Scene from Jake Heggie's opera Moby-Dick; digital effects recreate whaling boats

In a scene from Jake Heggie's opera Moby-Dick, special effects recreate the whaling boats as the crew of the Pequod faces down the White Whale. Stanford Humanities Center scholar Joseph Boone studies Herman Melville as a source of inspiration for artists working across a range of genres and media. (Photo: Karen Almond)

Stanford literary scholar: White whales and the 'Melville Effect'

With a resurgence of Melville-themed art across the multimedia landscape, Stanford Humanities Center Fellow Joseph Boone says the legendary writer has become a 21st-century muse for artists – including Boone himself.

As the author of syllabus staples like Billy Budd, Herman Melville has been a fixture of American letters over the past century.

But this hasn't always been the case. During his lifetime, readers knew Melville for his adventure stories like Typee and Omoo, but the works we know him for today –especially Moby-Dick – sold poorly. Since his recuperation by literary critics in the early 20th century, Melville has become a fixture of the American canon, cheered as a writer working decades ahead of his time.

Stanford scholar Joseph Boone has been exploring the latest Melville revival, happening now. Boone, who studies the novel as genre, argues that "Melville is everywhere," from visual art to theater to emoji.

Boone, this year's Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California, sees Melville as a standard bearer for artists wanting to experiment with, and break from, artificial boundaries of genre and form, a process he has termed the "Melville Effect."

The phenomenon, says Boone, can be partially attributed to Melville's engagement with the changing media landscape of mid- to late-19th-century America, with the changing role of the newspaper, widespread usage of the telegraph, the rise of the telephone and other technological and cultural shifts that echo the rapid changes we are seeing today.

Boone has surveyed Melville's oeuvre, a range of contemporary adaptations and a set of works inspired by the author for his project, The Melville Effect: Meditations on Multimedia. Through this process, it became clear to Boone that Herman Melville has "become a source of inspiration for some of today's most intriguing artists working across a range of genres and media."

While other scholars have put Melville in dialogue with a single type of textual adaptation such as opera, Boone's synthetic, multimedia approach to Melville is the first of its kind, and offers a fresh perspective on an author who became enshrined in the academy over the course of the 20th century.

Boone hopes that readers of his work will take heart that changes in our media landscape do not necessarily entail the death of the old forms to make way for the new.

"People fear that with the advent of new technology the arts are doomed. But those innovations have always been technological in nature, and they can lead us to new kinds of artistic expression. We have to be receptive of that as a literate culture."

'This has to be a musical'

Boone isn't just an observer of the Melville Effect; he's also a participant. Working with his brother, Boone co-authored a musical drama, Con-Man: A Musical Apocalypse, based on Melville's riverboat novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade.

After Boone read Herman Melville's enigmatic, nearly postmodern novel, he knew he had to do something with it. "I read it as an undergraduate, and I thought, 'This has to be a musical,'" he explained, citing other famous musicals like Show Boat (1927) that also deal with questions of race and American identity on riverboats, albeit with an outlook much brighter and less complex than Melville's.

Boone's musical adaptation was performed at the University of Southern California Village Theater in 2010.

All of the translation work required to bring The Confidence-Man from the page to the stage got Boone thinking about the two questions that have become the centerpieces of his current project about Melville's influence on contemporary art: Why Melville? And why now?

In addition to interviewing numerous contemporary artists who are working with Melville, Boone has collected and studied dozens of Melville-inspired scripts, playbills, images and other pieces.

Take, for example, Rinde Eckert's And God Created Great Whales (2012), one of the pieces Boone has been studying. It's a musical invocation of Melville in which a composer, who is slowly losing touch with reality, attempts to record his ideas and melodies for his last great work – an operatic Moby-Dick – before he forgets them. Boone sees this character as representative of both the power and risk of working with Melville as an artist.

"It's funny – people that get invested in Melville start churning out their own unendable epics. It becomes a monomania," Boone explained, connecting And God Created Great Whales to several other pieces like Matt Kish's epic one-illustration-per-page study of Moby-Dick.

Historical parallels

According to Boone, Melville's genre-mixing writing – (in)famous for its long digressions on whaling technique and cetology interpolated with high-seas adventure –anticipates the postmodern obsession with pastiche, collage and media mixing, an instinct on display in many of the different pieces Boone has been studying.

Because of this, Boone stresses that the works he is looking at are not straight-and-narrow adaptations of Melville's writing for another medium.

Instead, he sees adaptation as a process of analogy. That is, adaptation not only recontextualizes its source (in this case, Melville) but also reflects the contemporary moment.

"Artists take Melville's work as an occasion to stretch boundaries and mix media," according to Boone, a process that could certainly take place at any time, but that Boone argues has a special resonance today.

Boone argues that artists working with Melville today have picked up on parallels in the history of media between the mid-19th century and the early 21st century and incorporated them into their work.

"Melville was coming of age as an author in an era of burgeoning media resources, from the directions newsprint was taking to popular journalism, to New York theater, to traveling exhibitions," Boone explained, giving the challenging style of Melville's novel Pierre as an example. "This compendium of genres that he's drawing on enters into his work, sometimes in a very self-reflexive way. I think we're in a similar climate of multiple stimuli related to media today."

He imagines that the archive of Melville adaptations he is assembling as part of his research might eventually take the form of a website where readers could access Melville in nonlinear ways, looking first at a multimedia adaptation that then provides contextual links to relevant portions of Melville's oeuvre.

Being at the Humanities Center has helped Boone make interdepartmental and interdisciplinary connections that have led to serious progress on the project. "The Center has been a wonderful place to work," he said. "You get an incredible amount of free rein and encouragement."

Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,