NKU has one of the largest ‘Moby-Dick’ art collections. Why the American classic is still relevant

A recent gift of charcoal drawings depicting images from Herman Melville’s classic “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” to Northern Kentucky University means the school likely has the largest collection of art related to the novel at any college or university.

NKU Regents Professor of English Bob Wallace, Ph.D., has been studying and teaching “Moby-Dick” since the mid-1970s. He specializes in artwork related to the novel, making him “probably one of the world’s experts in “Moby-Dick” on the arts, and how artists, painters, and sculptors and opera composers, and all sorts of artists have been responding to “Moby-Dick” to make it work for their own minds and hearts in their own age,” he tells WVXU.

He’s also the primary reason so much “Moby-Dick” artwork has found its way to Northern Kentucky. NKU says it hasn’t found another school with a larger collection.

The university just received a collection of 66 charcoal drawings by retired Boston College art professor and artist Aileen Callahan. The works are being added to the Steely Library’s Special Collections, which already includes more than 200 works of art depicting “Moby-Dick.”

Callahan has been creating “Moby-Dick” paintings, drawings and more since the late 1990s. That’s when Wallace first curated an exhibit of her works. These latest charcoals are focused on that whale itself, he says.

LISTEN: Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’ will be celebrated at NKU with art, readings and more

“This is one way she’s early in the ecological understanding of the whale as we’ve come to appreciate it now, as an incredible living creature. She’s one of the first artists to really do that,” he says.

Why ‘Moby Dick’?

Wallace speaks passionately about Melville’s tale of the great white whale. He’s written books, coordinated arts fests, and curated exhibits on the book, as well as serving as past president of the Melville Society and helping found the Melville Society Cultural Project.

Published in 1851, the novel tells the story of an obsessive hunt for the titular elusive white whale. It’s considered Melville’s magnum opus and one of the greatest American novels. It fell out of fashion shortly after publication but experienced a resurgence in the 1920s. The opening line — “Call me Ishmael” — is perhaps one of the most famous in literary history.

Wallace says the work remains relevant and important.

“It addresses issues in [Melville’s] day that remain very fresh in ours,” Wallace says. “You could say that our culture has finally caught up with “Moby-Dick.” For example, it’s a very multicultural novel, with people from all over the world on the ship, and Ishmael, the nurturer, learning how to recognize humanity everywhere.”

The novel, Wallace points out, also addresses post-colonialism, ecology, comparative religion, gender relations, and civil rights. These are all important, Wallace notes, for students to study today.

Why NKU?

Since Wallace is one of the world’s foremost scholars on Melville and “Moby-Dick,” he says it follows that the school would have such a large collection. “Because of, really, my teaching here, I developed this interest in the arts through frustrations my students had with the book, so I’m kind of a pioneer in the field.”

If you’d like to read more about his background, NKU student newspaper The Northerner profiled Wallace in Nov. 2023.

The book experienced its largest revival with the publication of Rockwell Kent‘s illustrated edition in 1930.

“Kent’s drawings popularized that book because anyone can enjoy those, whether or not they’re reading the sometimes dense words of the novel,” Wallace states.

Wallace says it’s artists that have helped continue to keep the book in the public eye through new interpretations. He notes artists have sometimes been ahead of literary critics in discussing the importance of the topics in the novel.

“I can give one example of an opera: Jake Heggie’s opera, “Moby-Dick,” which premiered in Dallas in 2010,” Wallace explains, noting the opera focuses on five main characters from the novel.

“All five of those human characters are equally important in the opera because it’s an opera for the 21st century. There’s all this material in Melville’s 1851 novel that can be energized and made relevant to readers and opera-goers today, so a lot of people who see that opera will not have read the book, but they will be deeply moved by the human conflicts.”

To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?

The use — or lack thereof — a hyphen in “Moby-Dick” has been fodder for many an internet search, according to Google results. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the hyphen is used in the title because that’s how it appeared in the initial printing under the full title “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.” However, the whale itself, Melville referred to as “Moby Dick,” sans hyphen.

“It’s still unclear whether Melville, who didn’t use a hyphen inside the book, chose a hyphen for the book’s title or whether his brother punctuated the title incorrectly,” Erin Blakemore wrote for Smithsonian Magazine. “These days, most scholars simply refer to the book with a hyphen and the whale without.”

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