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Wyn Kelley sails on the Charles W. Morgan

MIT Melville scholar travels on the last surviving U.S. whaleship from Melville's era.
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MIT Melville scholar Wyn Kelley with the Charles W. Morgan in dock.
MIT Melville scholar Wyn Kelley with the Charles W. Morgan in dock.
Courtesy of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Wyn Kelley has spent more than 30 years studying the works of Herman Melville — particularly his seminal whaling novel "Moby-Dick" — so she was thrilled to get the chance this summer to sail aboard an actual whaling ship.

Chosen from more than 300 applicants, Kelley, a senior lecturer in literature at MIT, was one of about 80 people who participated in a public-history project associated with the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, the oldest surviving whaling ship in the country. Recently refitted, the Mystic Seaport vessel made its first voyage in more than 90 years this summer, plying the New England coastline and docking in various ports.

“This is one of only a few historic ships still sailing,” says Kelley, who spent the night of July 7 aboard the ship and then sailed with the Morgan from New Bedford, Mass., to Provincetown, Mass., the next day. “It was built in 1841 in same shipyard as the ship Melville sailed on.”

Melville for engineers and scientists

Long before cellphones began capturing signals, and before radio, WiFi, and GPS instrumentation, “they that go down to the sea in ships” had to know how to read the wind, water, and sky to navigate. The physical world is therefore a dominating presence in Melville’s works, and one that Kelley was keen to experience, not least so that she could share it with her MIT students.

Reflecting on her years teaching at MIT, Kelley notes that “engineers tend to think of texts, including literature, as a different kind of information from the sort they deal with when thinking about how a cell tower will behave in a storm or how materials achieve equilibrium in a structure.” But, she adds, as MIT students discover, “'Moby-Dick' is full of the very same physical forces that engineers and scientists study and manipulate."

Indeed, Melville’s novel is steeped in what we now call science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields — from the novelist’s categorization of whale species to his descriptions of the physical power of water, wind, and lightning. “There’s a lot of science in the book,” Kelley says.

On the Morgan this summer, as she walked the decks, hauled lines, and watched the crew adjust the heavy Egyptian cotton and flax sails, Kelley mentally compared the experience to Melville’s descriptions. “So often on the ship, I was thinking about how different reading a book about a voyage is from being on a ship and experiencing the weather, and all the impact on the body,” she says. This “reading” of the physical environment is critical to the history of how humans understand the world, Kelley notes.

A 19th-century writer with a modern, global imagination 

Too often, Kelley says, readers approach "Moby-Dick" with trepidation, intimidated by its reputation — and length. “They walk into it like walking into a dentist’s office,” she says, but emerge with a great understanding of why "Moby-Dick" has stood the test of time: Like the works of Shakespeare, the book reflects the human condition in a way that transcends its own period in history. 

“Students identify with it because there are so many classical conflicts in the book,” Kelley says. “The sailors are trying to survive with a crazy captain and an awful job. They see Queequeg, the ‘savage’ harpooner, trying to learn a new language and understand the culture, Captain Ahab looking for certainty in an empty universe, the narrator Ishmael trying to make sense of it all. It’s very close to people’s experience of college.”

In fact, many of Melville’s themes are surprisingly modern: He advocated a broad-minded view of humanity that undercut the strong lines of class, race, and religion that dominated his era. He even expressed concern for the environment and the fate of the whale population. “He had a global imagination,” Kelley says, born in large part of his experience in whaling, an industry where the population was constantly changing and skill meant more than nationality or language.

Pleasure and imaginative space 

Yet "Moby-Dick" is a triumph not simply because of its classic quest narrative or its universal themes, but because of Melville’s humor, wit, and extraordinary use of language. Above all, the novel has endured because it’s a pleasure to read.

“'Pleasure' is a word I can’t use enough,” Kelley says. “Like games, literature releases the mind from certain habits of thinking to a play space where you can try out different identities, which is therapeutic and pleasurable.”

The joy of reading has brought Kelley back to "Moby-Dick" again and again over the years. “Like Shakespeare, it keeps getting renewed,” she says, noting that the book offers fascinating insights into colonialism, Christianity, and the life of the working classes. MIT students typically also get interested in the physics of the ship and the interplay of the natural elements. 

That’s one reason Kelley chose to concentrate on the weather for her project associated with the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan — a contribution to Mystic Seaport’s public education efforts that connects the Morgan and Melville with her work in new media literacies. “I was interested in wind as an information-bearing medium — wind as a form of literacy,” she says. “This is an old literacy most of us no longer use,” she adds, noting that in the modern world, information about the weather is rarely as vital as it was to whalers and others in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, Kelley — whose work in new media includes serving as associate director of the Melville Electronic Library and helping to create an interactive online map of all the geographic locations in Melville’s works — sees parallels between whaling and modern global businesses, which similarly depend on unseen forces (electricity rather than weather) that humans attempt to control with varying degrees of success.

Narrative and engineering systems 

Discovering such seemingly unlikely parallels is part of what makes Melville — and literature in general — so endlessly fascinating, Kelley says, noting that MIT students often realize that exploring the depth and complexity of human systems through literature is not that different from studying engineering. 

“Narratives present problems that call upon the same abilities that MIT students are using elsewhere; they’re entering another kind of system where language and storytelling set up problems for them to solve,” Kelley says. “Narratives have design, and students realize it’s not an add-on — it’s integrated; the same principles of design govern the building of a bridge.” Such parallels help students integrate humanities with their other MIT studies and realize the relevance of such subjects.

Kelley is now considering what final form her 38th voyage project will take, and is looking forward to sharing her experience of life aboard a 19th-century whaler. “If I can bring just a little bit of this back to the classroom, it will be incredibly worthwhile,” she says.


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer, Associate News Manager: Kathryn O'Neill

Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski 

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