Publishing the history & culture

of Southeastern New England • Since 1981

Moby-Dick: A Whaling Odyssey

A Cross-Disciplinary, Multi Cultural Curriculum

Funded by Mass Humanities

Curriculum Description

‍ Spinner Publications introduces a curriculum project entitled Moby-Dick: A Whaling Voyage, comprised of a multi-media DVD, a study guide, a teachers guide, examinations, and a web component. The materials place the classic Melville novel at the center of a diverse and graphic cultural curriculum that teaches the history of the whaling culture, elements of race relations and multiculturalism in a mid-19th century Massachusetts maritime city, and perspectives in American Literature.

As a central text, the curriculum uses the previously published 224-page pictorial Moby-Dick: A Picture Voyage, a meticulously edited abridgment of Melville’s masterpiece illustrated with period paintings and historic photographs that provide a vivid visual panorama of 19th century maritime culture. Ancillary curriculum materials include a Study Guide, a Teachers Guide, Tests & Quizzes, and visual materials. We will produce a DVD that incorporates rare film footage of a whaling chase and life aboard a whaling vessel, sea chanties, and photographs coupled with excerpts from audio interviews with the last living whalemen of New Bedford made by Spinner more than 25 years ago. A book of 37 poems written in Melville’s voice will supplement the package.

The primary goal of the project is to create a reading experience for students of all levels and learning styles so they can appreciate the epic American novel, its many representations of multicultural maritime America in the antebellum period, and its value as a cross-disciplinary resource. Moby-Dick: A Whaling Odyssey is a multidisciplinary curriculum designed for secondary- and intermediate-level students, introducing the classic Melville novel to students in a version that will engage them as it expounds on ideas central to the work, and provokes critical thinking across several Humanities disciplines.

One of the impediments to reading Moby-Dick at the high school level is that it is too long and its nineteenth-century style is too difficult to read in its entirety. But the novel’s multifaceted form also poses a unique opportunity: much of the material surrounding the central story can be taught as history, economics, political science, and sociology, thus, not only making the novel accessible, but giving students an interdisciplinary education.

Moby-Dick: A Picture Voyage:At the center of the curriculum is Spinner’s abridged edition of the original classic, published in 2001 and illustrated with more than 200 original photographs and more than 150 works of art. Accompanying the images are captions and compendia that feature quotes from the novel, information about the artwork, reflections of Melville’s real-life whaling experiences, and biographical anecdotes.

Student Study Guide:This 140-page workbook contains over 400 exercises that challenge students to describe, compare, analyze, and evaluate what they are reading and learning. In keeping with the Frameworks Standards, Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs are used so teachers can evaluate student learning.

Teachers Guide:The Teachers Guide will be approximately 100 pages, produced in pdf format, and written to CD-ROM. The guide will contain two-page spreads that cover the objectives for the day and materials being used. It will aid teachers with creation of daily lesson plans and assignments, and provide assessment tools. A Glossary will help in understanding whaling and geographic terms.

“Moby-Dick: A Whaling Voyage”:This will be a multi-media DVD showing rare footage of a whaling chase, excerpts of whaling scenes from the 1924 film “Down to the Sea in Ships,” and photographs, with a sound track of sea chanties and interviews with whalers.

Tests & Quizzes:Also available on CD and written in pdf format, will be about 75 examinations, complete writing prompts, rubrics, graphic organizers, and study guide answers.

Web Component:The Spinner website will offer pages that provide supplementary research projects, activities, quizzes, essay questions, outside links, and information. Some of these pages will be password-protected and available only to schools that adopt the curriculum.

The curriculum and its significance

Moby-Dick is perhaps the most over-analyzed piece of American literature in existence, yet it is rarely included in high school level curriculum. Nonetheless, our abridged version has been used by some high school teachers and college professors. With accompanying materials, we introduce a full curriculum that intersects literature, history, art, science, philosophy, religion, and more.

To begin with, the curriculum considers that students can learn a great deal about life from literature; that they can see themselves through literary characters, gaining insight into their lives. Spinner’s edition, Moby-Dick: A Picture Voyage, and the accompanying materials, are not a replacement for the novel, but will facilitate the student’s ability to read and understand high literature. The curriculum presents an extraordinary compendium on 19th-century life—the whaling industry, capitalism, religion, morality, war, science, etc.—through paintings, photographs, film, oral history, reading exercises, and high adventure. The abridged novel and curriculum will awaken high school students to the relevance of Moby Dick today as they explore new connections with other disciplines.

Our unique approach presents Melville’s masterpiece before a canvas of New Bedford history, surrounded by the art, humanity, and history of its time, and trimmed with the voices of those who lived it. Certainly, Moby Dick has the ability to transform one’s life. Because of its complexity, the challenge has always been in the delivery. We can engage students through this multi-disciplinary, multi-media approach, drawing them inside the story and enabling them to appreciate the author’s wit, genius and passion by using a visual, active, and accessible delivery. This active approach requires imagination and a willingness to participate. Students will learn through literature that not just whaling, but the whaling culture, centered in New Bedford and Nantucket, was interconnected with so many other facets of life, representing a microcosm of 19th American civilization.

Through the curriculum, students will address topics such as the unresolvable conflict between America’s multicultural history and its sometimes violent will toward mono-culturalism. Exercises in the study guide will challenge students’ perceptions of the 19th century and compare them with existing ideas of American identity. Multiculturalism in American Literature and History concern the future of all literary studies in America today. Questions about literature and the historical construction of culture, about who and what are “American” and how we go about defining or conceiving “American culture,” should involve students before they reach college. The realization that these questions are old, foundational, and ever-central to our identity as Americans is critical to our understanding of who we are.

Another important feature of our curriculum will be the comparisons of Melville/Ishmael’s whaling experience to those of living whalemen. Between 1981 and 1990, Spinner Publications conducted several interviews with the last living New Bedford whalemen. These men of Cape Verdean and Portuguese heritage provide firsthand, detailed accounts of life aboard an American whaleship, including reasons for going whaling, living conditions, human relations, the whaling chase, the general practices of killing and processing the whale, tales of the sea, and much more.

Multiculturalism becomes real and easy to understand when students see and hear community-ancestors tell their stories, and it also brings elements of the novel closer to real life. Ishmael’s experiences will be reinforced. Learning about whaling and whalemen from primary sources will give students a greater appreciation of Melville’s real-life experience, his literary purpose, humor, and interpretations.

Following are some examples of how passages in the text will be used across disciplines.

In the chapter “The Ship,” we are immersed in labor relations, whaling economics, as well as simple mathematics as Ishmael finds himself dickering with the tight-fisted, Quaker ship-owners over the “lay” or payment he is to receive. “The seven hundred and seventy-seventh wouldn’t be too much, would it?” mumbles Bildad.

LAY, indeed, thought I, and such a lay!… [and] though seven hundred and seventy-seven is a pretty large number, yet, when you come to make a TEENTH of it, you will then see, I say, that the seven hundred and seventy-seventh part of a farthing is a good deal less than seven hundred and seventy-seven gold doubloons; and so I thought at the time.

This scene compares nicely to an excerpt from an interview Spinner recorded with Cape Verdean whaler Joe Ramos in 1982, which will be included on the DVD. In his thick Crioulo accent Mr. Ramos recounts the discrepancy in earned wages between picking cranberries and going whaling:

On the Wanderer I made $14 for one year. That was 1/130th share or lay. Then on the Margarett, with the same crew, I made $16 for six months. In the cranberry bogs, I made $130 for six weeks. I paid $30 for board and came to New Bedford with $100!

Ironically, even today fishermen are paid a “share,” or percentage of the catch. It will be interesting for students to compare earnings and conditions of today’s scalloper or draggerman to yesterday’s whaleman. Whaler Quentin DeGrasse remembered:

Whaling was dirty work, a nasty job. There were cockroaches, bed bugs, dirty mattresses and sheets. We’d wait till the rain came, to save the water for washing ourselves and our clothes. Sometimes, I feel sorry I didn’t stay in whaling, ’cause I liked working on the sea. On the whale ships, there was no bad treatment of Cape Verdean people. They treated us good. But I tell you, working on a whaling ship—there was nothing to enjoy there. It was a dangerous job. And what do you make? Nothing. Especially after you pay your dues. How can you work like that?

Although Melville was a whaleman, he was sickened by the savage slaughter of the great whales. In “The Grand Armada,” he describes the brutal killing of whales by describing the slaughter in cataclysmic metaphors. The whaleboat enters “the charmed circle” of nursing mothers with their calves, and the men stand transfixed, watching the calves draw “spiritual sustenance” as they gaze upward at their mothers. Only when the bull whales who have been guarding their families swim toward the men do they snap out of the spell and begin hacking away at these peaceful creatures, and a bloody scene ensues.

Analogous to this is Joe Ramos’ recollection:

Whaling was just a job. You gotta kill ’em. But seeing the mother whale protecting her calf, that’s when you could feel it. When we killed the mother, the milk made the ocean white all around us. It was sad. You knew the shark would kill the calf when you got the mother.

The shore chapters introduce local history: New Bedford, Nantucket, the whaling industry and the antislavery movement. Provocative passages such as the one where Ishmael stumbles into an African church allude to national issues such as slavery, Manifest Destiny, territorial expansion and the Mexican War (“Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish”). If Melville actually stumbled into an African church during his few days in New Bedford in 1840-41, he might have heard Frederick Douglass, who was a lay preacher in the city at that time. As Ishmael wanders about New Bedford, he observes that the town is full of men from all corners of the globe, from the South Pacific to the mountains of Vermont. The great mansions and finely dressed women of the town all exist thanks to the high prices that whale oil commands.

Another important element of the curriculum is artwork, which is represented in the book and the DVD. The book was originally crafted to give readers a clear picture of the whaling culture as it simultaneously illustrates the story, and includes portraits of whaling crews, men at work in all facets of production, and vivid depictions of the ports, ships, and technologies. Among the 150 paintings are many renderings created by whaler-artists and taken from mid-19th century journals and logbooks. We include several of the specific works named by Melville in chapters 55–57, and works by some of the most important marine artists of the era. These include scenes from muralist/whaler Benjamin Russell’s 1500-ft. panorama “Whaling Voyage Round the World” (see enclosed book, pp. 41–47), which, ironically, depicts the Marquesses (p. 47) at precisely the time Melville deserted the ship Acushnet.

The study guide is designed to provide numerous exercises relevant to both fields and a variety of sub-disciplines, giving teachers cross-disciplinary flexibility. For example, the English teacher may focus on literary elements such as symbolism, allegory, metaphor, writing style, and concepts such as man’s precarious relationship to nature, and the deceptiveness of fate and truth. A Social Studies teacher may devote more time to the Spanish Armada, whale oil as a commodity, or the exploitative nature of whaling.

Moby-Dick and the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks

The Study Guide and Teachers Guide will be designed to meet state and federal Frameworks Standards. The guides require students to give class presentations that develop listening and speaking skills. Specific exercises will require students to analyze, interpret, make conclusions, compare and contrast, argue, and assess information. Students will learn and apply literary terminology and strengthen their reading and writing skills.

The curriculum contains tests tailored towards the statewide examinations. Some exercises will require group work, cross-media use, and research. The Teachers Guide will include lesson plans that comply with state standards.

Complying with the Frameworks, students are asked to explore cultural, historical, socio-economical, scientific, and religious context within a piece of classical literature and directly compare this with a piece of contemporary literature.

Under the Frameworks, a curriculum in English is required to include at least two other disciplines. The Moby-Dick curriculum covers History, Religion, Philosophy, Economics, and Natural Science Studies. Additionally, the curriculum covers many required topics such as race, multiculturalism, and environment.

Other criteria that are met through the Moby-Dick curriculum are:

  • use of media venues to understand literature
  • exercises that employ different writing styles such as short answers, two-paragraph open responses, and long composition
  • analysis of the author’s craft
  • use of Bloom’s Taxonomy methods