Martina Pfeiler

5D Adaptation and/as Transcodification/2
Session 5 – July 3, 11:00 – 13:00

Transcoding Moby-Dick: Historicizing Herman Melville’s Global Popularity

Ever since A. Burnham Shute’s first visual illustrations of Moby-Dick in 1896, the iconic white has resurfaced in art, popular motion pictures, cartoons, graphic novels, films,
computer games, video clips and fanfiction. As Elizabeth A. Schultz confirms, “Moby-Dick has inspired a staggering variety of mass-produced images […] making it the most continuously,
frequently and diversely visualized of American literary works.” (Schultz in Leroux 332) From a 21st century perpective, Moby-Dick is inextricably intertwined with mediatized and commercialized spaces. This “hypercanonical” (Arac 6) engagement with the literary classic, includes commercially driven “canonical franchise” (Leitch 103), such as tea mugs, bath-towels, toy whales, T-shirts, and card games (see also Inge 1986). These responses increase the global impact of the novel, and they create, as Jeffrey Insko suggests, “the rich public life of Moby-Dick” (21). Thus, in view of this overwhelming material culture, Moby-Dick serves as a prime example to grapple with the fact that “the ways in which literature means something are networked” (Glazener 4).
In the process, the once obscure nineteenth-century novel has been enriched by new modes of “transmedial storytelling” (Hutcheon 2012, xxiv). As these transcodifications of Moby-Dick
historically shape viewer’s cultural imaginaries, my paper seeks to draw attention to the very first popular responses that co-shaped the novel’s rich public life in the early 1920s by way of Elmer
Clifton’s silent motion picture Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) and the Warner Bros. movies The Sea Beast (1926) Moby Dick (1930) and Dämon des Meeres (1931).
Historicizing Moby-Dick and its first mediatized versions helps to see, as Jane Tompkins suggests, that “a literary classic is a product of all those circumstances of which it has traditionally been supposed to be independent” (Tompkins 3-4). In other words, classical literature depends on its readers, creating the value of Moby-Dick that they “discover” (ibid. 149) there and by transcoding them in other media. Thus, I hope to contribute to this conference by offering a critical analysis of the intricate intermedia interplay of the 1920s motion picture industry with Moby-Dick and, thereby, examine how Hollywood filmmakers participated in the construction of Herman Melville’s popularity as part of America’s “individual and/or canonical cultural productions” (Baccilegga 445).


I am currently Associate Professor (PD Dr.) at Ruhr-University, specializing in U.S. American literature, culture, and media. In 2017 I completed my Habilitation at TU Dortmund with a thesis titled
Ahab in Love: The Creative Reception of Moby-Dick in Popular Culture. My publications include Poetry Goes Intermedia: U.S. amerikanische Lyrik des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts aus kultur- und
medienwissenschaftlicher Perspektive
(2010) and Sound of Poetry: Contemporary American Performance Poetry (2003), an edited volume on illustrated slam poetry titled Pott Meets Poetry (2014)
as well as several articles on the intersections of literature, culture, and media. Forth-coming publications include “Warner Bros.’s Moby-Dick Adaptation Dämon des Meeres (1931) as Part of a Transcultural and Textual Network“ Literature/Film Quarterly (Special Edition Spring 2020 edited by Wieland Schwanebeck and Iain Smith) as well as a symposium article titled “Melville and Popular Culture” for the new and revised Wiley-Blackwell A Companion to Herman Meville (2021), edited by Wyn Kelley
and Christophe Ohge (in preparation).