Not Teaching Moby-Dick

By Mike Everton

September 15, 2016

Maybe it’s the whale kitsch that litters my office—gifts from students who read Moby-Dick in one of my classes—or maybe it’s that random students regularly find their way to my office with book in hand that make me think I’ve taught Moby-Dick more than I have. But I did the math just now, and it turns out that I’ve taught Herman Melville’s big stab at the big whale only five times in my career. I was surprised. Just as Ishmael, his narrator, suffers from (among other things) endless visions of the whale, students suffer from endless visions of reading the book, and I suffer from endless visions of teaching it, even though, it seems, I seldom do.

Don’t get me wrong: I teach Melville a lot. I specialize in nineteenth-century American literature, after all, so he frequently finds his way into my classes, just usually not in the form of Moby-Dick. Instead it’s his other novels, short stories, and poetry. I’m good with that. I love introducing students to Melville’s less-read books (all hail The Confidence-Man and Pierre) and any day I get to proselytize his poetry is a good day in my book.

That last line’s a doozy—vintage Melville, dabbling in the fetching only to stab it in the back. But as much as this poem, “The Enviable Isles,” has to say, and as beautifully as it says it, Moby-Dick is, well, Moby-Dick, and students want a crack at it, and they want it in university. The problem is that, for lots of reasons, I can’t teach it this year. Instead, I’m going to share it. 

Last Spring, I taught a big class full of big brains. (That’s a shout out to you, Spring 2016 Engl. 347.) Some of those brains knew I teach a 400-level Melville class in which we do Moby-Dick over five weeks, though I haven’t offered it for a few years, and I won’t be able to again until most of the students have graduated SFU. Talking with one of the students during the semester, I mentioned that I’d once run a reading group on Moby-Dick. It was in 2004, in Florida, where I was one year out of grad school and one year into my first academic job. Four students and I met weekly for 15 weeks to make our way slowly through this book I hadn’t yet had the guts to bring into my classroom. (Hello out there, Carly, Jenn, Lili, and Shawn.) The experience was—in a word that doesn’t do it justice—lovely. No writing. No outside reading. No lectures. No grades. No expectations. No credit. Just us and Ishmael’s “wonder-world,” complete with devils and farts and cuddly cannibals and drowning boys and Ahab and unfired rifles and cowards and coffin buoys and spirit spouts and imagined islands that populate real maps like ghosts in people’s heads. 

Rockwell Kent woodcut from the 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby-Dick. Recent Penguin and Modern Library editions reprint Kent’s famous images.

Being a professor isn’t the hardest job in the world, but it’s busier than many realize. This Fall, for me, much of that busyness will come from an administrative post, a post that will largely keep me out of the regular classroom. That fact, combined with the fact that I have some great students who want the chance to share a great book, means that it’s 2004 all over again, only with more people round the table. Should be fun, even if it means I don’t get to telegraph menacing looks when it turns out they haven’t done the legwork to understand the allusion in Chapter 89 to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 or spent hours trying to figure out Chapter 35’s “Descartian vorticies” or charted the dimensions of God’s skeleton. For someone who enjoys the occasional menacing look, this will be tough, but I guess I can keep my brow at bay for a semester. It’s not about legwork. It’s about reading and talking.

Unfortunately, by the way, we’re full up. Word of mouth spreads fast, and it filled the available seats in our little room before I could announce the group openly. But if it goes as well as last time maybe I'll do it again. My admin post will last a few years, and I’m going to need people with whom I can share books like this. Be on the lookout. 

Michael Everton studies eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature and book history with a focus on authorship, publishing, intellectual property, ethics, and economics. He is the editor of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) (Broadview, 2016) and the author of The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing (Oxford UP, 2011), an account of the moral economies of U.S. literary  production between 1776 and 1870. Current research includes a new book, Honour among Thieves: Intellectual Property outside the Law, a study of the “negative space” of Victorian American copyright law and the norms governing that space, and an article on the literary historiography of seventeenth-century New England witchcraft. He is chair of the undergraduate program.