Tuesday, May 01, 2007

"Moby-Dick" should be Mass. state book, kids say.

Today's New Bedford Standard-Times reports on the efforts of a group of Pittsfield fifth-graders to make Herman Melville's Moby-Dick Massachusetts' official state book. For the benefit of the non-initiated, I should explain that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a long - and, in my opinion, admirable - tradition by which elementary school classes petition the legislature to add a particular item to what the Massachusetts General Laws call the "Emblems of the Commonwealth." The paradigmatic example of this sort of petition, which is intended to teach schoolchildren about the legislative process, may be found in "The Ladybug Story," which tells of the successful efforts of a second-grade class in Franklin to have the ladybug declared "the insect or insect emblem of the Commonwealth," i.e., the state bug. Thanks to similar petitions, the Commonwealth has an official dog (the Boston terrier), an official cat (the tabby), an official folk hero (Johnny Appleseed), an official rock (the Roxbury puddingstone), an official historical rock (Plymouth Rock), an official explorer rock (Dighton Rock), an official berry (the cranberry), an official cookie (the chocolate chip cookie), an official children's book (Robert McCloskey's Make Way for the Ducklings) and an official children's author (Dr. Seuss, who was a Bay State native). These are only a few from a much longer list available online.

"Official emblem" petitions are generally fairly innocuous, and they often become laws if their legislative sponsors are willing to go to bat for them. However, some of these petitions have excited their fair share of controversy. For example, the proposal to make the chocolate chip cookie the official cookie of the Commonwealth ran into opposition from some who felt that the Fig Newton should get the designation instead. Chocolate chip cookies and Fig Newtons were both invented in Massachusetts, and the battle basically pitted legislators from the South Shore (home of the original chocolate chip cookie) against their colleagues from Boston's Western suburbs (where the Fig Newton originated). The Fig Newton crowd didn't have a leg to stand on, as anyone with a good memory for old TV commercials could've told them that the Fig Newton is not a cookie but "fruit and cake." A good compromise measure might have been to make the chocolate chip cookie the Commonwealth's official cookie and then to declare the Fig Newton the official "fruit and cake" of the Commonwealth. Surprisingly, this didn't occur to the solons at the State House, and the Fig Newton fans were sent empty away.

Returning to the matter at hand, the proposal to make Moby-Dick the official book of the Commonwealth strikes me as a very good one. Though I sympathize with the many readers who've had to struggle through Moby-Dick against their will, I am a fan of the book and am proud of the fact that its opening chapters are set in the city where I was born. I also believe that designating Moby-Dick as the official state book would help unite the Commonwealth. Set partly in Southeastern Massachusetts, Moby-Dick was written in Western Massachusetts (in Pittsfield, where the students currently lobbying for the book live) by an author who, though born in New York, came from old Boston stock. The same claim cannot be made for Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which the Standard-Times article suggests as a potential competitor to Moby-Dick for "official state book" status. Written by a native of Concord and set in the same town, Walden lacks the ability to unite Bay Staters of various stripes as Moby-Dick can. The idea of making Walden the official book of the Commonwealth might appeal to the same solons who wanted to make the Fig Newton the official state cookie, but I hope it doesn't appeal to anyone else. Then again, as the Standard-Times notes, "the field for this particular honor [of official state book] could become awfully crowded" if one considers the works of other great Massachusetts writers like Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. One way or another, I commend the fifth-grade supporters of the Moby-Dick "official state book" petition, and I hope this exercise teaches them something about the legislative process. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home