Jamie Gass writes often about classic literature and what it says to us today. In this post, he writes about the relevance of Moby Dick, which he thinks may be the greatest American novel ever written.

The nature of a classic is that it is always timely. It speaks to us at different times in our life, and we understand it in relation to who we are. As we change, our perceptions of the classic change.

I have read Moby Dick three times: once in high school, and it bored me. Once in college, and I began to understand it. And about three years ago, on a flight from New York to California. The last time was the first time I really understood it.

I had the same reaction to Silas Marner; in high school, it was dull (to me). When I read it as a mature adult, I was deeply moved.

Same book, different reaction.

Jamie writes:

American students should appreciate Melville’s magnificence. A full decade before the Civil War’s carnage, only a highly unconventional writer of profound depth could craft a poetic novel using an enlightened cannibal to devour America’s racial, nativist, and religious stereotypes. Truth-telling and genre-shattering to a fault, Melville never really earned a living as an author and died a forgotten customs house clerk in New York City.

“Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber?” remarked an 1851 London book review of “Moby-Dick.”

As America’s cultural ship of state seems awash in crazy sea captains, ignoble savagery, and uncivilized oddities who offer more whale lard than illumination, maybe Herman Melville and his friendly cannibal Queequeg can help keep students intellectually buoyant in the rough seas ahead.

Jamie and I don’t agree on anything having to do with school reform, but I always enjoy his efforts to restore classic literature to its exalted station in our schools and our lives.