed, practical approach to American fiction (and criticism in general), so I ought not to assume so much. As you note, Ishmael’s perspective about the city could indeed speak to the modern idea(l) of the ‘multicultural’ city… and as I am ignorant of Kelley’s scholarship, I shouldn’t make so many assumptions about her methods or the merit of her work. That distinction does seem key, though– reading a great book like MD because its substance has relevance and implications today is to recognize literature’s relevance. Reading a great book like MD and scripting on the extrinsic or ideological or didactic is to ignore its substance, and aggrandize the ancillary theory or (more often) theorist.

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