One of the more striking discrepancies that I have encountered in the classroom caught me by surprise this quarter. It seems that my larger perspective on life is conflicting with the less complex perspective of my students…hard differences to resolve. Here’s the conundrum: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). I have taught this class before, and the two primary tasks in the class are to read the Leviathan-like novel and to write a critical analysis research paper.
The beauty of the novel, for me, as a reader and as a teacher, is that it is so full of symbolism that the reader cannot help but trip over foreboding clues from the Old and New Testament, find signs of American nationalism and discover multiple comparisons to the Romantic literary movement. And, the book is just so beautifully written. When Ishmael, in the Old Testament, is found wandering the deserts, whereas in Chapter 1 he is found wandering towards the docks, and when Rachel, in the Old Testament, is searching high and low for her son, while in the Epilogue the ship Rachel is found searching the seas for her lost crew and comes across Ishmael, wandering the seas alone as “another orphan,” there is not just a finality to the plot, but also closure to the symbolism. If there had ever been any doubt about Melville’s intentions, it is totally erased by now. This specific Bible referencing, by and large, works well in class. One of the students also pointed out that Ishmael of the Bible is an archer, and Ishmael of Moby Dick, though not a harpooner, is on a whaling vessel that employs harpoons. But some of the references are not as neat and clean. Captain Ahab’s blood is not “licked by dogs” as it is in the Bible. Furthermore, is the non-Biblically named ship Jungfrau intended to mean virgin or young woman? Fortunately, most of these inexact comparisons can be glossed over without class debate; students are willing to accept my take on Melville’s intentions, for better or worse. But, enter the Pequod, Ahab’s ship. Named after the Connecticut indigenous Pequot people whose very existence was considered exterminated in the first half of the 17th century, the ship sails under a very dark cloud. Immediately on the scene is Elijah, the prophet, who warns Ishmael away from the despot Ahab and his “soulless boat.” OMG! What could possibly be more portentous? Alas! Not so fast! My students discover that Wikipedia reports, “Pequot numbers grew appreciably—the Mashantucket Pequot especially—during the 1970s and 1980s.” So, the Pequot people were not decimated and their numbers continued to grow! They may have suffered at the hands of the English colonists as did all of the other Indian nations, but they certainly weren’t destroyed. How was I to explain that? I tried. After various, admittedly vague, attempts on my part, I found an answer that struck home. But to get to it, we had to go back in time, and in order to do that, we had to erase all modern-day knowledge and drill down deep to 1851: What did Melville know? What was the common belief? Most importantly, how did Melville think the word “Pequod” would be interpreted by his audience of that time? Knowledge then was based on traditional or older, historical representations; today’s knowledge is often based on the most up-to-date findings about our current world. But where does one find the older perspective?
It takes extra work. The first set of search keywords often proves to be ineffective. After all, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has had 160 years to rebuild, reform and raise awareness of their current existence (http://www.mashantucket.com). Today’s information surplus provides too much data: students have to ignore information and the usual methods of inquiry they have come to rely upon. Only then can they use the historical data available at that time and take on the necessary perspective. It turns out that it is not absolute truth we are searching for, but relative truth. Easier said than done. But, things happened in class: it was discovered that the Pequot were believed to have been destroyed. And, perhaps Melville’s use of the word Pequod is a slap at the early colonists’ unjust treatment of the group; after all, Nathaniel Hawthorne changed his name to spite his ancestors and alleviate his shame from their behavior in the Indian Wars of the mid-1600s. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to him. Maybe that’s not so much of a stretch, for now we have letters between the two authors and the connection between them is solidified.
But, our connections can never be as perfect as we want them to be. Each of us carries our own present-day baggage; it is next to impossible to leave it all at the door. Understanding the historical context and the intended interpretations of a work surfaces in all my American literature classes. Whether it is the satanic black horse and carriage in William Austin’s “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” (1824-27) that flies down the post-road at a supernatural 12 miles an hour, or the preacher’s trip from Boston to Salem in an impossible 15 minutes in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835), today’s reader’s interpretations must be dependent on “then,” and not on “now.”