Entry begun Monday, May 16, 5:50 pm
My introduction to the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts came not in graduate school at Columbia University in the late 1960s but instead in the early 1970s atNorthern Kentucky University, a new, public university across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. NKU was the only university to offer me a job upon completion of my Ph. D., but my placement advisor in the English department had tried to dissuade me from accepting it because it wasn’t “good enough” for someone from Columbia. I had been interested in Moby-Dick as a graduate student specializing in 19th-century American Literature, but I was not allowed to choose it for a dissertation topic “because there was nothing new to be said about that book” in 1968. The first “new” thing I learned about Melville’s novel came during my first semester at NKU when I realized that two weeks was not enough time for teaching that book to a class full of commuter students working 30 hours a week outside class. The next thing I learned is that my students did not like Ishmael’s description of the painting in the Spouter-Inn in chapter 3 as much as I did. I will never forget the truly exasperated student who asked, “Why does that narrator spend three paragraphs describing that painting when he still doesn’t know what it means when he’s done.” The best answer I could give him came in the next class session, when I brought in a slide of J. M. W. Turner’s The Whale Ship, which I had seen at the Metropolitan Museum during my graduate years in New York.
Turner’s The Whale Ship, 1845, which I saw at the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1967
That student’s question had driven me into the field of Moby-Dick in the Arts more or less in desperation. But as I taught the book more and more, and learned more and more about Turner, I began to suspect that the four whaling oils that Turner had exhibited in 1845 and 1846, only a few years before Melville’s 1849 visit to London, immediately before he began to write Moby-Dick, might have actually influenced Ishmael’s description of the painting in the Spouter-Inn. I could not find any evidence in the journal that Melville kept during that visit that he either met Turner or saw any of the whaling oils (then back in the painter’s private gallery). But Melville did meet several of Turner’s closest friends and associates during that visit, and he would have seen several paintings in Turner’s late “indistinct” style when visiting a number of London’s picture galleries. When I went to Harvard’s Houghton Library to study several of the books preserved there from Melville’s personal library, I was delighted to see that Melville had written these words on the title page of Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale that he acquired in 1850: “Turner’s pictures of whalers were suggested by this book.” These words show that he not only knew about Turner’s four whaling paintings but knew they had been influenced by Beale’s book—in much the same way that Beale’s book was now to influence the structure of Melville’s own Moby-Dick. The first essay in which I shared some of these findings was published as the cover essay in the Winter 1985 issue of the London journal Turner Studies. I was now active in the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts, although I am not sure we had as yet christened that field with a name.
Cover of the Winter 1985 issue of Turner Studies
By the time the Turner Studies essay came out, I had discovered nearly 300 prints and engravings from Melville’s personal collection of art in storage at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the town in which Melville had completed Moby-Dick in 1850 and 1851. When it turned out that 19 of these engravings were after paintings by Turner, I realized that Melville’s attraction to this painter had been even deeper that I had imagined. I began writing a book whose primary purpose was to explore various relationships between Turner’s paintings and Moby-Dick, but as I got further into the subject I realized that Melville’s previous five novels had themselves been influenced by the keen attention young Melville had given to English art critics such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Hazlitt, John Ruskin, and Charles Locke Eastlake. By the time I published my book entitled Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright in 1992, I had come to know several other scholars interested in Melville’s relation to the visual arts, and I had begun the research that would lead to the book I was to publish on Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes in 2000.
Cover and spine of Melville & Turner, University of Georgia Press, 1992
I was delighted to hear last fall that on May 10th of this year the Metropolitan Museum in New York was planning to open the first-ever exhibition of Turner’s four whaling oils anywhere. In addition, they were going to explore, for the first time by a major international art museum, the extent to which Turner’s whaling oils may have influenced Moby-Dick. I plan to visit the show with some Melville colleagues in early June. Those who have already seen the show indicate that one wall panel quotes extensively from Ishmael’s description of the painting in the Spouter-Inn and that the books on display include Melville’s copy of Beale’s Natural History, open to the annotation about “Turner’s pictures of whalers.” Alison Hokanson, who has curated the show for the Met, has written a very comprehensive account of Turner’s Whaling Pictures which comprises the entire Spring 2016 issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. In addition to exploring the art historical context of the four whaling oils, and reproducing a rich array of the watercolors Turner created as studies for those paintings, Hokanson very thoroughly summarizes my findings on the Melville connection, including a reproduction of Melville’s annotation on the title page of Beale. On the cover of the Bulletin she uses the same detail from The Whale Ship in the Met’s own collection that Turner Studies had used on its cover 31 years earlier. I am very eager to see the show itself in a few weeks. And I am very grateful to that exasperated commuter student at Northern Kentucky University for asking that question in 1972.
Cover of the Spring 2016 issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin
The one forty-four year arc outlined above is one example of how my teaching and research in the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts have been deeply intertwined. The most recent example of the relation between my teaching and curatorial activities came on the weekend of April 22 and 23 when the 2-man and the 9-woman Moby-Dick exhibitions opened in Cincinnati as my current students in Moby-Dick and the Arts were making their final presentations at the end of the course. My life as a curator of artwork relating to Moby-Dick began soon after Beth Schultz published Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art in 1995. I had attended her exhibition of the same name in Lawrence, Kansas, and I assigned her book to my class in Melville and the Arts during 1996 Spring Semester. We studied her book immediately before visiting the exhibition itself at Northwestern University in Evanston in late February, an experience that inspired the twelve undergraduate students in the course to ask if they could create an exhibition of their own as a group project at the end of the semester. One result of the impromptu exhibition they installed on the catwalk over a theater lobby in the Fine Arts Bulding was an invitation to participate in a joint exhibition with students at Rockford College in Illinios in April 1997. Twenty years ago, that Spring 1996 class initiated the rhythm I have followed in teaching Moby-Dick and the Arts ever since: study Moby-Dick itself January, study Unpainted to the Last in February, study Moby-Dick art created after the Schultz book after Spring Break, and complete the course with student projects during the last two weeks.
Impromptu art exhibition by Spring 1996 class in Melville and the Arts
During the current 2016 Spring Semester class, students took an essay exam on the subject of Moby-Dick and the Arts at the end of our 5-week exploration of “Artists after Schultz.” This was the week in which the 2-man Moby show at the Contemporary Arts Center and the 9-woman Moby show at the Marta Hewett Gallery were being installed in Cincinnati. In addition to discussing the “Artists after Schultz” we had studied since Spring Break, students were invited to comment on the field of Moby-Dick and the Arts as a whole, specifically addressing the question of what the artworks we had studied did, or did not, add to their understanding of Moby-Dick itself. Here are some excerpts from their answers:
Kimberly Kromer: “What really captured my attention was the artwork created because of this book. It no longer was just a book about a crazy man challenging a large whale to his own death, but instead became about our own pursuit in this crazy life. When I got to see what this work meant to many other people, I realized it made me think about my own life as well. I put so much emphasis on being what society tells me to be that it became my White Whale. Before this class I wasn’t able to explain that [dynamic]. Now, I’m entered into a discourse community that understands what I say.”
Kirsten Hurst: “Studying these artistic responses to the novel has been an enriching experience because it has given me validation as a reader and writer. What I once considered a pretentious work of American fiction is now a playground for my creativity. I never would have considered something as outlandish as a play about a woman getting a hysterectomy without seeing these equally weird and thought-provoking pieces done by men, women, and others alike.”
Kylie Stigar-Burke: “Overall, I think this novel and art really go well together. They balance each other out. The art enhances the novel and the novel creates a grounding for the art. It really makes me want to explore art based on other novels I have read. It broadened my view so much and so deeply aided my understanding. I think novels and other artworks should always go together.”
Rachel Prokopius: “Finally, through this amazing journey I have comprehended and appreciated the wonderful thing that comes from amateurs. We all start as amateurs, but some graduate and become professionals. Personally, I think this is quite limiting. Professionals worry so much about reception that they often don’t allow great ideas to come into fruition. In this way they missing out.”
Hayley Kirley: “This musical interpretation [the Heggie and Scheer opera] was vital in my personal understanding of Starbuck as a character. It was even more so to me because it was simultaneously true to what I had already interpreted the scene as. The aria did not change the scene but it made me realize, and care for, Starbuck as a human rather than as a concept of leadership. . . . I think it was only through the separate mediums of the visual and the auditory that I was able to fully see and feel the novel.”
Shelby Cundiff: “I think everyone went away with a new-found knowledge of themselves and the world after being exposed to the different artworks and artists. . . . The Jake Heggie opera was enriching because it told the actual story and the audience was able to see the sorrow and feel the madness.’
Marla Marley: “Moby-Dick is about life, and all of this art that has been produced in response to Melville’s work shows how desperately we all long to have enough strength to expose ourselves and understand ourselves through stories and art . . . . This art, and I think this class, has been all about uncovering our White Whales, expressing ourselves, learning risk and vulnerability through others. It is about connecting.”
Sarah Kellam: “The chowder that Melville created literally had something in it that appealed to Rockwell Kent, to Julia Oldham, and even to me. It appeals to the intellectual side of people, the creative side of people, and the emotional side of people. It makes individuals feel something, a task that not a lot of literature has accomplished, and it continues to incite emotion in readers in spite of being close to 200 years old. Thus, the artistic approaches to the book enriched my understanding of the novel through showing me how powerfully and far-reaching Moby-Dick is—and the sheer influence a book can have on a single individual.”
Lauren Hensley: “This book is, in its way, timeless. As shown by the variety of responses, this book will continue to attract audiences for years to come. At first, it would seem that such a ‘masculine’ adventure novel would die out with the rise of feminism. However, as seen in Vali Myers’s artwork and Rinde Eckert’s play, this novel has a role for women and the movement of feminism. This novel is very much a living, breathing tale, but what else would we expect. It is named after a living, breathing creature.”
Liz Loch: “I can get to know characters well through just words, but there is something to be said about seeing and hearing them outside of my head. . . . The art told me stories I had not seen in the actual book. . . . Art expands the meaning of anything and everything; it opens the door to the rest of the world that is hidden by a larger story. The paintings and operas and other works we analyzed were like the bottom of an iceberg beneath the sea; the book is just the top you see, while the art relating to it is all of the ice beneath the water.”
Alex Salyers: “I don’t think that the artistic responses to this work have necessarily improved my understanding of the text, but they have helped me understand the value of the book to people. So many people have been inspired by this book. . . . It has also served as a reminder that not everyone interprets the world the same way. Some people need to express themselves through painting, others through pottery, and even some through an opera. The variety of responses make it easier for those who have had trouble relating to Moby-Dick before to be able to find a connection to some form or part of it.”
Jay Jung: “The art examined in this class enriched my experience because it made me react. And if I am reacting to reaction art, I think it is clear that I feel connected to the novel. Whether it be Abby’s amazing coffin that made me feel closer to Queequeg, or Kathleen’s map that brought an authentic image of the journey. Or even Heggie’s beautiful opera that made me feel I was one with the ship. All of the art we have studied seems to prove that this novel is worth the read and it is worth the reactions.”
Because there were two brand-new contemporary exhibitions of Moby-Dick art opening while the students were presenting their own projects at the end of the course, I strongly urged each student to make a visit to each show before May 5 so they could write a short comment about each show during the ‘lite’ final exam. In each case, I asked students to write the single word that best summarized their impression of that show, explaining the choice with a short paragraph. Here are some of their responses to the 2-man exhibition by Kish and Del Tredici at the Contemporary Arts Center:
For Liz, the Live Drawing on Friday night was “enlightening.” She found it “incredible to watch the two artists create their own works and the spot, and then complement each other.” For Jay the experience in the gallery itself was “impressive.” He “found it amazing that I could take 3 people who had never read Moby-Dick to a show about that subject and they could each take something different from it.” Sarah used her favorite word “chowder” because “the works represented such different ideas for the artists, making the emotional value of each piece matchless.”
Kish and Del Tredici collaborating in their Live Drawing, April 22
Marla found the exhibition “mesmerizing” as soon as she saw “the rope along the wall” at the beginning of the gallery.” She was “pulled into the gallery just as they would hope.” Once there, she was “struck by all of the pieces that looked familiar to me among new pieces that begged for my eyes. The room felt like an ocean filled with whales.” For Rachel the experience was “other-worldly. . . . Walking through the masses of contemporary artwork Kish and Del Tredici created took me into another universe entirely.”
The “rope on the wall” that pulled Marla and others into the gallery
Given the scope of the show, it is not surprising that Alex found it “large.” She felt right away that “I could return to this exhibit a few more times and probably take something new from each time.” Lauren found the exhibition to be “vast” in more ways than one. Beyond the “sheer multitude of artworks,” she had the sensation that “the artwork seemed to even extend beyond the novel, into reality—Melville’s favorite subject.” For Shelby, “the sheer amount of artwork in such a confined space” was “amazing . . . there was so much to see everywhere you looked.”
Audience looking every which way at the opening
Hayley found the exhibition “bright” because “the words glowed with the brightness of inspiration.” The exhibition struck Madison as “whimsical” because “Kish and Del Tredici paint in such a unique way that no one piece of art is even comparable to another.” Kimberly was struck by the “dedication” of the two artists in creating “all of the artwork” that she saw, “spending so much time and effort to show people how much the book means to them.” Kylie was struck by the “colorful” nature of the show. After “seeing some of the art in a book, seeing it in person was all too exciting. The art seemed to bounce off the page.”
Kish discussing his Extracts (RDT)
For Sabrina the entire show was simply “phenomenal.” She “found it amazing that they have so much insight into the work of Melville and were able to see his work from so many different angles. . . . These works of art show that there are absolutely no limits to how art can be processed or where it can come from.”
Viewer pondering the Del Tredici metallics (RDT)
Students in my class were equally impressed with the 9-woman Moby-Dick show at the Marta Hewett Gallery, but the words they chose and the explanations they differed decidedly from their responses to the 2-man show. For Shelby, this exhibition felt “serene.” It was “calm, with less artworks than at the CAC but with a warm feeling to the place.” Kylie emphasized the way the way this exhibition was “organized.” “Walking through the gallery was fantastic. Each piece flowed into the next. Each piece built on top of each in a way that I could find the intention behind the placement.”
“Serene” and “organized”
For other students it was the diversity and passion of the works that made the strongest impression. For Alex the beauty of the show was in its “diversity.” She found “all of this work to be beautiful because it was all so different it allowed a wide audience to be able to appreciate it.” For Hayley the “array of different mediums” highlighted the “passionate” nature of the whole. “What I felt brought the pieces together was the depth of the passion in each of them.” Madison had a similar reason for finding the exhibition “awe-inspiring.” The works of “all the women in this exhibition were truly beautiful and stunning. It was clear that all of them put so much time and effort into their work.”
“Beauty” in the “diversity” and “passion”
Kimberly spoke for several of her classmates in finding this show “empowering” for women. She was impressed that “these women produced amazing pieces of art through a book that is solely about men.” For Sarah it was “exhilarating” to “see young women breathing new life into a work that for so long has been considered a male book.” Liz found it “beautiful” that “after centuries of being oppressed, women can finally express themselves.” For Laura it was “unexpected” that “these women would do such a splendid job of envisioning unique perspectives.” For Rachel, the whole show created “another perspective.” It “shows that there is a whole other set of things to consider in Moby-Dick because women have such different mindsets from men.”
“Empowering,” “splendid,” “another perspective”
For Marla, the controlling word was “magical.” The “nautical artwork” that fills the gallery “makes it feel like another world. The Warrior hanging next to The Whiteness brings me inspiration and a childlike giddiness to explore. The ocean itself is an unknown mass filled with so many creatures to analyze and explore, and this gallery feels that way. I could swim in this ocean for hours.” Marla also appreciated “the eco-feminism that is brimming around many of the pieces,” her favorites in this sense being The Affidavit and Transparent Skin Knitted Together.
Swimming with The Affidavit
After I posted my blog entry about the gallery talk that Beth Schultz gave about the 9-woman show, and the discussion that followed later around the dining room table in Bellevue, the three artists who were not able to join us for the opening reception or for Beth’s talk responded with email comments from afar.
Julia Oldham was “very sorry to miss Beth’s visit,” but “it was wonderful to experience it through your detailed blog entry. It sounds like it was a really interesting day. I’m just endlessly thrilled with this show and all of the different ways we can approach the works in it. Fabulous. Big hugs to all!”
Claire Illouz wrote next from France that “I have been reading Bob’s account of the day of Beth’s talk. Of course it made me feel sorry not to attend, but the account gives many important points in the specificity of the show. . . . As far as I’m concerned, I don’t specifically remember being a woman when I work. . . . And I am not used to claiming it. But the fact is that I am. It would be inauthentic to fight against the fact that viewers inevitably feel it. That is probably the case for all of us. . . . . Thank you for organizing all this adventure. I hope Herman M. is proud of us!”
Robert Del Tredici’s photo of the local artists in front of Claire’s Dear Leviathan
And then Claire Callahan wrote from Boston. “After reading Bob’s blog about both exhibitions and both talks by Beth, I began to ‘see’ the two exhibitions as each, truly unique expressions of Moby-Dick. . . . It was fascinating to have the women’s approach focused on in your ‘gam’ at Bob’s after the show. So interesting, and it urges one to see the two shows in this context. Beth’s remarks from the question period following her talk were so very valuable (as always!). These, and her talk, and the show itself certainly open a rich discussion.
“I just read Claire’s fine response on her own work, which I appreciate very much. This has prompted me to give my own. When I work on drawings, paintings etc., I feel that I draw on everything that I have been and ‘seen’ and known. This is constantly expanding with new contexts and relationships. Since I am a woman, those sensitivities are a part of everything. However, when creating, I do not have this consciously before me. I am focused on making the visible ‘alive.’
“Again, this is rich material for all of us. The Moby-Dick exhibitions in Cincinnati bring forth so much! This is exactly the desired result—-a discussion of ideas!!!!! With you all in this celebration of Moby-Dick!”
Julia reading from Moby-Dick near her video, Aileen’s drawings, and Claire’s hanging scroll
When I began my graduate studies at Columbia University in 1966, our guide to the study of American Literature was a book called Eight American Authors. All of these authors were men. Moby-Dick had begun to be widely taught in the 1950s, and in 1967 Melville’s status as a major author was canonized with the publication of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. In addition to a scrupulously edited and annotated text, this edition included information on “Whaling and Whalecraft,” “Reviews and Letters by Melville,” various “Analogues and Sources” for the novel, and 32 samples of criticism from the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851 up through 1962. The cover of this first Norton Critical Edition featured a whaling scene in which sailors were being swept into the sea by the tail of a whale.
First Norton Critical Edition, 1967
The most dramatic change in the second edition of the Norton Critical Edition, in 2002, was its cover. Instead of a 19th-century whaling scene, this edition reproduced a Maori mask whose indigenous tattooing foregrounded Queequeg as a major character in the story and implied a global framework for interpreting the novel. The body of the volume remained quite the same, the authorized text of the novel being followed by an expanded account of the contemporary response to Melville and the novel, this followed by modestly updated sections of “Analogues and Sources” and “Criticism.” These modest changes reflected the editors’ declaration that “the paramount goal” of this edition was to “help readers grasp the genuine . . . vastness of Melville’s personal experiences and reading that went into the words of Moby-Dick.”
Second Norton Critical Edition, 2002
Earlier this year, I was delighted to learn that the Third Edition of the Norton Critical Edition is now being edited by Hershel Parker for publication in 2017. With a goal of broadening the appeal of this volume for students who will be studying the novel for the rest of this decade and throughout the 2020s, several new features have been added, including, for the first time, an essay on Moby-Dick and the Arts. I learned about this when Hershel invited me to write such an essay. My working title, “Moby-Dick and the Arts in the Early 21st Century,” reflects my sense that this protean field will continue to experience dramatic changes during the decades in which successive generations of students will be using this edition. Other new features, such as an essay on the Marathon Readings of Moby-Dick that have become popular in a variety of public settings, as well as an essay on Moby-Dick and Popular Culture, will help take this Third Edition beyond the more traditional scholarly audience for such works into a more diverse readership, not only in the United States but around the world. The new essay I am writing for the Third Edition is yet another way in which my research, teaching, and curatorial activity blend together. The essay will include reproductions of new artworks that Matt Kish and Aileen Callahan created for the current exhibitions in Cincinnati in 2016, plus the paper-cut entitled The Story of Moby-Dick that Qiao Xiaoguang created in China I 2010 and Beth Schultz donated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2012.
Qiao Xiaoguang, The Story of Moby-Dick, paper cut, black over white, 2010
Last night, Sunday, May 22, I returned home from my 50th college reunion at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. In yesterday’s morning paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a story about the current Moby-Dick exhibitions in Cincinnati that Carol Motsinger had written after interviewing me at Marta Hewett’s gallery about a week before my trip to the West Coast. Carol smoothly wove a great deal of information into one continuous story about Melville and the Arts, this being her generous account of how my research, teaching, and curatorial activity have related to each other over the years. I was happy that she traced my current activities in northern Kentucky and across the river back to the American literature course I took from Thomas Howells during my junior year at Whitman, followed by a summer as a sailor on the tugboats of Puget Sound. So much to be grateful for. Here is a link to Carol’s story: http://www.cincinnati.com/story/entertainment/arts/2016/05/20/how-man-found-white-whale/84542886/.
Because I arrived in northern Kentucky more by the whims of the job market than by deliberate choice in 1972, I will close this essay with a declaration Melville made about “the banks of the Ohio” in his essay “Hawthorne and his Mosses” in 1850. Melville was trying to create some working space for American writers who were oppressed by a literary culture overly subservient to British writers, so he brashly suggested that new Shakespeares “are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.” When in graduate school I had considered this claim to be a bit excessive even for young Melville at the height of his powers, but I came to see it quite differently when doing research for my Melville and Turner book in the 1980s. Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the British writers Melville depended upon for his self-education in visual art, had famously declared in one of his Discourses that no one enjoying the “refined, civilized culture” of the British Isles need concern themselves with the “opinions of people taken from the banks of the Ohio” who live in a comparatively “gross state of nature.” It was because that young, exasperated student in northern Kentucky in 1972 had not been immersed in the equivalent of Sir Joshua’s “refined, civilized culture” that he was able to ask the question that forced me to see the painting in the Spouter-Inn in a new way.
Melville’s riff on “the banks of the Ohio” in the Hawthorne essay is a beautiful example of the “vast reading” that “went into the words” he wrote. But he had “swam through libraries” after he had “sailed through oceans.” He was serious when he declared in Moby-Dick that “the whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” All of us who had the privilege of sailing on the whale ship Charles W. Morgan in the summer of 2014 immediately understood that famous declaration by Melville in an entirely new way.
The whale ship Charles W. Morgan under full sail in June 2014