Alternate full text of Moby-Dick on a poster. (via Moby Dick poster | Book posters for reading enthusiasts - Postertext)
So I finalized my plans to visit Iowa on August 1st—HM’s birthday—and I notified Randall about it. His voice was suspiciously eager to hear the news. “Wonderful,” he said. Over and over. In that staccato tone that I imagine you’d get from an upper crust Englishman. “Wonderful. Brilliant.” All the emphasis on the first syllable.
The first question he asked: “Do you happen to own your own harpoon?”
No, I do not.
Hmm. He was silent for exactly ten seconds. I counted.
“We can get you one. I know a guy in town who makes them. It’ll cost around seventy bucks. Are you cool with that?”
I said I was. “There’s a guy in ______, Iowa that makes harpoons? Is that all he does?”
“He makes weapons for Renaissance Fairs and re-enactments. He’s a big fan of the Chalk-Dick thing. He plays Tashtego or Fedallah. Depends on his mood that year.”
I asked if it was a problem that I’d never held a harpoon, never seen a harpoon, and, quite frankly, felt a little skittish about spending up to a week in the woods with strangers and sharp implements with no practical use.
Randall, I assume, was nodding on the other end. “Yeah, I can see that.”
“We’re just really extra-super-careful is all, you know?”
No, I didn’t. But whatever. I asked what else I needed to bring. Food? Books?
“No books! Except Moby-Dick, of course. I bring my iPad now, though, cause it’s easier.”
I asked who I would play. What’s my role? He hesitated. Groaning.
“Eh, that’s a hard one. I have an Excel spreadsheet with all the players names and and their roles…well, who do you want to play?”
As a cheek, I asked if anyone was Ishmael.
“Ishmael, Ishmael, Ishmael…” He was scrolling through. Why he didn’t know this already, I have no idea. “Yeah, we got an Ishmael. Guy from Chicago named Griff. Good people. But, you know, maybe we can have an alternating thing, like you’d be an understudy or a back-up? He could take morning-watch, and you’d take night watch?”
I said that was fine.
So what should I bring? He said he’d email me a list. And so I got it just now. Here’s the top three items.
- Enough hardtack to last a week.
- A chunk of spermaceti (!?).
- Clothing befitting a whaleman circa 1851 (i.e. lots of woolen items).
I thought I was obsessed. But now I’m starting to wonder. Is this a cult? Am I nuts? Will I get landsick?
And another question: Where do you buy spermaceti these days?
— Moby-Dick, Chapter 50, “Ahab’s Boat and Crew | Fedallah”
What’s lost if an eighteen year old cannot read a sentence written in the eighteenth century? Anything? Nothing? I think much is lost. As I would imagine you would, too. So I’ve made it a small tertiary mission to try and promote Moby-Dick back into Indiana high school syllabi.
I’ve already emailed maybe five or six English teachers to even see if they teach it now. One emailed back. It was a private school.
Yes, I do teach Moby-Dick in my AP Literature and Composition course. It is the first work of literature we read together as a class. I do this for several reasons. First, it is a challenging work that sets the tone for the entire course. Students are required to be patient, persistent, and perceptive readers if they ever hope to survive the journey. Second, Melville’s classic may be the best introduction to the theory of the novel in English. The various forms of discourse in the novel provide an excellent opportunity to discuss the theories of
Bakhtin and Lukacs (polyphony, parodying forms of discourse,
transcendental homelessness, et al.). […]
So first off, you’ve got the AP students reading not just Melville, but Bakhtin and Lukacs. Heavy shit. How envious I am of them at that age! Though, these aren’t “regular students.” These are “special” students. Exactly this kind of disparity already bothers me because certain kinds of kids are getting exposure to writing that all kids should be exposed to at least once. In a public school, this argument may have more weight, but I digress.
Also: transcendental homelessness? Hmm.
Later the teacher said:
How do our words relate to the world in which we
live—a world inscrutable, unfathomable, one which tasks and heaps us till we are bundled into eternity? [my emphasis]
This more than anything else should probably stand out. And this reason, more than anything else, is why I so love Melville’s novel. The work is effervescent with wordage and associations about love, life, death, fear, faith. All the largest, most unwieldy topics you could imagine.
Why aren’t more eighteen year olds reading this story about a dejected, transcendental homeless fella who decides to make friends with a tattooed weirdo, who’s actually gentle and sweet, and go for a balls-out adventure?
My point is that if those kids can’t read anything before 1900, or 1800!, because of moving pictures, texting, WoW, or whatever else chimes and dings in their pockets, we’ll all be worse off, especially them. The inability to access prior knowledge is criminal. I’m going to teach “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a pre-elementary college English class this Fall, ie folks who need lots of help. I don’t think it’ll be too hard for them, because I bet they can read just fine if given the chance. What was the hardest syntax they’ve been offered or shown or lead through? Watered-down Shakespeare? The Cliff Notes to Timon of Athens?
A friend of mine in Spokane, who’s an education major, soon to be an English teacher, said that Melville probably isn’t taught in schools, NOT because students find it difficult, but because TEACHERS do. Interesting thought.
I don’t blame any student I have for not having the capacity to understand a sentence until I know where they’re from, what they’re education has been, etc. etc. I have no idea what their educational journey has been as college freshmen.
That said…one of my (more perspicacious) students was trying to convince me that in her high school copy of Hamlet, the contemporary English on the right was the same as the Elizabethan on the left. Hardly, I said.
It took a while to cool down.
I asked Randall in a text msg. what the weirdest story he had from the Moby-Dick reenactment was, and this is what he sent to me.
Every evening we have dinner off the loess hill and sit around a campfire, which is totally illegal. One time we’re sitting there and some blue jays were flying around from tree to tree. And we keep this fire we have in a small little metal chimney thing that this one guy who plays Stubb built. Anyway the fire is going and up and we’re eating, when one of the blue jays dives down around our heads and flies straight into the fire.
It splashed ashes and coals everywhere and immediately went up in flames. We all sat there wondering what the hell was going on. I had baked beans all down my lap.
Immediately we knew the blue jay was insane and some sort of sacrifice for what we were doing. Like Ahab going to his death.
What if Moby-Dick had an index in the back?
After digitally begging—importuning with direst e-hand-wringing—my anonymous FB source gave me contact with the troubleshooter, if you will, of the whole Chalk-Dick playacting thingy. He told me I could call him Randall. He is a self-identified Melville fanatic, but mostly reserving his adoration for Moby-Dick.
Anyway, we got to emailing and texting, and he kindly said I could reproduce some of our conversation. [By the way, he, too, was thoroughly supportive of my jaunt down to Vincennes to track down HM’s signature.]
Kyle: How did you find out about this?
Randall: By accident. I grade GRE essays, and sometimes SAT essays, along with other kinds of side work—I’m an English major. Reading is a pain, so I’m always on the internet at the same time. “Moby-Dick” is a Google news update for me. One morning I saw a blog post about this hill—and it was in Iowa. It seemed perfect.
K: I was sort of expecting a more serendipitous story.
R: I know, right?
K: OK, so you know about it, but how did this whole reenactment thing come about?
R: That was all me. The person who posted the chalk whale post wasn’t interested in Melville like me and everyone else who does the reenactment. They had just been out walking or hiking, whatever, and found it. I commented on their blog and asked where. That next day I drove out to it and saw it.
K: Did you cry?
R: Honestly? No. But I was in awe of it. It’s huge and sort of solitary. It’s a sad hill.
K: Do you consider yourself a caretaker of it? Do you, you know, trim it? Mow it?
R: No! Hahaha. I don’t know if we have to. It sort of takes care of itself, you know?
K: What character do you reenact?
R: Ahab. Always Ahab.
K: So the roles don’t cycle?
K: Why Ahab?
R: Isn’t it obvious? He’s the fallen hero. I’ve read plenty of mostly terrible student essays on the GRE that make these horrific claims that Ahab is Hitler or an asshole. But he’s not! He’s totally misunderstood!
K: Are you?
R: Possibly. But I don’t know many people, so it’s hard to say.
K: Who plays Starbuck?
R: Some guy.
K: Hmm. You don’t know his name?
R: We don’t share that info. It’s better that way. Things get heated up there.
K: Like how?
R: I definitely punched him once.
K: That’s not in the book, is it?
R: No, not strictly. But I felt Ahab would’ve wanted it.