“Melville’s Secrets,” the published essay

Jacob Matham, 'Gestrande walvis bij Wijk aan Zee, 1601,' Rijksmuseum

My essay “Melville’s Secrets” has been published in volume 14, number 3, of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. If you’re a member of the Melville Society, your copy should be reaching your mailbox shortly. If your library subscribes to Leviathan, you can read my article at the publisher’s website. If your library doesn’t subscribe, please get in touch using the form at the bottom of my “About” page, and I’ll send you a digital offprint. Per the copyright agreement, I’m allowed to send the offprint to anyone, but I’m not allowed to post it on a public website—so you have to ask! The essay began life as a talk I gave at SUNY Geneseo on 23 September 2010, for the annual Walter Harding Lecture. I am allowed to post on this website the pre-peer-reviewed version of the article, and eventually I will, but really I’d rather have you read the original version, so please feel free to ask for it!

The Counterpane

Angela Cockayne, Sleeping Sperm Whales: 19 sperm whales made from duvets

This morning you can find me online reading “The Counterpane,” chapter 4 of Moby-Dick. Ishmael wakes up in Queequeg’s arms, is startled to find his bedmate’s hard tomahawk between them, and is reminded of the time his step-mother caught him trying to go up the chimney.

The reading is part of the Moby-Dick Big Read, which invites 135 different readers—including Tilda Swinton, prime minister David Cameron, Chad Harbach, and Andrew Delbanco—to tackle a chapter of Herman Melville’s novel. The project is being organized by the writer Philip Hoare and the artist Angela Cockayne. Hoare is the author of The Whale, which recounts his lifelong, Melville-induced pursuit of the leviathan, and Cockayne, too, takes much inspiration from Melville’s novel (the photo above is of her work Sleeping Sperm Whales).

I feel very honored to take part. The Guardian notes that other readers include Benedict Cumberbarch, Will Self, and David Attenborough; the New York Times reports that John Waters and Stephen Fry are involved; and the Provincetown Wicked Local adds the names Fiona Shaw, Cerys Matthews, and Nathaniel Philbrick.

“Melville’s Secrets”

Frontispiece to Piranesi's Carceri, Steedman Exhibit, St. Louis Public Library My essay “Melville’s Secrets” will be published in the September issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. A subscription to the journal is sent to all members of the Melville Society, so join now (you can use Paypal and do it all online), if you’d like a copy. The essay is a mild revision of the Walter Harding lecture that I gave at SUNY Geneseo in September 2010.

Melville’s Secrets: The Walter Harding Lecture, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”

SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.

I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.