Seen & Heard

Amy Kass, AB'62, retired this June after teaching in the College for 34 years. The Core caught up with her shortly following her last class as senior lecturer: Melville's Moby-Dick, cotaught with her husband, Leon Kass, SB'58, MD'62.

What did you cover in the last class?

Two of the biggest questions of the book: who is Moby-Dick or what does he represent, and what are we finally to think of Ahab and his self-appointed mission to chase the whale?

Did you reach any answers?

As in all good discussions, there was no final agreement. In fact, there was heated disagreement, especially about whether we're to admire Ahab or not, and what his mission means. Some admired Ahab's zeal and powers but regarded him, finally, as a madman and a nihilist. Others were far more impressed by his tragic heroism.

Have you taught the book before?

Twice: Once about 15 years ago with Ralph Lerner, and again two years ago by myself.

Has your approach to it changed?

The passages I emphasize may have changed. But, really, the only reason to have taught the book again is that I was sure—and still am sure—that I do not fully understand it. For example, large parts of the book read like a handbook on whales and whaling. But almost every whaling chapter ends with a meditation on life, the soul, God, or the world. How do these things connect? What is Melville saying? So, still not satisfied with my grasp of it, the book remains very much alive for me.

Have you reached that satisfaction with other books?

It's been my experience with one book and one book only. I used to teach the Odyssey all the time. Once I got to the point where I was not particularly interested in hearing what other people had to say, but just wanted to profess, that is, once I realized I was cutting off discussion, not encouraging it, I thought it was time to stop.

During Alumni Weekend, you'll receive the Norman Maclean Faculty Award. What does it mean to you?

I was overwhelmed to be named the recipient of the award and to learn that so many of my former students had nominated me. Many of those students will also be attending the ceremony and, afterwards, honoring both Leon and me at a reception. Many others have been e-mailing me. From out of the blue, students that I had 25 or 30 years ago are writing. I am deeply, deeply honored.