If you’ve been watching television at all lately, then you’ll have found it hard to miss the various trailers for In the Heart of the Sea, the Ron Howard directed film about the sinking of the whale ship, Essex. The Ron Howard film is based off of the award-winning book written by Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick’s book draws heavily on the narratives of first mate Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy on the doomed ship. In terms of American literature, the harrowing ordeal of the Essex is important because it inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.
Granted, we have yet to see the film, and some of the early reviews aren’t stellar, but we can’t ignore the fact that the appearance of the film, thanks to its pre-holiday and pre-Star Wars media blitz, has interjected the Essex, Moby-Dick, and Melville into popular culture. On a more personal note, we feel a great deal of gratitude towards the PR folks behind In the Heart of the Sea for knocking Larry Culpepper commercials off of Watch ESPN in the closing weeks of the college football season. Okay, watching college football sans-Larry Culpepper is something that our contributor Greg Specter is grateful for, but the larger situation is worth pondering. Over the past few years, ESPN has lost millions of cable viewers, no doubt many of them now watching ESPN programming through various streaming services. A quirk of the Watch ESPN is its small stable of advertising that runs repeatedly. This advertising quirk likely means a surprisingly large and different demographic has been exposed to In the Heart of the Sea and the novel that inspired it.
We here at Pedagogy & American Literary Studies have certainly noticed the abundant media presence of In the Heart of the Sea. Here at PALS we wanted to take some time to address some of the pedagogical affordances that the film brings by sharing a piece that our contributor Greg Specter wrote during the summer. Greg’s piece addresses a potential composition class devoted entirely to Moby-Dick, but many of the ideas are rooted in the teaching of literature. In prefacing Greg’s post, we here at PALS also wish to take the time to highlight how some of our various interests dovetail with the pedagogical and classroom opportunities provided by the confluence of American literature, cinema, and popular culture.
At PALS we are big fans of pairing texts together. Moby-Dick and In the Heart of the Sea provide ample opportunities for endless pairings. With regards to Moby-Dick, the most obvious pairing is with narratives of Owen Chase and Thomas Nickerson. Such a pairing provides the opportunity for students to work with a piece of literature and also primary source documents. Pairing Moby-Dick and the Chase and Nickerson narratives is also beneficial for considering storytelling and personal narrative in the classroom.
It is a cliché, an understatement, and hyperbole, but what Moby-Dick brings to the table for a literature class is endless. For example, Moby-Dick provides numerous opportunities to engage with themes related to the environment. An attractive aspect of Moby-Dick is the potential of its appeal to science majors in the classroom, which also provides an opportunity to make use of an ecocriticism lens.
The cultural context of whaling is vast because it touched so much of life both on the sea and on land. The cultural reach of whaling is especially true in the case of sea shanties. Teaching sea shanties provides an excellent way to bring audio into the classroom. Many of these songs of the sea were collected in the nineteenth century and working with such texts can provide an exciting way of teaching a collection of songs as poetry.
How we approach Moby-Dick is endless and teachers and students can play to their interests as they develop over the course of reading the novel. Moby-Dick can be a slog and perhaps difficult. However, the scope of Moby-Dick allows for various approaches for busting out of slumps in the classroom and having fun by pairing texts or looking at retellings of the novel.
Moby-Dick is also an opportunity to incorporate the resources of your school’s library and special collections in the classroom. Your library might not have a first edition of Moby-Dick and that is okay. Moby-Dick is one of those books seemingly about everything and anything. Your library and special collections likely have strengths in certain collection areas. Perhaps they are strong in scientific works, maps, or works on exploration. It is a great opportunity to talk to the librarians.
Teaching Moby-Dick provides numerous opportunities to incorporate primary sources in the classroom in interesting and exciting ways. While your school may not be strong in special collections resources or database access, there is a seemingly endless amount of primary resources available online dealing with American whaling and Moby-Dick. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, Mystic Seaport, and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park have particularly strong digital collections. Additionally, sites like Old Weather Whaling provide opportunities to engage with transcribing archival collections. Here are several sites to get you started. This list is a work in progress. Feel free to send us suggestions!
Lastly, here is Greg’s original post. You’ll find that Greg’s post takes inspiration from a variety of sources and influences, especially museum exhibitions. We hope that you enjoy it.
The release of In the Heart of the Sea provides numerous pedagogical opportunities for teaching American literature in the classroom. In the Heart of the Sea also gives us an opportunity to connect our teaching and scholarship with the larger public. We hope that this post and the associated pieces and resources are helpful to you. We hope what you’ve read inspires you to make use of Moby-Dick and In the Heart of the Sea in the classroom.