Avast! Moby-Dick and the Scales of Natural History

This First Friday lecture will explore the Herman Melville’s 1851 classic Moby Dick, a work regarded for its density and difficulty, as well as the context surrounding it.

beached whale
Jan 05

About the Event

Presented by Basic Program instructors and open to all, these lectures also complement the texts and ideas from our curriculum and always include a Q&A session.

This First Friday Lecture is supported by the Class Gift given by the 2023 graduates of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults.

Lecture Description: One salient feature of Melville’s 1851 masterpiece is its sheer magnitude. It isn’t that it’s the longest of 19th-century novels. Shorter than War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment or Bleak House, its reputation for difficulty rivals that of Proust’s prolix Remembrance of Things Past. The natural and nautical history passages (the first to be excised in abridged versions)—the anatomy of whales and of ships, the precise and technical descriptions of processes—bear ambiguous and inextricable relation to the tale of adventure and tempestuous character. It is a novel in the superlative mode, centered around an animal existing on a scale, in a medium, that strains perceptual and descriptive powers. In this lecture, I present Melville’s uses of natural history as integral to the scale of the novel, enlarging it as well as slowing it down. Considering the novel in context of a wider body of literature on cetaceans, from Melville’s time of relative abundance through present ecological crises, I’ll argue for lingering over those curious passages in all their density and detail.

Who's Speaking

headshot of Julia Laurel Mueller

Julia Laurel Mueller


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