Elizabeth Schultz, professor emerita of english, shares her history with novel that influenced her career, professorship fund.
Reading Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” for the first time in college in 1957, I found myself plunged into a new world of language and thought. A decade later, teaching Melville’s novel for the first time at KU, I realized what a profound impact it had on my students. In 1967, when many young men were being drafted into the Vietnam war, a war which they opposed, the novel—about men on a doomed ship led by a megalomaniac—became deeply meaningful to them.
In subsequent years, I found that “Moby-Dick” continued to speak to my own deepest concerns as well as those of my students: it deepened my understanding of racism, community, democracy, of the environment, capitalism, war, of women, art and religion. It helped me to recognize that the most important questions I could ask were “How may I live a good life?” and “How do I know what is good?” It also pushed me to attempt to answer these questions.
When I learned two years ago that “Moby-Dick” was seldom being taught in the KU Department of English, I thought I needed to act to try to make certain that this novel—so significant in enriching my life and the lives of my students—would be taught on a regular basis. Consequently, I determined to create the Herman Melville Distinguished Professorship in 19th Century American Literature, which would help to keep Melville’s great novel among critical learning opportunities for KU students.
Knowing, however, that Melville was one of several superlative writers at work during the mid-19th century in the United States, a time of immense turmoil in our collective social and political life, and knowing that the very best scholars in 19th-century American literature had diverse interests, I decided that to find this “best scholar,” I would need to broaden and diversify the context for this professorship. Hence, I stipulated that while the title of the professorship would carry Melville’s name, the professorship should encourage the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the English department to draw on the expertise of scholars world-wide whose work might focus on Melville as well as that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, or Emily Dickinson.
The test of a great work of literature is that it never wears out—the questions it raises are good for all times and all people. These authors’ works, and the scholars who study and teach them, will continue, I hope, to challenge students for generations.
Originally published in the KU Collegian, spring 2017