Next semester, Dr. Sweeney will guide his graduate students through the works of Herman Melville—from the early, seafaring tales of Typee (1846) and Redburn (1849), to the short masterpieces “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and “Benito Cereno,” through the largely ignored body of poetry which occupied nearly twenty years of Melville’s life as a writer, and finally on to the posthumously published Billy Budd (1924). Looming high above all the other works of the canon, Moby-Dick (1851) promises to take center stage among this critical examination of Melville’s staggering body of work. Through various cultural and historical perspectives, students will be engaging with the texts and world of one of America’s greatest writers. I’ve caught up with Dr. Sweeney, by phone and email, in order to discuss his inspiration and plans for the course, the legacy of Herman Melville, and the reasons why Moby-Dick is as relevant today as it was in 1851.
This course is designed as a single author seminar, surveying the career of Herman Melville. What were the main draws for you in designing the course in this manner?
I don’t often teach single author courses; I prefer to design syllabi that place diverse voices in conversation. So this course is a bit atypical for me. I think one of the main draws for me was the chance to teach Moby-Dick. I’ve been wanting to teach it for a long time. The tricky thing is that Moby-Dick is a text that demands three weeks to a month. I feel in any other course context the novel would completely dominate. And so it seemed to me the one way to teach Moby-Dick, and not have it crowd out all the others voices, would be to put it in the context of Melville’s career. Melville really lends himself to this in some ways because he’s such a versatile writer. He’s one of the great nineteenth-century poets, but many people don’t know that.
Another thing that led me to offer this course is that Melville is a local author. I’ve been planning a number of site visits. We’re going to be visiting Melville’s house in Troy, where he lived when he wrote Typee. It’s open only two hours a month, but the people who run the house have agreed to open it up for a private class tour in February. And the New York State Library has an excellent Melville collection that they will be displaying for us and that students will be drawing on for their research. I remember one of the courses I took as an MA student at Villanova was on Franklin and Swift. And my favorite memory of that course was this exhausting but amazing day that we spent, towards the end of the semester, visiting numerous Philadelphia sites related to texts we had been studying. I’ve always wanted to replicate an experience like that for my own students, and I’m really looking forward to that aspect of the class.
What are you most interested in, regarding the works of Melville?
I am interested in restoring Melville to the controversies of his time—something that since the Melville revival of the 1920’s people have tended to resist. You know: “Melville wasn’t a man of his time. He was a man for our time and all time.” But Melville was a writer of his time, regardless of what the modernists wanted to make of him! Melville was one of the best travelled writers of the nineteenth century, and he travelled the globe, not as a wealthy tourist, but as a common sailor. And perhaps because of this, his writings are particularly insightful about emerging global capitalism; about the exhaustion and exploitation of the environment in the service of profit; about class, slavery, labor. I’m interested in seeing how these insights come out of his intellectual engagement with questions that concerned people in the nineteenth-century. I think it is Melville’s refusal to see his art as an escape from history that is actually one source of the power his work has for us now.
Perhaps more so than any of the other great American writers, Melville always seems to stir up excitement in people. His works always seem relevant. What do you think it is about Melville that does this?
I guess that’s really one of the paradoxes of Melville. His works are extremely engaged with questions of his moment. And yet, in engaging such questions, he produced work much of which seems perpetually relevant and new and fresh. During the Occupy Movement, there were these moments where people who were camped out would read from “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” So here’s an example where this text published in 1853, written by the grandson of Revolutionary war officers, is being embraced as a text that can give us insight into what it is to be caught up in the capitalist system in the 21st century. To me that’s extraordinary.
As we know, Dr. Chan will be teaching a course on Victorian Literature next semester, in which students will read George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Moby-Dick and Middlemarch: two of the great nineteenth-century novels in one semester! How do you compare these two works? Why should we read Moby-Dick now?
Those of you taking these two seminars: watch out! You’re in for something. Middlemarch, for many readers, is the nineteenth-century novel form brought to perfection. Moby-Dick is perhaps the nineteenth-century novel that does the most to turn the novel form inside-out, to stretch it to and even beyond its limits. Even to call Moby-Dick a novel is questionable. It begins novelistically enough with this ironic and smart and likeable narrator who has gone to sea to escape suicidal depression—a figure familiar to us from other Melville texts. Yet soon enough we’re reading chapters written like scenes in a Shakespearean play, complete with dialogue and stage directions. And then we whiplash back to narrative, but our first-person narrator has disappeared, and now we have access to the private thoughts of others characters. And then of course there are all those chapters on whales. What genre is this? It’s so bizarre, formally. Melville is often a brilliant miniaturist, but here he is clearly set on producing a work whose aim is largeness, both in terms of sheer size and in terms of its ability to burst the ropes of any single genre. But for all this vaunting quality of the book, my favorite moments center on moments of human smallness and need: Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg; the captain of the Rachel pleading with Ahab to help him find his lost son; the cabin boy Pip—left for dead in the middle of the vast Pacific—losing his mind as he watches the ship disappear over the horizon.
Melville House in Troy
Copy of the first US edition of Typee, owned by the NY State Library, which Melville wrote while living in Troy.
Photographs by Dr. Sweeney