The latest issue of Soundings, a magazine published by MIT’s School of Humanties, Arts and Social Sciences, has a fine feature on MIT English professor Wyn Kelley, a longtime scholar of Herman Melville. Kelley positions Melville as an author who anticipated many of the social concerns of not just the 20th century but the 21st as well, and considers Moby-Dick as a novel that (paging Matt Yglesias!) speaks to a host of contemporary concerns about multiculturalism, environmentalism, religion, and more.
For instance, Kelley argues that Melville, via Ishmael, was more attuned to the cultural diversity of the city than he’s been given credit for:
Ishmael, she notes, serves as Melville’s guide to urban studies in Moby-Dick. “The presence of savages on the streets of New Bedford reminds Ishmael that cities grow out of conflicts between colonizers and natives. At the same time, the town’s shipping industry gives it a diverse, ever changing population; it remixes itself every day,” she writes in Melville’s City.
But Melville’s appreciation for multicultural urban life, as expressed by Ishmael, was viewed narrowly in literary criticism in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kelley says. At that time, “people were talking about Melville’s multicultural perspective in terms of race: the white male author who turns out to be a keen observer of racial divides and politics in the US. And Melville wasn’t alone. Read Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, and you’d think there were only two races worth talking about.
“My MIT students of other backgrounds have put up with this politely for years, but globalism, as economic and cultural and now literary theory, has made those ways of thinking passé,” she says.
Kelley spent a sabbatical year retracing Melville’s travels through Jerusalem and the Galapagos Islands to better understand the author, but she’s has also taken some lighter approaches to her work—including screening Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in class to show how long Moby-Dick‘s shadow is. These days, she says, the book functions much like a wiki for American culture: “In the 19th century, the novel was a new genre, and Melville borrowed from other forms. Today, we add new science, new insights, and new media. Then as now, the text is a whole world.”