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  • Writer's pictureRachel Beck

Whip Out Moby Dick!

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

“I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb.”

-- Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne

Freud said there are no accidents. But he also said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I have to remind seniors of this amid my many Freudian slips while teaching AP Lit, which I maintain complete innocence under the arduous task of keeping teenagers interested in classical literature.

When David and I became engaged, it made us all the more interesting to students, and they often romanticized our romance. We really are not an exciting couple unless you fancy reading in bed. Classics, I say, not 50 Shades of Grey.

So when one of my students asked if Youngblood and I just sit around reading poetry to each other, I said, “No, not always poetry-- sometimes he whips out Moby Dick--” Before I knew what I said, the students were literally on the floor, laughing. Finally I caught on and said, “But we do like to read Moby Dick together.” Oh well, I thought, there goes that lesson. Freud would have had a good time with me.

Besides my inappropriate anecdotes, I try to hook them in the great American classic by showing a Steven Colbert clip interviewing the renowned, Melville scholar, Andrew Delbanco, an interview just before the film Heart of the Sea came out. Colbert wants Delbanco to help us understand the importance of reading Moby Dick but needs to make it “quick and exciting for our network TV audience,” so he gives the lecture while he and Colbert ride on a roller coaster.

In the interview, Delbanco talks about what makes it a great American classic: “Call me Ishmael--” sets us up for this detached, disinherited American trying to figure out who he is. Delbanco says, “He’s a wanderer he doesn’t know who he is-- just like the rest of us.”

Then you have the great Byronic-hero, Captain Ahab. Speaking of Byron-- I love poor, misunderstood Byron, a Romantic (again, not the romance you’re thinking of) who had me at the verse “I have felt!” Yes, me too! But back to Ahab, chasing his dream, sacrificing everything, risking his life and the lives of his fellow shipmates-- that’s the American way!

Sometimes I worry about my passion for literature-- Have I become like Ahab? Part of it has to do with a passion, but part of my obsession, I think, comes from being American and unable to accept the things I can not change. As Gatsby claims, “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can!”

Colbert asks, “Does everyone have a white whale?” Delbanco says, “I think so-- I think we want to explain to ourselves why the world seems unfair sometimes and does bad things to us.”

So as Colbert says at the end of the interview: “That seems like a great book, and now I don’t have to read it.”

To be fair, there’s really nothing sexy about Moby Dick, unless you count the bosom buddy scene where Ishmael shares a tomahawk pipe in bed with his newfound cannibal friend, Queegueg. Of course having a savage-looking cannibal (holding a couple of heads and a harpoon, no less) for a bed mate would make anyone squeamish, but Ishmael concludes: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The book is actually really funny, unless you are of Puritan descent. So, Melville did write “a wicked book” after all, and like the other great American novel, The Great Gatsby, it was not well received in its day. Melville died thinking he was a complete failure, unable to conquer his own whale. And even today, Americans blush and giggle at the very sound of its name: Moby Dick.

Here is the Colbert clip if you want a laugh:

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