Can a philosophical 600-page, 160-year-old novel about a whale be relevant to today’s 20-somethings? For Daniel Herman ’02, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
A Buddhist, he first read Moby-Dick when he was in monastic practice at California’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He found his life’s focus: discussing literature as a way of accessing the big questions about what it means to be human.
“Moby-Dick is our greatest American book. The language is so incomparably beautiful—winding, mystical passages, lots of alliteration,” says Herman, author of Zen and the White Whale: A Buddhist Rendering of Moby-Dick. He is organizing the first West Coast marathon reading of the Herman Melville classic, to be held at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park next fall.
Herman completed his doctorate with thesis adviser Vincent O’Sullivan, poet laureate of New Zealand, at Victoria University of Wellington. He teaches at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory and Polis, a community of adult learners.
Herman followed sister Lisa Herman ’98 to College Hill, where he learned of a classic text written by the founder of San Francisco Zen Center in Introduction to Buddhism taught by visiting professor Kunihiko Terasawa. He also was inspired to begin sitting meditation. After graduation, he planned to spend a few weeks at the center, but stayed three years.
Ian Smith, professor of English, taught him to be a writer. In Smith’s Shakespeare seminar, the feedback on the class’s first essays was less than glowing, recalls Herman,
but Smith discussed the individual essays with each student in one-on-one sessions.
“That meeting and having to rewrite that essay taught me how to write like an adult and turned me into the writer I am today. Professor Smith would accept nothing less than steadfast effort and engagement, and his lectures turned the opaque into something almost revelatory. The joy and satisfaction of contributing something worthwhile to the discussion, were, in retrospect, the purest distillation of what a college education should be.”