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Author, essayist, and Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco has written extensively on American history and culture. In 2001, he was named ” America’s Best Social Critic” by Time magazine, which said: As a teacher “Delbanco’s contribution…comes with every student he inspires. His model would appear to be Emerson, who ‘like every great teacher,’ as Delbanco once wrote, ‘was in the business of try to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep, habitual sleep.”‘ Delbanco is doing his part to jostle her awake too… Delbanco reads America and its literature so closely and so well, finding so much meaning in our great books, even for 2001—especially for 2001—that we stands worthy of recognition.”
He is the author of The Puritan Ordeal, William Ellery Channing, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil and The Real American Dream. In addition, he edited Writing New England, an anthology, and The Portable Abraham Lincoln, a collection of the president’s writings.
Most recently, Delbanco published Melville: His World and Work, a well-regarded biography of the author of Moby Dick. In another setting Delbanco opines on how and why Melville’s major opus has a new resonance and meaning in the 21st century:
I think Melville understood that Ahab’s genius was his insight into the fact that all of them [the crew of the Pequod] felt that they, too, had been wounded by the world. I think we all feel that we’ve in some way been mistreated or missed a chance or somebody else has gotten something that we deserved. Ahab taps into that feeling, and brings them around so that they become as intent on hunting down and killing that whale as he is…
Up until Sept. 11, I had always presented that chapter in Moby Dick to my students in something like the way I’ve just described it. I’ve always taken the opportunity to point out that it was in the 1930s and 1940s that Melville was discovered as the great genius that we now understand him to be. I think that had something to do with the fact that people alive in those years were witnessing the emergence in Europe of a demagogue who had many of the talents that Ahab did—a mesmerizing speaker, an ability to bring young people around to seeing the world the way he saw.
In making that case, I’m drawn to one particular comment that Melville makes about the whale, in which he says in Moby Dick, “Ahab found evil visibly personified and made practically assailable.” That is, in the whale, in the gigantic body of the white whale, Ahab found a target. He found something one could aim at, one could strike at, through which one could feel a sense of power responding to what the world had done to him.
Of course, that’s what Hitler did in Germany in the 1930s. He explained to the German people that their suffering, their indignity, was all ascribed to one visibly personified and practically assailable enemy, namely, the Jews.