Where's Herman?

November 22, 2006

The guy featured on the poster had a long white beard and dark black sunglasses, the kind worn by people too cool for any room they might ever enter. At first it looked like he might be the guitar player for ZZ Top. But on closer examination you saw that the event being advertised was not a rock concert but, rather, a "transdisciplinary celebration" called "Why Melville Matters Now.” The man behind those shades was the creator of tortured souls like Ishmael and Bartleby. And the homage to him in Albany this past weekend was designed to make him a local celebrity.

A transdisciplinary celebration is like an academic conference, only different. This one was organized with the support of the State University of New York at Albany -- especially its Center for Humanities, Arts, and TechnoSciences. But the gathering itself took place elsewhere, at the Albany Academy, a private school attended by Melville himself in the 1830s; and the event was open to the general public. Parents and alumni attended, as well as scholars giving papers. It soon became clear that the entire Albany Academy had undergone a recent bout of systematic Melville mania. A bulletin board outside the kindergarten and first grade classrooms showed a school of colorful construction-paper fish, beneath the words “Where’s Moby?” (I must admit that I could not find Moby.)

Herman Melville: great American novelist or great American hipster? Well, it isn’t an either/or kind of situation. Rereading Moby Dick for the first time in ages (now minus the English major’s mental tic of obsessing over how each little part fit into a vast symbolic architecture), I recently underwent the astonishing revelation that Melville (1) definitely has a sense of humor, (2) pretty much invented the postmodern “maximalist” novel of the sort we now associate with Thomas Pynchon, and (3) is so overtly gay and so stridently multiculturalist that Fox News should probably look into how he ever got into the canon.

You don’t have to interpret Melville to make him seem contemporary. He is way ahead of you on that score -- even in ways that can prove somewhat troubling to consider. (Since 9/11, we have gone through a serious bout of Ahab-ism, finding purpose and meaning in the prospect of vengeance, which is the sort of thing that tends not to end well.)

But getting people together to discuss him is no small trick. One of the chief organizers of the gathering, Mary Valentis, an associate professor of English at SUNY-Albany, told me about giving equal weight to two major phases of its preparation. The first was sending out the call for papers, then sorting through the responses to create a program. The other was doing as much as possible to make local people aware of the gathering -- a matter of getting publicity on radio, television, and in the newspapers.

For that, it helped to have things on the schedule other than papers on Melville and cognitive science, or the theological subtext of Benito Cereno. There were art installations, a dance recital, and a 24-hour marathon reading of Moby Dick. The latter even would feature Andy Rooney reading the novel's final chapter and epilogue.

Rooney had a certain amount of drawing power, of course. Apart from being on “60 Minutes,” he is a member of the Albany Academy’s class of ‘39. But it appeared that the single biggest turnout was for the keynote address by Andrew Delbanco, a professor of humanities at Columbia University and the author of a recent biography of Melville.

Any time a scholar can successfully compete with a TV curmudgeon, it seems like a good thing.

Delbanco provided an overview of Melville’s life and work, and discussed his posthumous emergence as an iconic figure in American literature. He also noted that every town seems to have at least one restaurant or bar named after Moby Dick. (In my neighborhood, it’s the Moby Dick House of Kabob.) It was a good example of a talk that could serve as an introduction to Melville for a complete novice while also holding the attention of someone who had read around in the secondary literature. Not the sort of thing you hear very often, alas. The 150 or so listeners, ranging from high school students to full professors, seemed to appreciate the effort.

But it left me wondering why there weren’t more people in the audience. Despite Moby-themed eateries, it seemed as if there might still be some barrier to wider interest in Melville. After all, an event devoted to Edgar Allen Poe would probably have drawn a larger turnout.

“I guess I would say that Poe might draw better,” Delbanco responded, “because he is a writer whom one encounters in childhood and, perhaps, because of the melodrama of his life -- I heard that Sly Stallone was thinking of making a movie about him -- while Melville is up against the general decline in serious reading.... Is there any demanding writer from the past who would bring out a bigger, more various audience? Henry James has a certain currency because of the Merchant-Ivory movies, but I don't think he'd pack 'em in even if Isabel Archer was from Albany.”

Fair enough. And in any case, I did get a glimpse of a potential way of building up non-academic interest in Melville later, while talking with Patricia Spence Rudden and Jane Mushabac, both of them professors of English at the New York City College of Technology, which is part of the City University of New York.

We had been having an entertaining ramble of a conversation at dinner, covering teaching loads, the scholarship on women in rock music (the subject of a book Rudden is editing), and Melville’s sense of humor (which it was good to learn was not just my imagination, since Mushabac has written a monograph  on the subject). At some point, one of them said: “They keep trying to make him a New Englander, but they can’t have him!”

Huh? They filled me in on the argument over whether New York City or New Bedford, Mass. gets to lay claim to Melville. Neither side, it seems, is much impressed by the Albany claim. (Still, it’s worth noting that a letter from Melville’s father described him as being, at age 7, “of the true Albany stamp.”) The dispute is now confined to scholarly circles, for the most part. But it seems like the kind of thing that could be transformed into a full-scale rivalry among the cities, complete with local reading clubs, public lectures and debates, and a certain amount of trash-talking.

Well, it’s an idea anyway. And the flow of benefits between scholars and the public might be a two-way transaction.

One paper “‘Hideous Progeny’: The Monstrous, Monomaniacal, and Gothic Themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as Echoed in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick” stirred up some interesting discussion afterward -- including a question by an audience member from Salem who preferred to emphasize the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne. (A little of that territorial imperative going, maybe.)

The author of the paper, Phil Purser, is a graduate student in English as the University of West Georgia, and he fielded the question well. The influence of Hawthorne on Melville is a standard topic in the scholarship. But for that very reason, it’s not the sort of thing one expects to have to sum up immediately right after presenting an analysis of the relationship between the White Whale and Victor Frankenstein’s Creature.

Afterwards, Purser told me that he had just driven 22 hours from Carrollton, Georgia to attend the event. He expected it to be like other conferences he had attended -- the usual mixture of professors and graduate students. (Which also means, often enough, “questions” for which any possible answer is a minor distraction from the questioner’s performance of a professionalized identity.) The mixed nature of the event took him by surprise. He had to interact simultaneously with other scholars and non-specialist members of the public. “I was asked difficult questions,” he told me, “and I was on some level surprised at how I answered them.... This was definitely not a conference of one-upsmanship in which scholars vie for the spotlight; it was encouraging and intellectually invigorating.”

Take that, New Bedford!
(For a full list of the panels and non-scholarly sessions that made up “Why Melville Matters Now,” check out its Web site.)


Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

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