Only in literature can a hundred-ton mammal tiptoe into your life—or an anchor-weight sea novel carry you off on journeys of mind so moving and real that one day you say, “I’ve got to see for myself!
That's how Herman Melville's White Whale has rewarded Wyn Kelley's passion for literature: subtly and richly, with enticements to visit far-flung parts of the earth, as well as the frontiers of science, art, and technology.
Melville’s novels, stories, and poems have generously repaid her enthusiasm, says Kelley, Senior Lecturer in Literature since 1985. The more she studies and teaches Melville’s work—including adaptations and remixes across new media—the more her own research and teaching are enriched.
Of Moby-Dick, she says “It’s a book you never master. I still love it—in the way you love your ancestors.”
An Iconic 21st Century Presence
Melville, of course, is a literary ancestor. Born in New York in 1819, he published nine novels including Typee (1846), Moby-Dick (1851), Pierre (1852) and The Confidence-Man (1857), and four volumes of poetry, including his epic, Clarel (1876). In conversation, Kelley makes them all sound new. Quoting passages from Moby-Dick, verses from Clarel, she declares, “Isn’t that wonderful! What language!”
Kelley’s journey into the work for which she is well respected began as a gradual “awakening of the educational variety,” as Melville’s contemporary William James called the process of inner change. Moby-Dick caught her attention while an undergraduate at Yale, and she is still immersed in examining the threads of allusion, inquiry, and adaptation that make a 19th-century text an iconic presence in 21st-century culture and media.
For one thing, the hundred-ton whale remains a large presence. Allusions to characters in Moby-Dick frequent The New York Times crossword puzzle. (Personal report: in summer 2009, I found both “Ishmael,” the novel’s narrator, and “Ahab,” the mad, anguished whale-hunter, fit the puzzle grid; “Ahab” fit twice.)
There are Moby-Dick films and Moby-Dick plays, including a radio drama by sci-fi titan Ray Bradbury. Five days after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said wrote that US passions were being “funneled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick.” That same year, Kelley says, both Osama bin Laden and former U.S. president George W. Bush were compared to the obsessed and volatile Captain Ahab, willing to sacrifice his ship and crew in a mad hunt for his enemy, the White Whale.
“Many people take Melville too seriously. If they do, they
miss his delicious wit and dry humor. He was like Lenny
Bruce or Steven Colbert — a very well-traveled satirist!”
— Wyn Kelley, Senior Lecturer in Literature
"Dead White Male" to Globalist
During Kelley’s MIT career, Melville the author has been characterized in many different ways: he has been dismissed as a “dead white male”; recognized as having “a lot to say about gender, race, colonialism, nationalism, and otherness;” lauded as a multi-culturalist in the 1980s; and then as a globalist in the 2000s.
Kelley observes that “Melville scholars have taken up issues of gender in Pierre; have examined race in ‘Benito Cereno,’ and matters of sexuality in Billy Budd.” Giving an example of how Melville pops up in contemporary culture, Kelley says, “Billy Budd even made it into a ‘Sopranos’ episode!”
A Favorite Book of The Reader-in-Chief
In 2009, the White Whale breached on President Barack Obama’s Facebook page. The Reader-in-Chief revealed that his two favorite books are Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Nobel-laureate Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon.
Kelley observes: “Both authors address identity and longing, subjects that President Obama describes vividly in his 1995 book, Dreams from My Father. Captain Ahab’s lament, ‘Where is the foundling’s father hidden?’ and Macon Dead’s quest for his family’s history in Song of Solomon both resonate in Obama’s autobiography. All three works are narratives of the search for identity.” Kelley delights in showing students how great artworks ripple across generations and across genres.
Melville by Land
Melville traveled widely by land before he boarded a merchant ship in 1839 and the whaling ship, The Acushnet, in 1841. He visited Boston, Albany, and Illinois. He traveled by boat up and down the Hudson River, by barge on the Erie Canal, by train between New York and Boston, and by horse and by buggy around the Berkshires. He shared New England excursions and champagne-based picnics with his wife, family, and neighbors, prominently Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Once established as a novelist, Melville visited New York often, noting its transformation from a bustling town to a complex city that could “only with difficulty organize its expanding and diverse population, its contended spaces and its political and social tensions into an order,” Kelley writes in her 1996 book, Melville’s City: Urban and Literary Form in Nineteenth-Century New York.
Throughout his travels, Melville was a great reporter—insightful, unflinching, and with a remarkable ability to recall details and events. “Scholars are amazed that he kept so few notebooks,” muses Kelley. “He drew on travel journals in later poems, but for most of his novels, he supplemented his own keen memory with reading. A great wit, he also honed his observations through constant oral storytelling.”
Like Walt Whitman, his exact contemporary, Melville turned to solemn matters during the Civil War, visiting battlefields near Washington, D.C., and transforming reportage into a volume of elegiac poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866).
Often low on money, Melville moved about when he could. Nineteenth-century journeys by land held their own trials — Hunger! Lice! Mind-crushing tedium! — and Melville reported on these in his journals of travels to London and France in 1849, and again in 1857 on a journey to England, Germany, Italy, Greece, Egypt, and the Holy Land.
In Melville’s City, Kelley describes Melville’s view
of the ancient city of Jerusalem as the “fully realized
capital of the entire suffering world.”
An Urban Pilgrimage in the Middle East
His Middle Eastern trip was an urban pilgrimage. “When Melville returned to New York, he found a city that had burst its older constraints. Its only analogues were the old world cosmopolises. Jerusalem, with its complex structure and power to awe might satisfy the worldly cosmopolite and the other-worldly pilgrim,” Kelley writes in her book.
He was disappointed in his search for the urban sublime. “Travels to the Holy Land had become big tourist business by the mid-19th-century,” Kelley says. “Melville found it appalling that the biblical sites had become dense and crowded and noisy. At the same time, he was amazed by all the pilgrims and the numerous faiths that counted the place holy.”
Melville’s 1876 work Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, a tale of religious doubt, ”beautifully evokes the religious, social, ethnic, linguistic complexity of Jerusalem,” Kelley says. In Melville’s City she describes Melville’s view of the ancient city as the “fully realized capital of the entire suffering world.”
In 2009, Kelley followed Melville’s footsteps in the Middle East when she attended a conference organized by a Palestinian Melville scholar, Basem Ra’ad, professor of American literature at Al Quds University in Jerusalem. There, she could join international Melville experts and walk the narrow streets that widened his vision a century ago.
“Melville never gave up questioning and seeking and testing. The experience of traveling to the Holy Land and other places made him see that his own culture’s assumptions were often narrow and confining,” she says. Yet the author refrained from scolding or punditry. “Many people take Melville too seriously,” Kelley observes. “If they do, they miss his delicious wit and dry humor. He was like Lenny Bruce or Steven Colbert—a very well-traveled satirist!”
Melville by Sea
Kelley has also followed Melville by sea, devoting her sabbatical year to tracing the course of Melville’s ocean voyages. She visited Tahiti and the Galápagos Islands, both hauntingly described in Melville’s lesser-known works. His first novel, Typee (1846) is set in French Polynesia; his second, Omoo (1847), arose from his experiences in Tahiti, where he was jailed for mutiny. The Encantadas (1856) is about the legends of the Galápagos.
”He describes the legendary rock known as Rock Rodondo in The Encantadas—I saw it at dawn on my birthday last year. His descriptions of the Galapagos’ barren, volcanic landscape are utterly realistic. After seeing the Galápagos, I gained even more respect for Melville’s journalistic accuracy,” she says.
"Kelley has also followed Melville by sea.
Tracing the course of Melville’s ocean voyages,
she visited Tahiti and the Galápagos Islands,
both hauntingly described in Melville’s works."
“It was a thrill to sniff the sea breezes and to see landscapes that must have delighted and shocked a sheltered New England lad. And it was sobering to reflect on how danger, deprivation, and hard work during four years at sea must have ‘salted’ and educated Melville. No wonder he says ‘a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.’ His family was socially well-connected, but he never attended college,” Kelley notes.
“These travels made Melville real to me and gave me a more nuanced reading of Moby-Dick. That’s what I want to convey to MIT students,” she says.
Most of her students are prepared for Melville’s ecological concerns, readily appreciating Ishmael’s musings about the future of whale populations as whale hunting grew more efficient and oil more valuable. They have studied climate change and environmental protection; many are already at work on solving the energy crisis. But Kelley emphasizes, Melville’s interest in the fate of a species was quite unusual for his day.
“Melville probably read Darwin while he was at sea. He understood that human exploitation of the environment would have consequences,” says Kelley. Her essay on this topic, “Melville’s Natural History of Creation,” is published in Whole Oceans Away: Melville and the Pacific, published in 2007 by Kent State University Press and co-edited by Kelley.
Still, awareness of evolution and of human savagery did not give the 19th-century Melville a 21st-century ecological perspective, Kelley cautions. When she shows her students footage of early 20th-century whaling—grisly scenes of a whale being stripped of its blubber like a mummy being stripped of its winding cloth—she reminds them that he held the then prevailing view that the natural world was intended to serve human needs and commercial interests.
“An ocean engineering student once wrote a wonderful
paper on equilibrium—examining it both as a physics
issue, in ships, and as a thematic element in Moby-Dick.
Understanding whaling technology is a great way
to understand Moby-Dick."
As often happens in MIT humanities courses, Kelley finds that her students’ interest in science and technology inspires her teaching approach. “An ocean engineering student once wrote a wonderful paper on the problem of equilibrium—examining it both as a physics issue, in ships, and as a thematic element in Moby-Dick,” Kelley says. “Understanding whaling technology is a great way to understand Moby-Dick.”
Melville on the Street
Melville, who spent his childhood in Greenwich Village and many of his writing years in Pittsfield, Mass., worked as a customs inspector on the New York docks from 1866 to 1885. He was a keen observer of urban life—an American “flaneur,” daily walker of cities from the wharves, to the poorest sections, to the centers of culture, theater, arts, and social life.
Melville’s portraits of New York apply in the 21st century, too, much as those of his near-contemporary Charles Dickens apply to London. Both saw the city’s poor neighborhoods as mazes within an ever growing maze, one that offered diversity and tolerance as well as deep oppression and intolerance.
Kelley speculates that Melville might have felt more at home in today’s mega-cities like Mumbai than in Manhattan. “Melville understood urban class geography. I would love to know what he’d say about the film, Slumdog Millionaire,” she says. Like Edgar Allan Poe, ten years his senior, Melville used urban taxonomy—classifications of people into various general types—to suggest the injustice of social class divisions.
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.
“Melville's interest in the fate of a species was quite
unusual for his day. He probably read Darwin while
he was at sea, and he understood that human exploitation
of the environment would have consequences."
“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.
Moby-Dick reflects Melville’s capacity to reflect on global concerns, such as oppression of sailors, and on intimate ones, such as loneliness, madness, and the search for a home, Kelley notes. And perhaps Ishmael, the wanderer, finds himself and his home in being the author of his tale. Like a blogger or chatter online, he is what he posts on the web.
Melville would appreciate both web and urban realms, Kelley believes. She has contributed her scholarly and teaching expertise to support a dramatic adaptation of Moby-Dick which connects life on the fictional 19th- century Pequod with real-life concerns of 21st-century urban teens. In 2005, she worked with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, director of the Mixed Magic Theatre in Rhode Island, and a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at MIT, on events related to his 2007 production, “Moby-Dick: Then and Now.”
It’s a double drama, set on two stages and blending two plots: Melville’s characters pursue the White Whale on an upper stage while a youth gang called The One pursues the “White Thing” that killed their leader’s brother on a street-level stage. Adult actors play Melville’s roles and teen-aged recruits play gang members.
The novelist would be pleased, Kelley believes, with Pitts-Wiley’s addition of city youths’ voices to the Pequod’s diverse crew. In “Melville’s Natural History of Creation,” her essay in Oceans Away, Kelley writes, “Melville implies that authorship itself is a flexible commodity,” so adding characters and points of view simply follows the author’s lead.
To share her own enthusiasm and to make Melville’s work more accessible to students involved in Pitts-Wiley’s production, Kelley contributed a “Moby-Dick Starter Kit” for teachers, based on techniques she uses at MIT, to the “Then and Now” project. She has worked with literacy and educational programs in New Bedford and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A founding member of the Melville Cultural Society, Kelley serves as consultant to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Inspired by Melville’s work, Pitts-Wiley’s production, and Professor Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture, Kelley challenges her MIT students to explore any and all arts and media from YouTube, to Twitter to Facebook and to be agile and creative in their own research on Moby. To help launch their journeys, she uses such examples from the rap-o-sphere as MC Lars’ 2006 lyrics to “Ahab” to show the novel’s long reach:
Call me Ahab, what, monomaniac
Obsessed with success like Steve Wozniak
On the hunt for this mammal that once took my leg
With my worn-down crew and my man Queequeg.
“Melville would have loved rap art, as he loved Shakespeare. They’re both producers of new words, and Melville loved word play more than just about anything,” she says.
Melville in Space
Kelley’s involvement with MetaMedia and the School’s New Media Literacies Project has led her to address in her MIT courses the many ways new media have picked up and remixed older texts.
But literary scholarship is still about reading and writing and appreciating the profound, enduring, evolving vitality of texts. “The ‘new’ in ‘new media’ is not just about technology. It’s also about new ways of reading,” she says.
Her courses begin with the text, big hunks of it. To animate life on the Pequod, she uses chairs to create a whaling ship in her classroom. Spatially oriented students appreciate it, while the visually inclined go for her posting of paintings cited in Moby-Dick or beloved by Melville, a print collector and art critic. Her educational goal is to show how hefty texts become living literary organisms, growing richer in response to human interests and the historic moment.
The Whale flourished in the 1960s Sputnik-Space Race-Cold War era, thanks to a confluence of historic, scientific and cultural moments. In 1965, the Adventure comic “The Super Moby Dick of Space” cast the whale as a small beast enlarged to monster scale by a foreign scientist’s mistake. In 1967, the Hanna-Barbera series “Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor” cast the whale as a friendly helpmeet. And in 1968, Ray Bradbury’s BBC radio play, “Leviathan 99,” featured a space ship captain rocket-stalking the great white comet that blinded him.
Forty years later, NASA invoked whale hunting in a 2004 press release on capturing comets: “Like the massive white whale in Herman Melville’s 1851 classic Moby-Dick, comets have long been considered swift, elusive harbingers of change. One of the best ways for scientists to study the mysteries of comets is to harpoon one.”
Is NASA casting itself as Ahab — mad and obsessed? As a scholar, Kelley often warns, check the text! Ahab’s harpoon doesn’t bring victory or vengeance; the whale is not destroyed like the shark in Jaws (1975); the movies and Melville often don’t match. “In the book, no God intervenes. No Higher Moral Force triumphs. The whale disappears in the ocean. Ahab’s death comes from being tangled up in his own ropes, not from a bloody mortal struggle.”
She illustrated the connections and the gaps between Melville and movie-land in a 2007 MIT course, “Moby Dick Goes to the Movies,” by screening the silent films Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) and The Sea Beast (1926) as well as several talkies including Moby-Dick films of 1956 and 1998.
And pop culture’s practices do have their place, Kelley notes. In remixing and borrowing, they follow the author’s own lead. Melville alluded to, and borrowed abundantly from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Renaissance poetry, just as multimedia adaptations continue to borrow from him. She also showed Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and a Japanese animated TV series, Hakugei: Legend of the Moby-Dick. She played Laurie Anderson’s “Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick” (1999) and heavy metal band Mastodon’s CD “Leviathan” (2004) – “very Spinal Tap,” she notes, referring to the 1984 satirical film.
In the spirit of adventuring that Melville enjoyed, Kelley urges her class to explore web, video, and performance art. The author loved word play, after all—why not web play?
Kelley uses work by Israeli-born New York artist Guy Ben-Ner to illustrate how high-tech and low-tech, web-play and word play, can mix, remix, and still retain a link to Melville’s work. In Ben-Ner’s black and white video Moby Dick (2000), the artist and his 6-year-old daughter build a make-believe ship in their apartment kitchen, playfully enacting Ahab v. Moby as a domestic drama. The fleeting Keaton-esque production has all the necessary ingredients – conflict in a confined space; limited resources; shifting power relations and a disruptive dark force. Wonderfully, it conveys the tome in a telegram.
Wiki-Moby-Pedia: The Life of the Text
Passionate literary work—persistent scholarship and creative teaching over time—offers continual surprises. These may arise in quiet attention to individual texts, leading to new appreciation for an author’s vision and artistry. They may arise in an MIT classroom, where students from around the world contribute new perspectives to literary discussions. And they may arise, in best MIT fashion, from advances in other fields entirely—leading back, once again, to subtler explorations of the text.
Elsewhere at MIT, mechanical and ocean engineers have built a robotic fish and a boat propelled by mechanical “penguin” flippers. Stefan Helmreichan anthropologist at the School, writes about scientists like Penny Chisholm, an MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering and biology, who study the smallest microbe in ocean ecosystems to understand daily and evolutionary life processes—another hunt for Moby-Dick, but on a nano scale, Kelley notes.
"Researchers have discovered that whales talk, sing, and plan,
'They communicate! They forgive!' says Kelley, delighted by
a view of Moby-Dick that includes the whale’s own voice."
Meanwhile, on the California coast, a very low-tech (rowboats) and literal (actual finback whales) adventure in human-whale communication is underway. Moby-Dick is being remixed again, in a completely new voice.
Researchers are astonished: Whales, they discover, talk, sing, and plan among themselves. They use tools. They mourn their dead. They fight for their offspring, according to Charles Siebert, writing in The New York Times Magazine on July 12, 2009.
“They communicate! They forgive!” says Kelley, delighted at having a view of Moby-Dick that includes the whale’s voice. This would surely please Ishmael, who wondered aloud if whales possessed thoughts or emotions. It might please Melville to learn his book’s volcanic but mute force of nature may speak for himself at last.
After all, Melville took the innovative step of shifting the White Whale to “he” from the then-customary, “it.” He —the whale—could stalk and hate and suffer like any other mammal.
And what if Melville had the right moral view but not the right gender? Research suggests female whales in Baja protect their young with fearsome aggression. Was the White Whale was an enraged mother?
Questions like these add wealth to a generous text, a book, but not the open-and-shut kind, Kelley says. “Moby-Dick is like a Wikipedia entry: material is constantly added to it. 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.”
Profile of Wyn Kelley
Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial 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