Wyn Kelley: ‘The Winds Blow Whither They List’

New Media Literacy, Participatory Culture, and the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan

Though the Clerk of the Weather insist,
And lay down the weather-law,
Pintado and gannet they wist
That the winds blow whither they list
In tempest or flaw.

(Herman Melville, “Pebbles I”)


On the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, I studied wind and weather as media, bearing information that anyone can read. I also observed Voyagers involved in a participatory culture that gives new meaning to traditional forms of literacy and acquiring knowledge, such as reading books. These observations have inspired my own practices as a university classroom teacher of literature.

In the nineteenth century and for eons before, sailors and landsmen alike watched the weather for what it might mean.  In the twenty-first century, it is difficult to encounter winds the way Herman Melville and many nineteenth-century sailors knew them—as an ungovernable force informing what Melville called in John Marr (1888) the “implacable sea.”

In his poem “Pebbles,” Melville affirms that sea birds  (pintado petrel, or Cape pigeon, and gannet) have knowledge that many landlubbers lack: “That the winds blow whither they list [like].” In Melville’s poem, wind is a message-bearing medium, conveying information that a fictional “Clerk of the Weather” cannot understand or control except by laying “down the weather-law”—something we call a “weather report.” But then what does the Clerk miss? Melville’s novels and poems awaken a keen sense of weather and wind as compelling us to read directly the signs of our environment—to participate fully in the experience rather than relying on the Clerk’s traditional authority. On the Charles W. Morgan sophisticated wind-literacy informs the crew’s daily practice too: Captain Kip Files reads the wind and transmits his commands to the sailors, who, by hauling or releasing lines, setting or furling sails, altering a course at the helm, or looking out aloft for further signs, translate the wind’s messages into the ship’s responses.  But they don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Users of digital media speak of new media literacy as requiring knowledge of communication tools of the twenty-first century. In classrooms, professions, and subcultures, digital literacy implies a facility with using new software, sites, apps, and methods of reading a digital world that is constantly growing in volume and complexity.  In this landscape, traditional forms of literacy—close silent reading, reading alone, reading the whole of a long text—seem like outmoded skills. But acquiring new media literacy also requires understanding older forms and conveyors of information, including some that readers may have forgotten. My experience on the Morgan gave me new ways of thinking about older media and reminded me of the pedagogical, scholarly, and cultural value of interpreting those literacies in a new-media environment.

Melville’s Moby-Dick provides a test of new media and an opportunity to think creatively about them: it still stands as a marker of cultural literacy in the United States, and the 38th Voyage asserted its continuing relevance in contemporary culture. Ironically, although many Americans agree that Moby-Dick is an important work, such knowledge often makes the book difficult to read. As I have suggested in Herman Melville: An Introduction and in Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom (with Henry Jenkins, et.al.), Moby-Dick is singularly compatible with digital media culture. Perhaps we can read it more as the petrels and gannets read the wind, less like the weather “Clerk.” I hope to present a way of engaging with Melville’s Moby-Dick, in the classroom or in one’s own armchair, that allows readers to follow the book where its winds blow them—not out to sea, presumably, but into meaningful ways of absorbing a verbal text.

In my contribution to the 38th Voyage, I thought about the impact on American culture of whaling and of Herman Melville’s works, building on my experience as a scholar of Melville and of new media literacies. Although Moby-Dick has a central place in American culture, it tends to get treated like a monument, a fixed icon, and even devoted readers can miss subversive aspects of the text: its humor and sensuality, its digressive, nonlinear style, the wickedness that Melville announced in a private letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. But if readers let the book’s winds “blow whither they list,” they may enjoy a remarkably different experience from what they expect. Specifically, they may find reading Moby-Dick a participatory experience, one that gives them freedom to travel over what Melville called “the inhuman Sea.”

Read Wyn Kelley’s complete essay as PDF »