Extractive Nostalgia: Obsolescence and Skeuomorphism in Rockwell Kent’s Moby-Dick co-sponsored with the Center for Visual Cultures

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Elvehjem L150
@ 4:00 pm

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was a flop when it was first published in 1851, but it finally became a hit in 1930, when Lakeside Press issued a new bestselling new edition of the novel with Rockwell Kent’s iconic black and white illustrations. Kent’s images look like wood engravings, but they were actually pen-and-ink drawings made to look likewood engravings. In other words, they were skeuomorphs: objects made in one medium made to look as if fabricated in another, older medium. This lecture explores the politics and aesthetics of Kent’s skeuomorphic illustrations for Moby-Dick, critiquing the way Kent understood his art as an expression of his commitments to communism and labor. Drawn from my first book, Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of U.S. Whaling (UNC Press, 2023), this talk also contextualizes the 1930 edition and the 1851 novel in the massive energy transitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, when the accelerating extraction of fossil fuels gave rise to new regimes of energy and labor.