Nearly 170 Years After Its Release, 'Moby-Dick' Still Inspires Landlocked Poets In Kansas
People still have things to say about "Moby-Dick," Herman Melville's 1851 novel about Captain Ahab's obsessive and dangerous hunt for a great white whale.
"I was expecting, like, a tedious and masculine slog through this sea-faring adventure, but there’s so much more going on in 'Moby-Dick' about gender and language and humor and American identity," said poet Danny Caine, who owns The Raven Book Store in downtown Lawrence.
"Where are women in this tale, this massive tale of this time of history?" wondered Mary Wharff, a Lawrence resident who writes stories and poetry.
"I think that 'Moby-Dick' helps us to understand who we are as Americans, and who we might be — for better or worse," said Elizabeth Schultz, the co-editor of a new poetry anthology called "After Moby-Dick."
The collection includes 61 poems by more than 30 poets, including Schultz.
Schultz joined the University of Kansas faculty in 1967 and taught a wide range of literature classes, but she's probably best known as a Melville scholar with a passion for “Moby-Dick," a book she taught for decades until she retired from KU in 2001.
She first read it in the late 1950s as an undergraduate at Wellesley College.
"I can remember not only being moved by the narrative — would Ahab catch the great white whale? — but I found myself deeply moved by the poetry of Melville’s writing," said Schultz, who went on to write books and numerous essays about Melville, as well as her own collections of poetry.
For "After Moby-Dick," Schultz collaborated with Kylan Rice, a poet and Ph.D. student in English at the University of North Carolina (they met at an international Melville conference).
Rice and Schultz also included a few poems of their own.
In early September, the Lawrence Arts Center hosted the Lawrence launch of "After Moby-Dick." About 10 readers, all with ties to Schultz, gathered to read some of the poems by other writers, which ranged from serious to humorous.
"Language, language, language, that’s what I’d say about 'Moby-Dick'," said Haskell Springer, a professor emeritus of English at KU. "It expands the boundaries of the English language – words, grammar, references, allusions. It’s just amazing to experience, every time you read it."
Springer collaborated with Schultz to teach literature classes; they also co-authored a book called "Melville and Women."
Mary Wharff, who'd been one of the students in Schultz's final class at KU, said she struggled with "Moby-Dick" when she first read it because the female characters are few and far between.
"Many, many times, I thought, 'What does Herman Melville think about women?'" she said before reading Rachel Richardsons's poem titled "Of Whales In Paint; In Teeth; In Wood; In Sheet-Iron; In Stone; In Mountains; In Stars."
"So I was very happy that Beth (Schultz) asked me to read this poem," Wharff said, "because I think that Rachel Richardson might have also been wondering these things."
Schultz admits that some people might still view the novel as one "for guys" because of the few female characters. But, she says, there are elements that anyone can relate to, such as personal self-discovery and friendship, and contemporary issues such as racial inequality and environmental disasters.
"It's astonishing to me that the novel keeps on giving," she said. "The novel never wears out."
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.