Back Stephen Colbert’s two-minute Moby-Dick lesson is a real roller-coaster ride

The Hollywood blockbuster In the Heart of the Sea failed to make waves, as it were, this past holiday season, but Library of America fans have reason to be grateful for it nonetheless. The film’s release in December prompted late-night TV host Stephen Colbert to invite LOA Trustee Andrew Delbanco onto his program to explain how the real-life events chronicled In the Heart of the Sea helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

The conversation then shifted to the Moby-Dick’s reputation as a, and perhaps the, great American novel. However, mindful of the demands of network television, Colbert asked Delbanco to enlighten him not in front of the studio audience but on the “Nitro” roller-coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey.

Watch the video clip below to see how Delbanco, Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and the author of Melville: His World and Work (2005), bears up to the challenge. Admittedly we’re biased, but given the context, we can only admire Delbanco’s pithy rejoinder: “It was a crazy new country—we needed a crazy new novel. . . . It had to break all the rules of novel-writing.” And it’s safe to say the famous opening line “Call me Ishmael” has never been invoked in circumstances quite like these before.

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