National Collegiate Honors Council


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© Copyright 2013 by the National Collegiate Honors Council


The recent explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico was a grim reminder of the BP disaster in 2010, from which Gulf Coast residents and workers are still trying to recover. We all must have responded to that disaster with a similar sense of outrage as we watched the live underwater video feed of millions of gallons of oil spewing into the ocean and saw images of oil-soaked wildlife, coastlines, and marshlands. Shared memories of Hurricane Katrina heighten our collective sympathy for the people whose livelihoods this disaster still threatens. At the same time, our individual responses are shaped by personal associations—such as relatives living in the Gulf, memories of a beach vacation, or a fondness for Gulf shrimp. As students and teachers, we also cannot help but view such events through our disciplines, our majors and minors, the books we read, and the courses we take and teach. I imagine the oil spill has already become a reference point in classes ranging from Microbiology and Environmental Studies to Economics and Public Relations.As an English professor specializing in American literature and possessing a passion (often approaching obsession) for one nineteenth-century American novel in particular, I was thrilled when an article titled “The Ahab Parallax” appeared in the 13 June 2010 New York Times. It identifies striking parallels between the disaster at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig and Herman Melville’s 1851 fictional account of death and destruction at sea as the crew of the Pequod hunts for whale oil, a valuable commodity on which nineteenth-century Americans were as dependent as we are on petroleum today. These echoes, Randy Kennedy writes, are “painfully illuminating as the spill becomes a daily reminder of the limitations, even now, of man’s ability to harness nature for his needs” (1). A former student emailed me as soon as he saw the article: “Melville always seems to get the last laugh somehow,” he wrote (Anderson). One reason I love to teach Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is the seemingly limitless ways in which it speaks to human actions and events in our own age. Melville’s novel has been used to comment on the rise of fascism, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, and debates over Social Security and national health care. “Each age, one may predict, will find its own symbols in Moby-Dick,” a Melville biographer wrote in 1929. “Over that ocean the clouds will pass and change, and the ocean itself will mirror back those changes from its own depths” (Mumford 194).