HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Say "Moby-Dick" and eyes almost always glaze and yawning begins.
That was Bob Wallace’s reaction too the first time he was forced to read it. That was 1961 and he was a student.
But this is now and Herman Melville's epic tale of Capt. Ahab's pursuit of the great white whale is Wallace's passion, his life's work and his own educational and philosophical pursuit.
Now that journey has landed him on an exclusive voyage this summer, which will provide him in-depth perspective few will experience.
Once classes adjourn for the summer semester, Wallace, a regents’ professor at Northern Kentucky University, will set sail in Connecticut, aboard the Morgan to follow the setting where "Moby-Dick" was based—bringing a first-person experience to his students in the fall. The Morgan is America’s oldest commercial ship.
“My entire professional life has been a preparation for this voyage,” Wallace said.
A Turbulent Relationship With The Whale
His affection for "Moby-Dick" was far from love at first read.
“I didn’t like the teacher and I didn’t like the book. He made us read it too fast,” Wallace said about his introduction to a Great American Novel and the leading work of American Romanticism. He was a a junior at Everett High School in Everett, Wash. when he met Ishmael, the captain and an whale named Moby-Dick.
“It was terrible!”
Some students, he said, have a similar experience and never return to the work. It wasn’t until he read it in Thomas Howells’ class at Whitman College that a new interest was sparked and passion sprouted.
“It was a very inspiring experience,” because he discovered the book's themes and symbolism—something that he now uses in his own classes when teaching the novel.
It’s been a 53-year adventure, from loathing to loving and exploring, that has brought him to this summer's big trip.
Melville doesn’t preach to the reader, Wallace said: "He gives us experiences and trusts us to pull it together.”
And that’s what the well-versed literature professor and 10-time author, has been doing over the course of his career.
In high school Wallace, a studious and religious teen, thought he would be a mathematician or a minister. However, after his class with Howells, he added to his academic load, doubling his major to add English.
Once he completed his bachelor’s degree at Whitman College, he prepared his applications for law school at Harvard and political science at Berkley. That’s when he ran into Howells, who would again change the education course.
After dropping his applications into the mailbox, Howells asked him, “Are you sure?”
After a long chat, Wallace was convinced to focus solely on English. He until the mailman opened the large metal mailbox, graciously giving the young honors student his applications back.
After earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, he began his teaching career at NKU in 1972. He was among the faculty to watch the first college graduate accept their degree from the newly established university.
He was one of the 70 newbies, who had recently graduated with their Ph.Ds. who were hired to the brand new campus: “I was thrown to the wolves,” the 69-year-old professor chuckled.
His work with the white whale was just beginning and would eventually include four books about the tale.
The novel's themes for him have included God, justice and fallen mankind.
“He’s been a symbol of inherent truth about nature,” he said of the 135-chapter book written in 1850. “Melville writes in so many layers at once.
“The philosophical finesse in this book opens ourselves to multiple interpretations to understand the world.”
In the 1950s, he said it was “Ahab’s book”—detailing the tale of a “heroic captain against the unknowing universe”—an alpha-male “standing up to fight the fight," and a voyage in pursuit of Moby-Dick.
“Moby-Dick was the enemy and must be destroyed to define our heroism and courage.”
By the 1960s, interpretations moved from toward the whale, revealing evil mankind amid the beauty in nature—using nature for man’s gain and financial purposes.
In modern day, the book reveres Moby-Dick, Wallace said.
“[It] shows us the price of obsession, the beauty of nature, and the mystery of a universe which offers a nurturing environment to mankind, but whose living creatures are being murdered and destroyed by men motivated by revenge, economic desperation, pride, technical expertise, and the energy of industrial capitalism,” Wallace interpreted.
“Man is brutalizing the natural world, destroying nature without thought of repercussions, converting living things into pay.”
“The levels of what [Melville] does as an artist… it’s hard to grasp in the first read. It’s masterful,” Wallace, who has read the novel more than 20 times since his initial disappointment, said.
Bringing A Whale Of A Tale To His Students
A large white whale piece of artwork over the door frame invites visitors inside the professor’s jam-packed office. Ceiling-high bookshelves are overstuffed
with hundreds of books. Stacks of file folders, books and notes cover his desk and floor, while the remaining three walls are lined with pieces of professional and student-created artwork—artwork that is interpretive of the literature he teaches in his Emily Dickinson class and his class dedicated to “Moby-Dick”.
Wallace approaches literature through artwork, giving his students a different window to peer through for insight and interpretation.
In 1994, he began using and encouraging students to develop artwork to portray what the literature meant to them.
“Comparing literature with other arts has become my specialty,” he said. Artists interpret literature in their work and that’s a “powerful response to literature that’s fascinating to study.”
“To compare them to the arts is very stimulating,” he said of “Moby-Dick” and Dickinson’s poetry, which he calls “inexhaustible to teach.'' He said he learns something new each time reads the works and with each new piece of expressionistic artwork he sees.
And from what he calls a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip he said he hopes to bring back a piece of further inspiration to his students.
Wallace will be one of 79 voyagers, including fellow professors, artists and scientists, to set sail on the Charles W. Morgan ship in June as for a one-day, one-evening trip that is part of a public history project to bring the novel to life. The Morgan is last wooden whale ship in the world.
“So much has happened since Melville sailed the oceans and wrote his novel that my mind will be flooded with all of the ways in which our current understanding of whales and the ocean, of human and natural ecology, and of global society and commerce have changed in ways that make ‘Moby-Dick’ even more relevant as a literary document, artistic achievement, and social critique than it was when it was written.”
Sailing from Martha’s Vineyard to New Bedford, it will be the vessel’s first voyage in nearly a century.
Wallace’s was one of nearly 300 project proposals submitted for consideration in December 2013. He found out in March that he was chosen for the trip.
Wallace will have a journal and camera in tow, to capture his immediate thoughts and sensations. After the trip, he plans to expand his journal entries into a creative non-fiction essay.
His primary goal is simply to experience the scale and thrill of sailing a whale ship, gaining a better understanding of the environment where the characters he teaches were.
“I like to do things that wouldn’t be done unless you do them,” he said. “It’s a nice contribution to make.”
Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at Jessica.Noll@wcpo.com .