In our fraught present moment, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick remains as pertinent as ever. This fall’s reading group is your chance to dive in with one of our most popular instructors, author Sheridan Hay. We asked Sheridan a few questions about Melville’s book and her plans for the group, which begins Monday, September 14.
What about Moby-Dick do you think makes it a classic that people return to again and again?
As a text, Moby-Dick, creates in the reader an illusion of the inexhaustible—it is filled with energy, particularity and paradox. Against every assumption, it feels “modern”—its structure experimental, its concerns current—even while its language is often Shakespearian. When Melville began writing Moby-Dick in 1850, America was in crisis—in the same year the Fugitive Slave Act was passed requiring any escaped slave captured in any of the then-30 states to be turned over to the authorities. Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the institution of slavery revealed the hypocrisy of the promise of liberty and justice for all. Thus, in 1850, all Americans were implicated in an horrendous lie. Melville wrote into this fraught, historical moment; transcending it, reaching into a future he couldn’t have foreseen—the continuation of racial, environmental, spiritual and political disturbance on an unimaginable scale. As a consequence, Moby-Dick’s timeless quality, its allegorical structure, appears not only modern but prophetic; its characters archetypal. It seems to speak to every age. Written in crisis, the novel provides a language and a network of symbols with which to address persistent, returning, even present upheavals. In this way, Moby-Dick becomes newly relevant again and again—one of “the first, great mythologies to be created in the modern world.” It would seem there are always maniacal tyrants able to convince men to follow them; always an elusive phantom they seek to dominate . . .
What inspires you to teach this novel?
Moby-Dick is an extraordinary book on many levels but I never tire of its tremendous expansiveness, of its openness and wild willingness to take on every esoteric conjecture. Readers are almost always surprised by Moby-Dick—by the fact that it’s really funny, irreverent, filled with puns and plays on words; that it sends up various philosophical and religious sacred cows. Readers are surprised that the language is so excessive; that the chapters are sometimes only a paragraph long, that the text is sometimes in the form of a play, sometimes a mock naturalist essay. That it’s an attempt at a kind of bible; an encyclopedia of the whale. “A voyage of the soul,” as D. H. Lawrence described it. There is delight in surprise, in the fun Melville is having, and this makes teaching Moby-Dick deeply pleasurable.
What do you think is the benefit of having a class that encourages reading, especially during COVID and quarantine?
All the qualities I described above expand in company, in reading a text closely and talking it over. There is no one simple decipherable iconography in Moby-Dick—just endless possibilities, and this serves to include every reader’s response. It is a real opportunity to read a great novel slowly, with other readers, deepening the experience and layering over one’s own interpretation with that of others. The text becomes a communal meeting place, a shared ground, enriching one’s own space with Melville’s imaginings and with the thoughts and views of other readers. Reading connects us and that is more important than ever.
How do you plan to structure this class? What do you think the participants of this reading group will learn?
Through trial and error, I have learned to structure the group over eight weeks. I divide Moby-Dick into eight sections of not more than 100 pages a week. In this way, a close examination of the text is possible—the novel is sometimes opaque and something of a palimpsest, filled with all manner of references, allusions, riffs and jokes. From my research, I provide historical, biographical and literary context so that a full picture of Melville, his life and times, emerges alongside the text of Moby-Dick. I prepare a short talk on the section under consideration, then we turn to the text for conversation, questions or just to point out to each other some astonishing passage worthy of comment.
In your opinion, what makes a “good story?”
Different readers look for different things, of course, but as a reader I love complex narratives filled with ambiguity and nuance. I like books that can be read multiple ways, whose “meanings” are elusive, or that mean different things at different stages of life. I like fiction that is unpredictable; that gives the sense of unfolding even as it is being read. This I think has less to do with plot, than with the sense of aliveness on the sentence level.
You have led many reading groups with the Center for Fiction. What have been your favorite books to discuss?
Well, Moby-Dick is certainly one of my favorite books to discuss (I think I’ve led it at the Center eight or nine times). I also lead a Henry James reading group (we’ve worked our way through almost every novel over the years) and among my favorites are The Ambassadors, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Wings of the Dove. I loved leading George Eliot’s Middlemarch with a large group and would happily do that again. In October, I’ll lead the James group on his rather weird, Sacred Fount, and preparing for it has made me think I’d like to do a group on his short “ghost” stories . . .