Wyn Kelley was going to release the White Whale. A Melville scholar and a senior lecturer in Literature, Kelley originally envisioned her recent sabbatical as a hiatus from her intense, and innovative, work on Moby-Dick, and other of Melville’s writings.
But instead of a breather, Kelley soon found herself following in Melville’s footsteps, taking journeys to places the author visited—going on ocean voyages to Tahiti and the Galapagos Islands, and making a trip to Jerusalem.
Clearly, the sabbatical year only increased Kelley’s fascination with her subject. Her focus was initially kindled at Yale, where she studied with David Thorburn (now an MIT professor of literature), and continued as she began to teach Melville to high school students. After graduate school at Stanford, Kelley arrived at MIT in 1985, with her husband and two small children—and a dissertation to transform into a book.
At MIT, Kelley focused her research on urban studies, planning, and architecture, as they have historically affected developments in literature. “I found some of my greatest intellectual inspiration at MIT,” she says. Kelley expresses deep gratitude for Institute support of her scholarly travels, citing generosity from Literature, the Alumni Travel office, and OCW.
"The humanities at MIT offer students different models
for work and life. Our disciplines broaden their thinking,
and help them find lifelong pleasure in their work."
— Wyn Kelley, MIT Senior Lecturer in Literature
Family life has also inspired Kelley, and, just as sailors of Melville’s era were often accompanied by their families on multi-year whale-hunts, Kelley’s sabbatical journeys included her family. She and her husband Dale Peterson, a noted nature writer, traveled to China, where they both presented papers at an eco-criticism conference in Beijing.
Daughter Britt, a writer and editor, joined her mother in San Francisco for the Modern Languages Association conference; and son Bayne, a sculptor, joined her for the International Melville Society conference in Jerusalem. “It is wonderful being able to share my academic work with my family,” Kelley says.
A Generous View of Work and Success
Kelley also shares her expertise with the larger community. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she is a consultant to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and has aided literacy programs in New Bedford and Pawtucket. She participates in the Whaling Museum’s annual 24-hour reading of Moby-Dick, noting that “It’s always fun to check in when they serve chowder and grog.”
At MIT, she is committed to campus life and giving students a generous conception of work and success. In 2002, she received an MIT Excellence Award for Fostering an Inclusive Workplace, and for eight years served as advisor to the Women’s Independent Living Group (WILG).
“I found my place there making dinner or Sunday brunch,” she recalls. “It was the best way to talk informally with students. I had all sorts of other ambitions—speakers, museums, plays—but nothing was as effective as being in that kitchen!”
Drama, Technology, etc.
Effective teaching, Kelley believes, also relies on engagement. She uses drama, visual art, history, and technology to connect, say, the bygone whaling business to the current oil trade. She leads students down the Infinite Corridor to see a model of the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last wooden sailing ship. And she uses the world of Melville to replenish her enthusiasm.
“Intellectual and emotional sustainability come as much from body as mind,” she observes. “Following Melville’s sea voyages refreshed me physically and creatively, and deepened my appreciation for Melville’s scope.”
Kelley is passionate about cultivating that same buoyancy in students. “These are very young people,” she says. “What will inspire and sustain them over their lifetimes? The humanities at MIT offer students different models for work and life. Our disciplines broaden their thinking, and help them find lifelong pleasure in their work.” ∎
Travels With Melville
Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editor and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Sarah Wright
Photocredit: Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, with a model of the 19th century American whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan, one of forty full-hull models in MIT’s Hart Nautical Gallery. Photograph by Richard Howard