Testing Literature and Producing Knowledge in Moby-Dick

On October 3, 2017 the English department welcomed Dr. Maurice S. Lee of Boston leeUniversity to present his lecture titled “Testing Literature and Producing Knowledge in Moby-Dick.” Dr. Lee is currently the Hilles Bush Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and is exploring the connections between 19th century literature and that period’s information revolution. His current project, Overwhelming Words: Literature, Aesthetics, and the 19th-Century Information Revolution, informed his talk at URI.

Dr. Lee’s talk and topic seem especially pertinent at this time, as we are undergoing our own information revolution. Much as we feel that there is now more information at our fingertips than ever before, so did many in 19th-century America and Britain. With advancements in print technology and communications such as the telegraph, as well as an abundance of data from statistics, standardized testing, and more, the sense of an accumulation of data was in the air. Information overload was a concern then, just as it is now. Dr. Lee did caution that there may have been comparable situations earlier in history, but the literacy rates allowed more people to participate in this information culture than ever before, setting it off as unique in history. At the same time, literary studies as we know it today was just beginning to form. Looking both of Britain and the United States, as cultures in which similar trends were occurring, the examples came from both sides of the Atlantic during this lecture and allowed Dr. Lee showed how the informational was incorporated into literature, and also how these ideas of quantifiable data and information helped shape the definitions of literary studies as it was becoming a part of academia.

Some of the response to information and literature was not positive, such as satire of professors who boiled literature down to statistics. This type of statistical analysis was popular among a number of scholars, but was also mocked by their students. Another example from Dr. Lee’s work was from study guides for bureaucratic standardized exams: the authors of the guides admitted that literature should not be studied for facts and ultimately memorized, but these authors also argued that students must have a basis in information before further analysis can occur. The tests themselves are also interesting for this, as they could not be open-ended essays, but had to consist of questions that could be marked as correct or incorrect. In the United States, the literature exam was only required for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, though Dr. Lee did not yet know why this was. However, not all were hostile to the ideas of information and the literary or attempting to find a compromise between the two. Many authors were able to find places for both in their own work.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is one text, among many, that seems comfortable with the informational and the literary coexisting. Dr. Lee points out that this begins even before the infamous line, “Call me Ishmael” with the Etymology and Extracts presented before the narrative begins. The “pale usher” dusting his grammars and the “Sub-Sub-Librarian” who appears to have picked up “whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever” can be seen as representative of the informational and the literary respectively. Moby-Dick continues with this blending of the two between the narrative and several chapters seemingly focused on offering us cetology, for example. The novel is such an epic that it tends to offer something for everyone who makes it through to other end—for as many people who skip the chapters on whale species, there are just as many who find those chapter the most engaging—so it is not surprising that it offers both informational and literary sections to the reader.

Dr. Lee’s talk and current project are extremely timely, as we consider the superabundance of information, the effect of tweets and smartphones on attention spans, and assessing student outcomes through quantifiable measures in higher education today. While there was no solution to be offered or magic bullet that literary scholars were able to offer in the 19th century—a linguist was famously chosen over a literary critic at Oxford—it is interesting to see how these same concerns plagued writers, educators, and others in our past. Even more intriguing is seeing how the two drives, the informational and the literary, were balanced to lead to the ultimate goal, knowledge.

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