Expecting allusions to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick during the National Teachers of English Conference (NCTE) is like (pardon the pun) shooting fish in a barrel. Okay, I know…the whale is a mammal, but once this white whale has been sighted, he keeps surfacing!
First Sighting: Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2011 slim book Why Read Moby-Dick?
The exhibitors at the NCTE conference were interested in putting books into the hands of teachers who would then put books into the hands of student readers. Once such vendor enthusiastically suggested the book based on its size; “See. you could carry this book around the convention and hardly know it’s in your bag!”
He was right. Philbrick’s 127 page argument as to why “this classic tale waits to be discovered anew” fit nicely in my convention bag and was perfect for reading during breaks between sessions.
The book is divided into 28 short chapters each devoted to topics such as setting, characters, or themes. Chapter titles include:
- The View from the Masthead
- A Mighty Messy Book
- Pulling Dictatorship Out of a Hat
Philbrick is already familiar with the real life incident that was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s literary classic. His non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex in 2000 recounts the loss of the whaling ship Essex in the Pacific Ocean in 1820. Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award for non-fiction that year, fleshing out the details of the whale attack on the boat, the fateful decision to avoid islands allegedly populated by cannibals, and the ironic turn to cannibalism that claimed the lives of several surviving crew members.
In Why Read Moby Dick?, Philbrick turns to the literary contributions Melville gave American literature, particularly in the creation of Captain Ahab, who in a pre-appearance had been rumored by other sea captains to have “been in colleges as well as ‘mong the cannibals.” In one chapter, “The Anatomy of a Demagogue”, Philbrick analyzes Ahab’s rhetorical craftiness in convincing the crew to hunt and kill the white whale. In discussing first mate Starbuck’s stunned realization that the Pequod is not out on a commercial venture, but rather a mission to settle the score of Ahab’s lost limb, Philbrick engages in a cross-culture reference that is both humorous and insightful:
Starbuck responds by asking what Ahab’s vengence will get ‘in our Nantucket market?’ It’s then, to borrow from the film This is Spinal Tap, that Ahab dials his charisma to eleven. ‘But come closer, Starbuck,’ he says, ‘thou requirest a little lower layer?’ It’s not about the money, he explains; this is personal. Thumping his chest he cries out. ‘My vengeance will fetch a great premium here!’ “(40)
Philbrick also aligns the story as a metaphor for the political turmoil of the United States. In discussing the chapter where Stubbs, the second mate, raises a shiver of sharks by cutting into a whale for a steak, Philbrick writes,
“The job of government, of civilization, is to keep the shark at bay….Here lies the source of the Founding Fathers’ ultimately unforgivable ommission. They refused to contain the great, ravaging shark of slavery, and more than two generations later, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were about to suffer the consequences.” (78)
Philbrick moves between cultures, between ideologies, between philosophies, and theories in order to encourage more people to actually read Melville’s great American novel. A encouragement that may be necessary, because soon after I received the book, I had whale sighting #2.
Whale sighting #2: A statement during a key note address at the Conference for English Leadership (CEL):
“We all know the opening line of Moby Dick, but how many of us have actually read the book?” posed speaker Donalyn Miller to the crowd of English teachers. There was a murmur of agreement, and more than a few guilty looks. Miller was discussing her passion and the topic of her two books: how to get students to read for school and independently.
Most notably, Miller is known as the author of The Book Whisperer and the recently released Reading in the Wild. Her keynote address was to encourage students to become the independent readers that could-on their own- pick up a tome like Moby Dick. She discussed the characteristics of “wild readers” and pushed teachers to engage students in examining their reading lives. She advocated for literacy rich environments for students to develop the habits to make them life-long readers. Miller’s assertion that preparing students to read independently is the best guarantor of standardized test success was supported with the graphic she presented. (see left: Nagy & Herman study).
Her point about Moby Dick was that most people know the first line, “Call me Ishmael,” but only those who live literate lives know why the book is so critical to understanding American literature. Students who have not developed the reading endurance necessary for the book may be turned off by both the intimidating size and the 19th Century styled language of the text. Considering that most high schools shy away from teaching Moby Dick to anyone but their best students means that the novel will most likely be an independent choice book for a student who develops into a life-long reader. Miller wants them to be prepared so they can will have the pleasure of sitting back in a comfy chair, perhaps with a cup of coffee, to read.
Whale sighting #3: Coffee at Starbucks.
Speaking of coffee, I am not sure why I never realized this before, but this coffee company is named for the first mate of the Pequod, Starbuck. I Googled this fact while waiting in the long line of English teachers eager to fuel up before attending the day of sessions at NCTE. According to the company’s website, “The name, inspired by Moby Dick, evoked the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders.” How did I not put this together?
Whale sightings, continued…….
Once I returned home from NCTE and CEL, the white whale sightings did not stop. A blog post on To Make a Prairie by Edblog award nominee Vicky Vinton summarized a session she had attended at NCTE called “Reading the Visual and Visualizing the Reading” chaired by Tom Newkirk and presented by Louise Wrobleski, Tomasen Carey, and Terry Mohera. Vinton explains the ideas based their mentor text, Moby-Dick in Pictures by the self-taught artist Matt Kish were “too inspiring not to spread around.” Their presentation highlighted the amazing results in student work when students chose one quote from each chapter of the The Scarlet Letter and create an image for it. Vinton notes that, “Mohera was surprised by the depth of the students’ thinking and how, once she’d gotten them started, they took full ownership of the book, the assignments and the whole process.” The richness of their illustrations shows how literature can inspire new creations, just as Kish’s illustrations were inspired by Melville.
As if on cue, as in the final pages of Melville’s drama, the white whale surfaced dramatically again this morning when I came across another artist who is under Melville’s spell. While perusing the December 16th issue of The New Yorker, there was Mick Stevens’s cartoon of the whale himself (p56), a cross expression behind his spectacles, with his front fins holding a copy of Moby Dick. The caption underneath read, “Oh, C’mon, I wasn’t that terrible!”
Coincidence? I think not. Melville’s white whale is everywhere, but to appreciate him? You have to read the book.