Fun story: I read Moby-Dick for the very first time after I had jaw surgery in the summer of 2004. I was taking an American Literature survey that fall, and I wanted to prepare, especially because I would be pretty much confined to no strenuous physical activity with lots of free time (and sure enough, the most workout I could muster was carrying a stack of books from the library. I read 40-some books that summer alone, and watched countless movies in between my mom trying to coax me to eat something–anything. That was an awful summer).
And of course, since I’m a Hermione Granger, I read it again that fall when I took the class (although the whale cataloguing I skimmed). And, as I am sure happens in every single sophomore survey that includes Moby-Dick, someone in my class was convinced it was a thinly-veiled metaphor for homo.sex.uality. She dared me (for the record, I was not convinced, simply because the word “Dick” was in the title) to ask the professor if the novel was about homosexuality. So I, not wanting to be the pansy, brown-nosing goody-two-shoes, did just that. One of the women in class (now someone I am friends with and still in touch with) was furious at the time. The professor was an older, courtly gentleman, who taught his class old-school in the best way possible (he also had a wicked sense of humor and loved Gilmore Girls. I took his class the last year before he retired, and I loved every minute). He took my question with incredible grace and then moved on. Years later, when I told him I had asked the question on a dare, he thought it was hilarious (for the record, so did my friend). I am sure he was asked some variation of it without a trace of irony many times in his career.
Ten years later, I decided it was time for a revisit. And you know what? I loved it more than when I read it as a little sophomore in college. Not every soliloquy of Ishmael’s is fascinating, but Melville uses them to the fullest. He invokes classic epics, Shakespeare, and sea adventure novels in Moby-Dick to create a true American epic, one that uses symbolism and realism to make us question the nature of fate and evil in our own lives. It’s a long read (and I relied on audiobook for my work commute), but well worth it. If I ever teach an American literature survey course, I will teach Moby-Dick. And if, like Dr. Davis, I am asked that question, I will smile graciously and reply, as he did, “No, I don’t think so.”