Saturday, 2:15 PM
By Roy Greene, Globe Staff
The state House of Representatives has approved a bill that would make "Moby-Dick" the official novel of Massachusetts. Boston.com asked Boston University's Maurice S. Lee, an assistant professor of English and an expert on 19th-century American literature, about the historical significance of Herman Melville's epic work.
Q. What makes "Moby-Dick" a great and enduring novel, even though it can be daunting to some readers?
A. Besides women, the novel has everything a big novel should have: compelling characters, moral complexity, philosophical depth, heightened emotion. What particularly distinguishes "Moby-Dick" is its strange mix of powerful and playful language and its wildly experimental form.
It also is a weirdly prophetic text: The passages about bloody wars in Afghanistan and tyrants taking oil-seeking ships to their doom are obvious and painful examples for today.
A. Hawthorne and Alcott were certainly better received in their time than was Melville, and they remain important figures. You can even argue that they are better representatives of Massachusetts literature (Melville wrote "Moby-Dick" in the Berkshires, and the novel begins in New Bedford, but he was born in New York and spent most of his life there).
That said, "The Scarlet Letter" and "Little Women" don't have nearly the same international reach today as does "Moby-Dick," perhaps because they are more local to Massachusetts. "Moby-Dick" is at once local and global, rooted in a Calvinist, whaling mentality but also pre-post-everything (that is, Melville seems to anticipate post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-nationalism, etc.).
Q. What is one of your favorite passages from "Moby-Dick"?
A. "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own."
Q. What about this region stirs authors so? Could it be the brooding, rugged landscape and sullen, flinty Yankee characters? Could it be the stellar fried clams?
A. The clams help (Ishmael waxes poetical over them in the "Chowder" chapter of "Moby-Dick"). It also has something to do with Puritanism, transcendentalism, Boston's intellectual culture and printing industry, and the hegemony that Harvard has exerted over the study of American literature (kidding, kind of).
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