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Winona influence below the surface of Moby-Dick (01/27/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     Rockwell Kent illustrations of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick rescued the book from obscurity. Winonan Carl Ruggles was the model for Captain Ahab. The Rockwell Kent Centennial Celebration will host a symposium with presentations on Kent, Moby-Dick, and Ruggles on Saturday, February 9.

"Winona has a presence in the making of a world classic," said retired Winona State University professor, decorated writer, and current Winona Poet Laureate Emilio DeGrazia.

DeGrazia will give a presentation on "Kent's Moby-Dick" at the Rockwell Kent Centennial Celebration's symposium on February 9. The symposium features presentations from four Kent experts and will take place at Winona State University's Stark Hall from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

The classic DeGrazia is referring to is Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, and its Winona connection is twofold. The famous artist Rockwell Kent lived in Winona before illustrating Moby-Dick, and Kent's illustrations of perhaps the book's most iconic figure, Captain Ahab, are based on Carl Ruggles, who was then director of the Winona Symphony and author of the first history of Winona State University.

What is more, Kent rescued Moby-Dick from the cobwebs of history. "The Kent illustrations gave the book an enormous lift from obscurity," DeGrazia said. Melville wrote Moby-Dick in 1881, and it was a "commercial failure." "Moby-Dick was pretty much a forgotten book," DeGrazia said. When Melville died in 1891 his obituary was "this big," DeGrazia said, holding up two nearly-pinched fingers.

In 1930, however, a Chicago publishing company asked Rockwell Kent to illustrate a different sea epic, R.H. Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast. Instead, Kent, a rare Melville fan, insisted on illustrating Moby-Dick. The publisher gave in and Kent's images of the grim-faced Ahab and the fantastically huge Moby-Dick lurking beneath whaling vessels captivated readers and made the book a "regular American classic," according to DeGrazia.

Kent's images, DeGrazia says, make the work accessible (or at least seemingly accessible) to popular audiences. "Moby-Dick is a really hard book. It's a long, complicated, dense book full of different voices and meditations, philosophical musings, and humor. In short, it is very complicated." The Kent illustrations got at "the elemental features" of the story and "simplified the story visually," DeGrazia said.

The pages of the 1930 edition are stuffed with Kent's illustrations, inviting comparisons to modern graphic novels. Coincidently, DeGrazia happens to own a comic-book version of Moby-Dick and a pop-up book version, as well.

"If you don't understand the writing, you can look at the pictures," DeGrazia said of the Kent edition of Moby-Dick.

The other symposium presentations include "Rockwell Kent and Carl Ruggles," "Let's Get to Work! Rockwell Kent: The Build," and "Rockwell Kent the Artist." More information is available at www.rockwellkentwinona.org. 


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