The following post was written by Wyn Kelley, a Melville scholar, who is collaborating with Project NML (New Media Literacies) on our teacher’s strategy guide on “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” The work we’ve been doing on Moby-Dick would not have been possible without Wyn’s passion for the topic and her commitment to teaching. More than any one else, she helped me to see that there are fans of serious literature just as there are fans of popular culture and that we have much to learn from each other about how we engage with texts that really matter to us. She recently shared with me these interesting reflections on Obama’s reading preferences and what they might tell us about his vision for the country. I wanted to share them with you — along with my own best wishes on the dawning of a new era in American history.
by Wyn Kelley
“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”
“WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.”
“BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”
After September 11, 2001, some commentators wondered if Melville’s phrases in the opening of Moby-Dick prophesied a twenty-first-century war in Afghanistan. This year, as we observe a new inauguration, his words about an election for the presidency might seem strangely apt as well. Few have considered, however, whether “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL” matters to the government of the United States.
Now, apparently, it does. According to a statement on his homepage at Facebook, as well as in various interviews and profiles, incoming president Barack Obama’s favorite books are Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. What does this information suggest about our new president?
Song of Solomon, the story of an African-American man searching for his identity, seems a likely inspiration for Obama’s account of a (somewhat) similar quest, Dreams from My Father. But Moby-Dick? One would hardly associate Obama with Captain Ahab, a man of furious passion bent on revenge. Nor does he much resemble Ishmael. As verbally inclined as Melville’s narrator, Obama nevertheless has assumed political leadership, whereas Ishmael prefers the role of observer.
Perhaps he is an island prince, like Queequeg? Yes, he comes from a distant Pacific island, but Obama has taken his place within American society as Queequeg never does. Does he, like Bulkington, have a soul that can “keep the open independence of her sea”? It may be too soon to tell.
One possible answer appears in Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father. In contemplating an early failure when working as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama describes himself as like “the first mate on a sinking ship” (166). Call me Starbuck?
Ishmael portrays Starbuck as a “long, earnest man.” He admires his valor: “Looking into his eyes you seemed to see there the yet-lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life.” Ishmael pays tribute to his “august dignity,” which he associates with a “just Spirit of Equality, which has spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!”
Starbuck, however, goes down with the Pequod. Obama took the helm of what he saw as a sinking ship and steered it to Washington.
On further reflection, we might conclude that Obama is less like Melville’s human characters and more like the whales, who maintain their equilibrium in widely diverse regions. “Oh, man!” says Ishmael, “model thyself after the whale! . . . Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. . . . [L]ike the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.” Perhaps our new president has the whale’s “rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness” with which to endure the hazards of nature–or American politics.
Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Faculty at MIT and has published
extensively on Melville. Other projects include working with the New Media Literacies
group at MIT and the Melville Society Cultural Project at the New Bedford Whaling Museum
in New Bedford, MA.