A B.A. in ‘Moby-Dick’
We asked Monitor readers to tell us about works of fiction they read as students that changed their lives. Here’s another submission:
At Brown University, between 1958 and 1962, I majored in Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s magnum opus.
Not really, of course. There were other works of fiction in the American literature courses I took. But Moby was the Great American Novel – perhaps still is.
As such, it was the centerpiece, the anchor, of every survey course I took, as well as of the graduate-level seminar that focused solely on Melville’s works. The study of Moby took up, at minimum, about a third of each survey course and half of the graduate-level course.
So powerful was its influence on literary criticism that Moby even occasionally reared its ugly head, cursorily, in courses I took on the literature of other lands and languages.
I could write papers comparing and contrasting, say, Keats’s nightingale or Wordsworth’s daffodil, and Melville’s whale.
More than 600 pages long, Moby was not a quick read. Sprawling, full of obscure references and rambling digressions, it had only one saving grace for me: I had to plow through it just once.
Thereafter, my marginal notes, the teachings of earlier professors and the papers I had already written made all subsequent Moby-centric courses markedly easier.
This in turn gave me free time to work toward a sub-editorship at the campus daily newspaper. That extracurricular work led to a public-relations career, and in 1996 to an early retirement.
So Moby-Dick turned out to have enormous impact on my life, though my only remaining recollection of its content is that, in the end, Ishmael and the whale live, and Ahab dies.