Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Moby Dick, Rockwell Kent and I

I just finished watching Frederick Lewis' superb Dundee Road Productions documentary on the life of Rockwell Kent, the artist, author, adventurer, activist and erstwhile farmer. If you haven't seen the program implore your local PBS station to run it again and again, because I am sure that you (like I) will get more and more out of it with each viewing.

For example, this recent viewing reminded me of a curious connection I developed as a child with Rockwell Kent although I would never meet the man.

Growing up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon in the forties and fifties was a bit of a struggle for our family. My mother wanted a career in teaching English Literature at the university level, so while she pursued that career my father remained at home and rode herd on the four of us kids.

Money, to say the least, was tight. But, we got by. There were no frills, however, no television, no car (for the first few years anyway), no fancy birthday gifts and no traveling summer vacation. We did have a radio. But it worked best only after sundown when the big 50,000 watt stations dominated the airwaves.

We also had a lot of books. So whenever I got bored, I was encouraged to read a book. This suggestion began way before I could read anything, so I quickly learned which books in our vast library of second hand dreams had pictures in them.

One of my favorite of these illustrated delights was a rather large dog-eared copy of Herman Melville's Moby Dick with illustrations by Rockwell Kent.

I spent many a winter night, with the rain lashing at my leaky bedroom window, leafing through the pages of Moby Dick to gaze for hours at the full page Rockwell Kent prints which adorned the book. It never occurred to me to actually try and read the book. That would have taken months, help from at least one willing adult, and hence it would have also taken all the fun out the story. Because, you see, I could actually follow the story by absorbing every detail of the stark, crisp, black and white creations of the artist.

I enjoyed the prints of Rockwell Kent in our copy of Herman Melville's Moby Dick more than any other "picture book" in our rag tag library. I got so comfortable with the story through the pictures, in fact, that I actually had the nerve to submit a book report years later on the story solely from what I had gleaned from Kent's incredible artwork. I got an "A" on the book report as well as a suspicious, sidelong glance from my teacher.

One afternoon late in December my mother announced that we were all going to the movies that night. A family outing for anything was a rare and wonderful treat, but a night at the movies was almost as good as Christmas! We ate an early dinner and then all packed into the newly acquired (but very used ) 1949 Plymouth for the ride to the Bagdad Theater.

We were going to see the newly re-released Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck.

The movie was great! In wide screen and full color, with lots of thrashing about on the part of Captain Ahab, who spent most of the movie lashed to the Great Whale!

On the way home that night, with the soggy snow splashing at the windshield, my dad asked us how we liked the movie. My two sisters were asleep, cuddled up together to my right in the back seat of the second hand Plymouth, so it was up to me to answer. "It was really great!." I said with as much enthusiasm my sleepy brain could muster. "But it wasn't as good as the book!"

There, in two short sentences I had become a critic. But more importantly I had intuitively realized that all the goings on of Ishmael and his mysterious companion Queequeg, all the gyrations of the Great Whale, Captain Ahab and his crew aboard The Pequod flashing across the huge CinemaScope screen could not compare to the imagination and passion that clearly went into the carving of every single wood block illustration in the printed form of Moby Dick. Our copy of the book was the story of a grand adventure, full of pictures more vivid, more dramatic, more creative than any movie, stunningly detailed in a single publication which I could pull down from the shelf and take to bed. And best of all, I could hold the whole amazing story and everyone in it, the ship, the whale, the crew, the entire ocean, all vividly depicted in stunning black and white images created by Rockwell Kent. And I could hold every bit of it in my own two hands.


  1. Could you be the same Derek that was a Motion Picture instructor at the Army Photo School at Fort Mommoth, New jersey back in 67 - 68?

  2. The very same!
    Who are you??