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Fear, Loathing, and Moby-Dick NEAL SCHLEIFER Sarasota,Florida T eaching Moby-Dick to first time readers can be almost as daunting as a first reading. Novices often approach Melville’s opus with hesitancy, fear and loathing. Prior experience with literature shapes student attitudes , and re-education can be as challenging as cultivating lucid textual analysis. One student confessed, “My preconceived perception of Moby-Dick was an impossible, dull, daunting epic; but I was surprised that a novel written over a century ago could be so humorous, fast-paced, and relevant to the human condition today.” A student whose mother had studied Moby-Dick at a prestigious university was predisposed to approach the novel with dread. After hearing her mother’srecollections, she expected pontification and dry lecture. In contrast, a student whose mother, a small press publisher, studied the novel with Harrison Hayford at Northwestern anticipated challenge and excitement. As they shared experiences, her mother reminisced enthusiastically Preparation is important and preconceived notions may have to be dispelled . Students who understand the text is approachable appreciate its subtlety . Students identify with Ishmael’sjourney, his unsuitability for the voyage, and his precociousness. They enjoy the humor, meandering meditations, unconventional narrative, and sympathetic and salient characters: I was surprised how much I related to Moby-Dick. I expected it to be dated, and, generally,when I read books that old, I don’treally relate to or identify with the characters. Sometimes I appreciate the quality of the book, how it’s crafted, and the thematic content; but rarely do I become involved with its characters. Midway through the book, I found myself drawn to Ahab, charmed by Queequeg, and understanding Ishmael. I don’t usually come this close to characters, certainly not in one hundred-fifty year old books. The book is surprisingly contemporary, powerful and easy to follow. To encourage students to enjoy the novel, it is helpful to remove some of the common stigmas. The readings and assignments need to be perceived as necessary tools for the journey, not as punitive weapons of a distrustful teacher. The instructor should be guide, not vengeful captain, or bureaucratic examiner. Informal theme papers, for example, can be as effective as major L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 111 N E A L S C H L E I F E R research papers. I require students to keep journals, research specialized topics , and write informally. Students may use Moby-Dick in a major paper if they choose, but it is not a requirement. I assign the first three chapters to acclimate students to Melville’shumor, unorthodox narrative style and irony. Student enjoyment of these elements continues to develop, “What surprised me the most about Moby-Dick was its humor. Take, for example, the chapter entitled “Stubbk Dinner.” I don’t think I have laughed as hard as at this chapter, which depicts an old cook preaching a sermon to a herd of voracious sharks.” This is followed by discussion and background on Melville, the Etymology, and symbolism. Future readings are assigned in thirds, but could be divided according to course organization and teacher preference. Students keep a journal for each section in order to foster close, detailed reading. The form thejournal takes is left open-ended. The concrete sequentialists ask the usual questions: “How many pages? What exactly are you expecting?”Some complain that a detailed journal requires too much time. The key is that the journals should be a reader response, not mere summary . Even summary requires interpretation, and students are reminded to be wary of simplistic and inaccurate recapitulation. Students may respond to particular passages that interest them, note pages that pique their curiosity, or write questions directed to the instructor. The journals may be as long as they desire. Given the choice and responsibility, many students drive themselves, choosing to write thoroughly, often more than expected. While I encourage journal responses specific to the text, students also react spontaneously: “I found Melville’sability to encompass so many aspects of life and politics...


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pp. 111-114
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