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Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale

at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research - Midtown

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Midtown, Manhattan
247 West 37th St 5th Fl
Btwn 7th & 8th Avenues
New York, New York 10018
Due to public health concerns, the course will be held online, barring a subsidence
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Class Level: All levels
Age Requirements: 21 and older
Average Class Size: 12

Flexible Reschedule Policy: This provider has flexible, free rescheduling for any-in person workshop. Please see the cancellation policy for more details

What you'll learn in this fiction class:

We now think of Moby-Dick as the canonical American novel. During Melville’s lifetime, however, his “wicked book,” as he called it in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a popular failure. The book sank into obscurity along with Melville’s reputation until  20th-century readers recovered the novel and refashioned it as a neglected masterpiece. 

Nominally the story of a monomaniacal sea captain’s pursuit of revenge against Moby Dick, the great white whale, this encyclopedic novel synthesizes a bewildering array of questions about (among other things): obsession, ethics, knowledge, chaos and divine order, the nature of the self and the social order, nationhood, race, ethnicity, slavery and abolition, masculinity and desire, labor and war, 19th-century popular culture, justice and injustice, ecology and zoology (particularly cetology—the study of whale physiology and habits), literary history, aesthetic value, and the limits of representation. 

Part rollicking maritime adventure tale, part philosophical inquiry, part treatise on sea-going ecosystems, Moby-Dick is a text of radical, maddening plethora. As the socialist historian C.L.R. James remarked (in a work written while James was detained by the Department of Immigration on Ellis Island), “the whale and whaling turn out to be a thread on which is hung a succession of pictures portraying the history of the world . . . [h]e wishes to include in his book everything.” Where to begin with a novel that sets out to swallow the universe?

Our consideration of the white whale will resist, at all costs, the attempt to restrict Moby-Dick to a single overarching moral, theme, or symbolic meaning. Instead, we’ll start from the premise that ambiguity—the multiplicity of meanings readers can assign to both the novel and the white whale—is central to how Moby-Dick asks to be read, how it has mattered historically, and how it matters today. 

The poet Charles Olson said of Melville’s book that “it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root.” Even this grand claim may be, in the end, too narrow. In addition to supplementary texts by Melville and his contemporaries (Dickinson, Douglass, Fuller, Hawthorne, Marx, and Whitman among them), this class will feature selections from Moby-Dick’s critical and creative inheritance. 

The latter are likely to include Lawrence Buell, E.M. Forster, Judith Goldman, D.H. Lawrence, James, Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Raymond Weaver, and others.

Remote Learning

This course is available for "remote" learning and will be available to anyone with access to an internet device with a microphone (this includes most models of computers, tablets). Classes will take place with a "Live" instructor at the date/times listed below.

Upon registration, the instructor will send along additional information about how to log-on and participate in the class.

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Refund Policy

Note: This provider has a temporary cancellation policy for COVID-19 related cancellations which is as follows:

We'll grant full course credit up to the start of the first class. After the first class we can offer 75% course credit; after the second 50%; and after the third 25%.


Original cancellation policy (non-COVID-19):

Upon request, we will refund the entire cost of a class up until 1 week before its start date. Students who withdraw after that point but before the first class are entitled to a 75% refund. After the first class: 50%. After the second: 25%. No refunds will be given after the third class.


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Reviews of Classes at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (21)

School: Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research was established in 2011 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Its mission is to extend liberal arts education and research far beyond the borders of the traditional university, supporting community education needs and opening up new possibilities for scholarship in the...

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