‘Moby-Dick’ still making a splash with readers at SRU
Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby-Dick” was first published Nov. 14, 1851, and it continues to be read by college students at Slippery Rock University.
Nov. 14, 2018
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - "Moby-Dick" was first published in the United States on this date, Nov. 14, in 1851, but it wasn't until decades after author Herman Melville's death in 1891 that the whale of a novel was regarded as one of the great classics in American literature. Despite being a commercial failure upon its release, "Moby-Dick" remains assigned reading in classrooms across the country 167 years later, including a class at Slippery Rock University.
"'Moby-Dick' was 18 things at one time: it was funny, it was serious, it was deep and philosophical, it was artistic, it was about everything," said Rachela Permenter, SRU professor of English, who is having students in her 300-level, American Literature class read three chapters of the book this semester. "The public just couldn't handle it. They had no idea what to do with it. It was too weird."
The novel about Captain Ahab and his quest to harpoon a giant white whale was rediscovered by scholars in the 1920s and for the remainder of the 20th century become required reading in high schools across the country. However, Permenter said that few college students nowadays have read "Moby-Dick" before taking her class.
"But the reception is good and a few are motivated to read the whole thing," Permenter said. "They seem to be tempted by it and some are blown away by it, so they are not sure if they want to take it on."
"Moby-Dick" was a departure for Melville from the romantic adventures that he and many others wrote at the time, including Melville's first novel, "Typee," about his sea adventures in Polynesia. But after meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne, who encouraged Melville to read the works of Dante and Shakespeare, Melville longed to write a more profound, tragic epic for his sixth novel, including symbolism and social commentary that was an affront to self-reliance, exploitation and other concepts that Permenter referred to as "what's dangerous about America."
"Everyone told him he had to compromise to have an audience and he wouldn't," Permenter said. "People eventually became more open to something that's a little more challenging. We want to be entertained and read something that makes us feel good, but sometimes you go to stuff that's more artistic when you want some more depth and to be stimulated in a different way. If people were told this one will do that for you, they will give it a shot."
The public gave "Moby-Dick" a shot after three-volume editions appeared in 1930, followed by a less expensive, one-volume edition published by Random House in 1943 and countless adaptations and representations in art, film, cartoons and television.
Permenter, whose office at SRU is decorated with a framed print of Moby-Dick as well as a stuffed Melville doll on her desk, has published three articles about the author and is a member of the Melville Society. Last month, Permenter traveled to Denmark for a conference where she lectured about Bob Dylan, making connections to "Moby-Dick," which Dylan cited in his 2017 Nobel Prize acceptance speech as one of three books that influenced him the most.
But perhaps a more telling anecdote to measure Permenter's affinity for Melville and "Moby-Dick" was her attending the annual Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, where attendees read the novel aloud during six sessions covering a 24-hour span.
"You have to be a nerd to do that, but it was fun," Permenter said with a laugh.
And after 167 years, the venerable book that the public "didn't know what to do with," continues to delight readers and ride a wave of popularity for its profound depths.
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