Moby Dick still towers above American Literature. Over 150 years since it’s publication, this novel has crept into the imagination of scores of artists, and writers in particular. Melville’s white whale has been swimming under the surface of our literary tradition, turning up in works as diverse as Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I first encountered Moby Dick in what would be considered a pure form watching the John Huston movie version, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab and featuring a screenplay by Ray Bradbury. I already knew the story, it’s impossible to not be familiar with the story. I remember enjoying the movie, and wanting to read the book. I tried, but it’s a daunting book for a ten year old, so I instead read a comic book adaptation, which didn’t give me much more than the movie did. I also managed to avoid having to read it in High School, and didn’t encounter it again until a course in American Literature in college. I dreaded having to revisit the text.
Our Professor was undaunted, however. He taught the book with all the passion of a Calvinist preacher. He spurred us forward through each chapter, and challenged us to mine the depths of Melville’s writing, and discover the rich veins buried in Nineteenth Century prose. I used to say he dragged us through the book, but that’s the wrong choice of words. A better description would be to say he put us on his shoulders, and encouraged us to pull each other along. To this day his teaching of this one book is the most memorable school experience I’ve had, and the closest I’ve seen in reality to what Robin Williams performed in Dead Poet’s Society. A fearless teacher filled with infectious passion for the subject he taught. He inspired us to read every word, to understand every image, to realize that even what we were learning, there was still more to draw from the text. He whipped us up so thoroughly, he could have sent us out in longboats to hunt whales ourselves.
I remember this experience whenever I see Moby Dick breach into the public eye. Most recently it occurred to me when a new project launched yesterday, the Moby Dick Big Read. Beginning September 16th, the site will feature readings of each chapter of this American masterpiece. First up is Tilda Swinton. Over the subsequent days all 135 chapters will be read, accompanied by artwork inspired by the book. This is a wonderful way to experience Moby Dick, and hopefully an inspiration for you to bring out your own copy and read it yourself.
And thank you, Professor Curley, for inspiring me then, and inpiring me still.