When his wife and her relatives decided to hold their family reunion aboard an Alaskan cruise ship in the summer of 2008, Cal Poly history professor George Cotkin knew precisely what to pack: his battered copy of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick."
"There are so many layers and levels and depths to the book," Cotkin said. "You can read it time and time again and always find new things. It's just so rewarding."
Originally published in 1851, "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale" - told from the perspective of Ishmael, a solitary sailor who sets off to sea aboard the Pequod whaling vessel- is familiar to many a reader. Tyrannical captain Ahab, whose crew includes South Seas harpooner Queequeg and Quaker chief mate Starbuck, is obsessed with finding and killing Moby Dick, the white sperm whale that destroyed his boat and bit off his leg.
In his book "Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick," published in August by Oxford University Press, Cotkin offers a concise yet comprehensive look at the myriad ways in which Melville's novel has shaped our collective psyche, from movies to music to comic books.
According to Cotkin, the name "Moby-Dick" is "synonymous with the Great American Novel." "It's such a wild and wonderful and wooly book ... full of humor, of wisdom, of creativity that just runs amok," he said.
Cotkin, who earned a bachelor's degree at Brooklyn College and graduate degrees at Ohio State University, started teaching at Cal Poly in 1980. He shares a home in San Luis Obispo with his wife Marta Peluso, a visual art instructor and the former executive director of Arts Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council.
Although Cotkin specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of the post-war United States, his scholarly output has been varied. "I could be considered a dilettante. I have a short attention span (and) tend to shift from one project to another," admitted Cotkin, whose first book was the 1992 biography "William James: Public Philosopher."
His book "Existential America," published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2003, sprang in part from personal tragedy. When Cotkin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer, in 2000, "It made the themes of existentialism real," explained the author, who is currently in remission.
A screening of the 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda," starring Don Cheadle as a Hutu hotel manager who shelters Tutsi refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, inspired Cotkin to write "Morality's Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America." In the book, published by Penn Press in 2010, he revisits several of the moral dilemmas of the 20th century, including the American bombing of civilians during World War II, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq.
"Dive Deeper's" roots, on the other hand, go back to Cotkin's childhood in the Bronx.
Cotkin can't quite remember how he first encountered "Moby-Dick." It might have been the Classics Illustrated comic book version, originally published in 1942, or the 1956 movie "Moby Dick" directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck as Ahab.
Either way, "It was an adventure story and it was great," said Cotkin, who would revisit Melville's convoluted yet compelling tale repeatedly over the years.
Each of "Dive Deeper's" 135 chapters is paired with a short essay, with subjects ranging from race and sexuality to filmmaker Werner Herzog, boxer Rocky Marciano and "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz.
The book's first chapter, "Loomings," which opens with the famous line "Call me Ishmael," prompts a comparison between the suicidal sailor and Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus. Chapter 51, "The Spirit-Spout," evokes literary-minded Los Angeles rapper MC Lars and Chapter 104, "The Fossil Whale," details the many writers - from Peter Benchley ("Jaws") to Chad Harbach ("The Art of Fielding") - who have drawn inspiration from "Moby-Dick."
Matt Kish, creator of the book "Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page," gets a mention in Chapter 101, "Measure of a Whale's Skeleton." "No book has had a more magnetic pull on me than 'Moby-Dick,'" explained Kish, an audio visual materials selector for the Dayton Metro Library in Dayton, Ohio, but he had never been able to find an edition that resembled the one in his mind. "I decided to create for myself the illustrated version of the book that I had always wanted to see."
Although "Moby-Dick in Pictures," published in 2011 by Tin House Press, started as a personal challenge to create a Melville-inspired illustration every day, it eventually became "a visual love letter to my childhood," he said.
Cotkin even dedicates a "Dive Deeper" chapter to another Central Coast author, Morro Bay resident Hershel Parker. The award-winning author of a definitive two-part biography of Melville, Parker details his experiences researching and writing about Melville and offers advice to would-be biographers in his latest book, "Melville Biography: An Inside Narrator," published earlier this month by Northwestern University Press.
"Central casting would fare well to offer Parker the role of Captain Ahab," Cotkin writes in "Dive Deeper," describing Parker, professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, as a soft-spoken scholar with a "voracious" appetite for Melville material. "He can be Ahab-like in his fierceness towards those that he considers sloppy scholars or mistaken readers of Melville. ... There is no fooling around with the facts for Parker."
So far, "Dive Deeper" has garnered praise from the likes of The Boston Globe reviewer Kate Tuttle, who wrote, "The book works so well because it is both serious and seriously entertaining ... as affable as it is smart." Jay Parini, author of "The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville," hailed Cotkin's book as a "grand intellectual adventure," adding, "I can't imagine a more timely, entertaining, or - indeed - illuminating book."
Indeed, even after 161 years, "Moby-Dick" enthusiasm has yet to wane. A raft of fan events - from "Moby-Dick" reading marathons at Mystic, Conn., and New Bedford, Mass., to the Melville Festival in Youghal, Ireland, and Call Me Melville, a summer-long celebration held in Pittsfield, Mass. - offer "a chance for people to form a sense of community," he said.
In November, Polly Bresnick, a Brooklyn-based writer and teacher, teamed up Amanda Bullock, the director of programming at AIDS advocacy group Housing Works, to launch New York City's first marathon-style reading of "Moby-Dick." Moby-Dick Marathon NYC drew more than 160 readers, including actor Paul Dano, author Sarah Vowell and Bresnick's father, literary agent Paul Bresnick.
"People have a misconception about ('Moby-Dick') being impenetrable, but it is funny and it is companionable," Bresnick said. "There's just so much gorgeous, musical language that just begs to be read aloud."
"There's something about the character of Melville that comes out," she added. "He seems to have an interesting and clear and true understanding of those questions about being a human that are universal, that don't get old ..."
Cotkin will have time to ponder those questions when he retires from Cal Poly in June, although he plans to dedicate his time entirely to writing.
He's currently working on a novel about a fictional encounter between philosophers William James and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1890s, and a non-fiction book about American culture in the 1960s. "Violence and madness and eroticism, all the things that are central to our culture today have their roots in the 'feast of excess,'" Cotkin said.
"One of the nice things about being a historian is you can make the claim that everything has a history," he said. "Even if I can't bring as much depth as others, I try to bring more breadth to the subject."
Top Image: Moby Dick, Herman Melville's white whale, floats against a sea of red letters in this illustration from "Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page" by Matt Kish.
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