The novel for a strange year.
Moby-Dick in 2020
Here’s why we read Moby-Dick—for the first time? for the eleventh time?— because it’s the Great American Novel about now, in 2020 more than ever. The giant fish story from Herman Melville in 1850 holds a mirror up to our reality. Reality, of course, keeps changing, but so does that mirror and what you can see in it. Before the Civil War, when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, you saw shadows of slavery on a free society; in World War One, it was about merchant empires crashing. In the Cold War reading, it was free Ishmael against Ahab’s dictatorship. In Eco Time, it’s about a war on nature, at sea. In Obama time, it was about Queequeg, the noble stranger. In Trump time, it’s about Ahab’s rage and his grip on the crew, his base.
The first publisher of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale wanted good readers to find inside the adventure story “a pregnant allegory to illustrate nothing less than the mystery of human life.” We take up the modern quest again this radio hour, from several angles: Moby-Dick as a textbook on tyranny, as eco-warning, as queer fiction, as a meditation on race, as American magic and American tragedy. For a century now, Moby-Dick has been read as something like American Scripture, surely our greatest novel. It gets read as a complex mirror of the age before the Civil War; but also of a nation’s fate for all time. We are testing the proposition this hour that Moby-Dick speaks to the pandemic and politics of the strangest year any of us have known: 2020. Cornel West, Wyn Kelley, Alexander Chee, and Donald Pease will take their turns as key-holders to Moby-Dick. We’ll begin with Jonathan Lethem, in one contemporary novelist’s tribute to the Melville model of experimental fiction.
Author of the novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude.
Professor of English at Dartmouth College.
Senior Lecturer at MIT.
Author of the novels Edinburgh and Queen of the Night.
Public intellectual and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University.
Curated by author Philip Hoare, artist Angela Cockayne, and Dr. Sarah Chapman, Director at The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth. Commissioned by The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth.
New Bedford Whaling Museum