The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Crack fellows all #3

...crack fellows all, and capital from boot-heels to hat-band.
                                                                                       - Chapter 101

Shoko at MDM16

I'd be surprised to see Shoko at MDM17. When I met her at MDM16, she was on a one-year sabbatical from a "small, private university" in Japan, where she teaches "American culture." She asked the Friday-night panel of scholars about Fedallah as an Asian stereotype, but the format of "Stump the Scholars" didn't permit a full exploration of the issue. Pity.

After five months in Buffalo, Shoko was on her way to NYU. She was looking forward to meeting her son in New York.

It was Shoko who hipped me to the Frederick Douglass Marathon — Thank You and Best of Luck to you and your family!

(Details of the 2013 Frederick Douglass Marathon will be posted in January.)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A four-letter word to the wise

courtesy of ksbuehler
Buried in today's newsletter from the Whaling Museum was this note:
Food and beverages will be sold on site to keep you well-fed and hydrated.
That four-letter word, "sold," marks a change from previous Marathons, where chowder dinners were served at 6 P.M., and snacks and coffee/tea/cider were available through the night — all, generously, free of charge. My guess would be that this change is due to the loss of the grant from the Department of Education. We'll have to wait till the MDM for the details.

Mind you, I'm not criticizing the museum for this change. To quote Tom Waits, "things are tough all over." Just a heads-up to returning marathoners to bring some extra cash (or your own snacks).

Get Ready!

MDM17 is just two weeks away!

Check out this post from last year for the what/where/how of the Moby-Dick Marathon.

At present, the New Bedford Marriott has vacancies for Marathon weekend. If you can't make it in person, watch the video stream, live from noon Saturday until about 1 P.M. Sunday.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Restoration of the Charles W. Morgan

Charles W. Morgan
courtesy of Ian.macky
Built in 1841, the Charles W. Morgan is the world's oldest surviving merchant vessel (according to Wikipedia), and the world's last wooden whaleship. Since 1941, "she" has been in the care of Mystic Seaport.

Restoration of the Morgan's framing and planking began in 2008. The plan is to relaunch the Morgan in July, 2013. Read about the work at the Preservation magazine website.

Another hat-tip to brother T.!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Crack fellows all #2

...crack fellows all, and capital from boot-heels to hat-band.
                                                                                       - Chapter 101

Larry & sons at MDM16

Bleary-eyed at the end of MDM16
Interesting guy, Larry. A psychiatrist on Long Island, he drove up with his sons, Eric and Brian, for their second (at least) Marathon. If you stayed for the entire reading, you heard his "New Yawk" accent at the podium, and saw the trio in their sleeping bags in the wee hours.

If you've ever wondered about the motivations of Ahab, Ishmael, or any of the others, talk to Dr. Larry. He's given M-D a lot of thought. (His take on the Town Ho story is that it's a mirror image of the story of the Pequod and its crew.)

As a psychiatrist, Larry is equipped to illuminate aspects of M-D the rest of us might overlook. Have you ever thought about Ahab's mother? She's mentioned once (Chapter 16), but the Doctor finds clues there that explain Ahab's later-life "issues."

If you see Dr. Larry, Eric, and Brian at MDM17, say hi.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Crack fellows all

...crack fellows all, and capital from boot-heels to hat-band.
                                                                                       - Chapter 101

Rhonda at MDM16

I bumped into Rhonda in the break room a bit before dawn. She was agitated, excited; nervously paging through the M-D chapter she expected to read. (Such expectations are rarely met, due to the differences in speed and quality of the readers who precede you, and the judgement of the volunteer "officer of the watch" then on duty.)

Rhonda is a local textile artist with her studio in New Bedford. She's also a fan of Nathaniel Philbrick. After years working in the city, she thought she'd take a shot at the Marathon. She had never read M-D, but prepared by listening to the book on tape (repeatedly) while working.

If you see Rhonda at MDM17, say hi.

BTW, her reading was just fine.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Kendall Collection 2001.100.2658

This decrepit bench on display in the Whaling Museum caught my eye. I showed the photo to brother T. and he identified it immediately: a sailmaker's bench!

T. worked at Hood Sailmakers back in the 80's when they had offices in Marblehead, MA. He was in the "handwork" department then, crafting and repairing sails in a large, open "sail loft" overlooking an arm of the harbor. The photos show the back of the bench, he explained. You sit with your legs opposite the bags of parts and supplies, your tools (mallet, fids, probers, awl,...) in the tray/holes at your right, needles stuck into that chunk of wood at the end. In front of your bench you'd have your "block," a large, free-standing piece of wood. The block functioned like an anvil for tasks like punching holes in sails to sew in rings.

courtesy: Elgewen
Each handworker had a "palm" to push a needle through multiple layers of sailcloth. T. had a hard-to-find left-handed palm. (He still has pain at the base of his left thumb.)

T. was working at the tail end of the tail end of the golden age of handwork. Computer-guided laser cutters were just coming in when the Marblehead loft closed. Until then there were after-work rum libations at Maddie's, and Friday afternoon keggers in the parking lot. Each December, workers scoured the loft for trashed metal parts to sell to the ironmonger — proceeds were used to decorate the loft's Christmas tree with mini bottles of booze. Ah, how comforting are the holiday traditions!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reports from the NYC "Marathon"

Credit: Postdlf at the English language Wikipedia
Family commitments kept me from the "1st Ever NYC Marathon-Style Reading" of M-D, but here are two post-mortems: one from the N.Y. Daily News, and another from the "online news magazine," Capital.

From these reports we get a glimpse of the effect of location on the character of a M-D marathon. It seems the NY event was more self-conscious (and celebrity-aware) than the New Bedford event, with audience members and readers (!) freely commenting peanut-gallery-style — something that is all but unthinkable at our marathon. This difference may be, as Lemuel posited in a previous post, a result of vestigial "Calvinist mind-habits" among New Englanders.

One striking detail: the NY audience felt free to bring cans of beer, and to open them audibly during the reading. I doubt the Whaling Museum staff, or audience, would tolerate such a breach of decorum. (I have heard that alcoholic grog was available at the New Bedford marathon in its early years, until too many locals began coming just for the "party.")

Organizers intend to make the NY reading an annual event. Next year's is scheduled for November 15-17.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Save the MDM

courtesy of Elizabeth Ellis
The Whaling Museum sent out a letter last week:
This year, due to the abrupt elimination of a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education which historically underwrote the costs of this event, we are seeking the support of past readers and MDM enthusiasts.
The live streaming, the PA system and audio techs, the maintenance staff who keep the place functioning through the night — it all costs money.

Even a few dollars will help. See the "Support" notice on the Museum's MDM17 page.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Prepare to Read at MDM17

Email or call Monday to reserve a spot on the list of readers for January's Marathon.

From the online event calendar at the New Bedford Whaling Museum:
Anyone interested in being a reader during the 2013 Moby Dick Marathon, to be held on January 5&6, can email or call at 12:01 am, Monday, November 12. The email address is The phone number is (508) 717-6851.

For other information you can contact Robert Rocha (508) 717-6849.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries...

Overshadowed by "Howl"

Listening today to the podcast of BBC's Witness (the most consistently interesting nine minutes on radio and a sterling example of public broadcasting), I was reminded that Allen Ginsberg was not the only poet reading at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955.

Michael McClure presented three poems, including For the Death of 100 Whales — way ahead of his time in environmental awareness. Listen to him read it at 6:35...

Text of the poem can be found here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Google's Homage

Today's background image at
Google today remembers the publication of M-D (in London, 161 years ago) with the above background image on its search page.

Another hat-tip to brother #3, T. (I've abandoned Google for!)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Moby-Dick Marathon in NYC!

If you can't wait for January's (preeminent) M-D marathon in New Bedford, there will be a "marathon-style" reading in New York City next month.

Broken into four sessions over the course of three days, it will start Friday, November 16 at 5 P.M. at Word bookstore in Brooklyn.

Details are being released on  It appears that readers ("crew" in this marathon's parlance) were recruited from NYC's community of writers and "book people." Sarah Vowell was the only name I recognized immediately (from her days on This American Life).  Searching on some of the more distinctive names revealed details:
I'm interested to hear what these representatives of the literary world of NYC, arguably the world's current art omphalos, bring to our treasured text.

Hat-tip to brother #3, T.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Chapter-a-day audio streams

Prime yourself for MDM17 with a chapter-a-day streamed to your PC or downloaded to your MP3 player. (These readings are worth saving.)

The Moby Dick Big Read includes as readers some big names from British film and theater, such as Tilda Swinton, Simon Callow, Stephen Fry—and they're only up to Chapter 16!

Hat-tip to Henry Ferrini (filmmaker behind Polis is This, which interprets the work of Charles Olson).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Get it out of your system...

Courtesy of Dunechaser
If you plan to be a reader at the upcoming Moby-Dick Marathon, today's the day to purge your urge to grunt and growl at the podium — it's International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Face it, you ain't no Gregory Peck. So when it's your turn to read at MDM17, you can leave out the hoarse shouts and fake English accent.

We at Ahab Beckons thank you for your restraint.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Today in History

On this date in 1850 Herman bought, from "Dr. John Brewster, Sr., the farm adjoining the Broadhall estate in the rear." This was the Pittsfield farm that Melville later named Arrowhead.

Parker's biography describes the transaction in vol. 1, p. 778. Herman persuaded his father-in-law to give him "three thousand dollars against Lizzie's [his wife] inheritance" so that he could buy 160 acres and a house for $6500.

Returning to our trusty tool, we find that $6500 in 1850 had the "purchasing power" of $187,000 in 2010. Make of that what you will. Today, Broadhall, once the farm of Herman's uncle (Thomas Melvill, Jr.)  is a tony country club.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The MDC at Arrowhead

I was fortunate to catch William Petit at Arrowhead, talking about his renowned Moby Dick Collection. It was great to finally meet the man behind one of my "must read" blogs.

Mr. Petit spent the morning in Melville's study creating a watercolor of the view out toward Mt. Greylock. (His painting is visible in the left corner of the photo above.) Later he talked about the genesis of his collection, the surprises encountered, and the insights gleaned in the process of accumulating over 200 copies of Moby-Dick.

His current white whale is a braille edition. As John Hartford sang, "Next time you go to the attic, look and see what you got."

Friday, August 24, 2012

Happy Duplicates

...they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates...
                           - Chapter 107

I'm looking forward to Bill Petit's talk at Arrowhead this weekend (details in this post). He is the keeper of The Moby Dick Collection, an ever-growing stockpile of hard-copy editions of our cherished text.

Highlights of the collection are posted on his blog — old and new, hardcover and paperback, English and "non" (Estonian anyone?).

He muses over the various illustrations of Ahab (right-pegged or left?).

He is especially fond of copies that indicate the reader's relationship with the book. Why did Judith Spiegler cease her underlinings on page 240? How did tenth-grader Douglas Rogers feel about receiving M-D as a mathematics prize (circa 1949)? Did young Vermonter "Pete H." ever finish the novel, after repeated renewals from the Flynn School library? What's with the teeth marks on this 1942 Dodd, Mead & Co.?

I suspect that most of us Melvillians have our own, smaller, "Moby-Dick Collections" — editions we've adopted out of a sense of pity, or lust.

Of what use is such a "collection" of apparent duplicates? One benefit was driven home after the Scholar Chats at MDM16 [long-story alert]...

Professor Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (U. Conn.) had asked the group if we ever wondered why there were so many duplicates in M-D: two departure ports (New Bedford and Nantucket), two inns, two innkeepers, two would-be mentors (Bulkington and Queequeg) , two (or three) captains (Bildad, Peleg, Ahab) ...and why does Bulkington disappear after the first hundred-or-so pages?

Northwestern University professor Harrison Hayford, she said, had written a paper explaining why.

Back home, the question became, where to find Hayford's paper? A bit of Web searching revealed that it is included in the Norton Critical Edition, 2nd Edition. Hey, I have a copy of that! Picked it up for 50¢ at a library book sale, mostly for the rigging diagrams.

Those "duplicate" M-Ds are anything but unnecessary.

BTW, Hayford's Unnecessary Duplicates is fascinating. He deduces Melville's process of composition from the appearance of "duplicates" and details of word choice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Herman's 193rd

courtesy of jasonlam
Remembering our man, born 11:30 P.M. on Sunday, August 1, 1819, at 6 Pearl Street, NYC.
Here's Google's view of that location today:

View Larger Map

Monday, July 23, 2012

The gam that changed literature - July 23, 1841?

In all Melville's life he is not known to have so intricately tangled up so much misapprehension and misinformation as he did about Owen Chase.
                                               - Hershel Parker, Melville, v.1, p. 197
The details of Melville's acquisition of a copy of Owen Chase's Narrative, and the confused notes he made in it are worth reading. The story involves Judge Shaw's connections in Nantucket, a whale-man mistaken for Owen Chase, and the "surprising effect" the Narrative had on young Herman, about to turn 22 years old and hunting whales in the same ocean where the Essex was sunk by a vengeful sperm whale. See Parker's Melville, pp. 196-199 and Parker's notes on Melville's notes in the Norton Critical Edition of M-D, 2nd ed., p. 571.
On 23 July 1841 the Lima of Nantucket gammed with the Acushnet... ...this may have been the occasion when he [Melville] met a son of the famous Owen Chase, and first held a copy of Chase's Narrative.
                                               - Hershel Parker, Melville, v.1, p. 196
So, one hundred seventy-one years ago today may have been Melville's first reading of Chase's horrific encounter with a sperm whale.  Ten years later, the fruit of that seed was ripe.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Events to Note @ Arrowhead

Herman Melville's Arrowhead, The Berkshires, MA
If you can make it to Arrowhead this summer, here are two events to catch (part of the Call Me Melville celebrations).

On July 29, at 11 A.M., Dr. Wyn Kelley (noted Melvillian and M.I.T. professor) will read and discuss The Piazza Tales, on the "piazza" of the title. (Bring bug spray.) Dr. Kelley is sure to deepen your appreciation of these stories.

On August 25, Bill Petit (of The Moby Dick Collection) will be at Arrowhead to discuss and paint(!). At 10 A.M. he'll be painting scenes around the property. At 2 P.M. he will be in the barn to talk about his impressive collection, 200 volumes and growing.

Addendum, 7/18/12: If you have a couple of days to spare, make your stop at Arrowhead part of a Melville tour. This 1986 article in the NY Times highlights some nearby points of interest.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Halfway to MDM17

At midnight tonight we'll be midway between MDMs—halfway to the next Moby-Dick Marathon, MDM17. (That is, if we assume MDM17 will follow the museum's recent pattern of launching the Marathon on the first weekend after New Year's Day.)

Clear the decks and mark your calendar.

Heed the advice of this post—take Monday (1/7/13) off and book a room for the night of the close of the Marathon (1/6/13).  New Bedford and neighboring Fairhaven have a number of hotels and B&Bs. The fine Fairfield Inn & Suites is a three-block walk from the Whaling Museum. You'll spot some luminaries of Melville studies at breakfast there.

Lemuel and I will keep an eye on the Whaling Museum's website for definitive schedule info.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012

The exhilarating film culture of the sixties and seventies would have been much less so without the informed insights of Andrew Sarris, who died yesterday. His column in the Village Voice was the reason I subscribed. (If I recall correctly, his review of a Woody Allen movie bore the headline: "What more do you want, and who else is even trying?") Scan the titles in this compilation of over forty years of Sarris Top Ten lists and dream of a time when movies mattered.

His influential survey, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, mentioned John Huston's film of Moby-Dick, unflatteringly, in the chapter Less Than Meets the Eye:
The turning point in Huston's career was probably Moby Dick. In retrospect, he should have acted Ahab himself and let Orson Welles direct. This was his one gamble with greatness, and he lost, and like the cagey poker player he is, he has been playing it cool and corrupt ever since.
Just reporting, not agreeing; although the idea of a Welles-directed M-D is such stuff as dreams are made on.

One for the bibliophiles

Here's one for Bill Petit and other lovers of the good ole, physical book.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The other end of the spectrum

A Low-Key Bloomsday Mini-Marathon

Bloomsday 2012
Click for a few snaps from the Ramble
Just back from the 17th Annual "Worcester Ramble," a day of readings from Joyce's Ulysses, staged at various locations throughout the city (Worcester, MA). Although only a few  months older than our beloved Moby-Dick Marathon (which turns 17 in January, 2013), they are quite different events.

First, the text. The Ramble doesn't even attempt to read the entire text of its target tome. Ulysses is about the same length as M-D, but it's hard (for me) to imagine any audience sitting through its entirety.  Joyce's stream-of-consciousness style — the non-sequiturs, invented words, oddball punctuation, etc. — and stylistic experiments — the language of Chapter 14 evolves through Latinate classical medieval, Germanic pre-Norman, High medieval, Renaissance,...  — may make the text interesting to read, but seem to make it less engaging to listen to. The abstruse references to Irish popular culture circa 1904 don't help its accessibility either.

Also, the story of Ulysses is less conventionally dramatic than that of M-D: a middle-aged advertising salesman and a twenty-something intellectual slacker wander around Dublin for a day, meeting each other after midnight, and returning to the elder's house to crash while the wife is upstairs basking in the glow her recent affair. Not at all like the apocalyptic confrontation that is the climax of irresistible Ahab meeting immovable Moby Dick ("from hell's heart I stab at thee..."). Many of us boomers were exposed to M-D in school or on TV, and the opportunity to painlessly familiarize ourselves with the text is tempting. Not so with Ulysses. Although John Huston directed a very fine version of Joyce's short-story The Dead, a creditable film version of Ulysses is yet to be made. (Perhaps the missing factor is a Ray Bradbury adaptation?)

Next, the venue. The MDM is truly blessed with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, its building as well as its staff and volunteers. Within the museum the MDM takes advantage of several "locations," and we merely have to walk across the street to experience Father Mapple's sermon in a chapel that was rebuilt in the image of John Huston's film set. The Ramble's audience numbers only about twenty, so organizers are free to lead us to locations throughout Worcester that are "evocative" of places in Dublin: a stone tower, a period cemetery, and a couple of pubs. (I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint...)

Bloomsday 2012
Finally, the size of the audience. By design or by fate, the Ramble is very much a small event. It has a DIY feel, a flexibility which the sleek vessel that is the MDM could not accommodate. The Ramble's organizers schedule a different set of chapters each year, but the group isn't hesitant to suggest changes as the day progresses. The quality of the readings is variable at both marathons, but the Ramble audience feels free to call out help with pronunciations or make extra-textual remarks; given the small numbers, these are tolerable disturbances. And while we have to suffer the hoarse, snarling shouts of some faux-salts at the MDM (dude, it's not Talk Like A Pirate Day!), there were no fake Irish accents heard at the Ramble, saints be praised.

Ulysses is much more focused on a particular day than Moby-Dick is focused on January 3, or on the city of New Bedford. Like Christmas, Bloomsday is one of those festivals that cannot be moved to the nearest weekend. The Ramble continues to be held on June 16, regardless of the day of the week.

If you're trapped in the cultural gravitational field of Boston or Northampton, keep an eye on the Worcester County Poetry Association, especially as Sunday, June 16, 2013 approaches.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury died yesterday at age 91. (Read his obituary on the NY Times site.) How many people, of how many countries, across two or three generations, first encountered Melville's story through Bradbury's screenplay?

As noted in a previous post, there's an enlightening 2008 interview in which Mr. Bradbury discusses his work with director John Huston on the 1956 film.

Astute readers know that this blog owes its title not to Melville, but to Mr. Bradbury.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer of Melville in the Berkshires!

A slate of Melville-themed events is coming to Pittsfield, MA this summer. From the Call Me Melville site:
This summer (from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend 2012) we’re celebrating Melville’s life and writings, and bringing them vividly to life for a new generation of readers as well as for all those whose first acquaintance with this vibrant writer left something to be desired.
Keep an eye out for an exhibit and talk by Bill Pettit (of The Moby Dick Collection), to be presented at Arrowhead.

If you're not fortunate enough to live in Pittsfield (declared "Best place for single retirees" by US News & World Report!), you can participate in Moby Dick Daily. Billed as "a chapter-a-day online community read-along," this is some kind of networked group-read of M-D for the Facebook-&-Twitter generation. (Yes, I'm considering the recommendation of USN&WP.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Latest News from the Feejees - 6

The second episode of the second series of BBC mysteries, Sherlock  (The Hounds of Baskerville), aired in the US tonight. It opens with Holmes bursting into his flat (at 221B, of course), blood-spattered and carrying a fine, toggle-headed harpoon(!).

Watson: You went on the tube like that?
Holmes: None of the cabs would take me!

So, what's the deal with the harpoon? Did I miss something?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Maurice Sendak on Melville

As a tribute to Maurice Sendak, Fresh Air yesterday broadcast portions of several past interviews. Melvillians will know Mr. Sendak's cover art for both volume one and volume two of Hershel Parker's essential biography. (Mr. Parker has posted a collection of personal photos of Maurice Sendak on his blog.)

Mr. Sendak expressed a warm appreciation for interviewer Terry Gross, and it is a joy and a sorrow to listen to the entire 45-minute broadcast. For Melville-centric us, there is a nugget at 26:25.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Melville is the one that should keep novelists up at night

A segment in last Friday's broadcast of On the Media (20 Apr 12) caught my ear. In it, writer Tom Bissell recounts how "random events can rule the destinies of the greatest works of art."

The works of Franz Kafka, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and our Herman might have been forgotten, even lost, but for something as arbitrary as a particular person wandering into a used book store.

Melville is the one that I think should keep novelists up at night.

Bissell tells how Moby-Dick was "a resounding un-success" when first published, selling "three thousand copies over its thrity-six years in print." (Does that count sales in England?) By the turn of the 20th Century it was unpublished and unread. Sometime in the early 1900's, "according to the legend," critic Carl Van Doren found a copy of M-D in a used book store, recognized it as a masterwork, and wrote about it. A Melville renaissance followed — his books were brought back into print and have stayed in print since.

The essay that started it all was gathered into Van Doren's study, The American Novel, published in 1921, with a second edition in 1940. Copyright on the 1921 edition has expired; you can find it online.

If you're interested in the current state of the publishing business as it confronts e-readers, copyright extensions, Amazon's under-pricing, and knock-off books (such as "I Am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," not by Stieg Larsson), listen to the entire program.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Appreciation of Karen Allen

I was surprised not to see Karen Allen, past Event Director of the Whaling Museum, at January's MDM. She was at all my previous Marathons, in "friendly housemother" mode, making sure the sleepover party that is the MDM didn't get out of control. (No food on the balcony while the exhibits are open!) She's moved on, but the museum staff I spoke with didn't know where.

At my first MDM, when I was ignorant of the sign-up list for those who intended to stay for the entire reading, Ms. Allen noticed me bleary-eyed on Sunday morning and made sure that I got the recognition gift, and Peter Whittemore handshake, accorded to folks who completed the voyage. I would like to have seen her work this year's record crowds.

She has a sound bite in this promotional video. As The Great Durante would say, Good night Ms. Allen, wherever you are.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Beckett's 106th

Samuel Beckett, born on this day, in 1906.

At the age of 26 he read Moby-Dick, and wrote to his close friend Tom MacGreevy, "That's more like the real stuff. White whales and natural piety." (Damned to Fame, James Knowlson, 1996.)

And a slightly-relevant quote from Molloy:
There are people the sea doesn't suit, who prefer the mountains or the plain. Personally I feel no worse there than anywhere else. ... And I too once went forth on it, in a sort of oarless skiff, but I paddled with an old bit of drifwood. And I sometimes wonder if I ever came back, from that voyage. For if I see myself putting to sea, and the long hours without landfall, I do not see the return, the tossing on the breakers, and I do not hear the frail keel grating on the shore.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The 16th New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon -- Scholar "Chats"

photo: Metro Library and Archive
For the second year in a row, the Marathon offered "Chat with a Melville Scholar." The scholars were available in a side-gallery, for two hours Saturday afternoon and one hour Sunday morning. I imagined this as sort of a visit to the library's reference desk — you ask your question, get your answer, and move on — but it turned out to be much more.

On Saturday I walked in on scholars Wyn Kelley (M.I.T.) and Timothy Marr (UNC), engaged in a free-form discussion with a small knot of marathoners. Ms. Kelley called me over to join the group. Other marathoners, as well as scholars Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (U. of Conn.) and Chris Sten (George Washington U.), wandered in until the circle swelled to over twenty.

There followed a sort of Master Class on "Moby-Dick and other matters arising," with insights voiced from all quarters. Among the "audience" were several students of literature, and a number of amateurs who clearly had given M-D a lot of thought. (Marathoners are fascinating people.)

Scribbling notes as fast as I could, I walked away with "leads" that could occupy this Melville dilettante for months:
  • The Art of Fielding; fiction, somehow relevant
  • seek out Lisa Norling's history of whalers' wives
  • something about the 1919 centennial of Herman's birth, biographer Raymond Weaver, and his connection to Maria Melville (HM's mother)
  • Eleanor Melville Metcalf (HM's granddaughter) shared Herman's papers with biographers to fuel the "Melville Revival" of the 1920s. (Wyn Kelley has a paper about this, available online.)
  • M-D could be read as a poem; Melville's poem Clarel is significant
  • something about Hassidic texts' "holy life point" in all creatures
  • an interesting digression concerning Irish authors
  • something about Irish writer Walter Macken (sp?) and his poem "The Great Pyramid"
  • relevant: Whitman's poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
  • In Chapter 24, The Advocate, Ishmael's voice changes from that of greenhand to shipwreck survivor
  • M-D as "The Book of Ishmael," scripture of the final religion
  • When was Ishmael recounting his story (M-D)? Where? In Lima?
  • see "the Ibis trilogy" by Gaosh
  • Freud's writings similar in some ways to M-D
  • Freudian analysis of Ahab; in Chaper 119, The Candles, Ahab asks the Almighty, "what did you do with my mother?"
  • Ahab as the hero, as he "rages against mortality," going up against something "epically monstrous"
The scholars displayed their pedagogic talents, too, drawing each of us into the discussion, and considering all comments with respect. Those "rock stars" of Melville scholarship treated us as colleagues, or at least coreligionists.

I made sure to join the group again on Sunday. Although many in the group were enervated from all-night marathoning, this session was even meatier. There was a long (and long-overdue) discussion of what we might charitably call the racially insensitive passages in M-D. (From the looks on people's faces, it seemed several of us would have liked to consider this topic further.)

Then came a bomb.

Someone asked, "What did Steelkilt say to the captain?" (in Chapter 54, The Town-Ho's Story).

Ms. Berkaw-Edwards told us that there were stories of a woman in the days of sail who disguised herself as a man and joined a crew in the forecastle. "He" was reportedly the toughest seaman (sea-person?) on the ship. The disguise was only discovered when "he" was about to be flogged for some infraction. (Lemuel might have more to post about this.)

A scholarly marathoner added to this shocker, positing that Gabriel of Chapter 71, The Jeroboam's Story, was Steelkilt after "he" had left the Town-Ho. Gabriel's coat is described so as long-skirted, and it was the crew of the Town-Ho that told the tale of Gabriel to the Pequod's crew.

My head was spinning as we returned to the reading in the atrium. Melvillians, both professional and amateur, know that M-D contains worlds within worlds. It was clear then that within those worlds every word matters.

Update, 12/10/13: Re-reading Chapter 54, Steelkilt is described as having "a flowing golden beard like the tassled housings of your last viceroy's snorting charger." So it's unlikely "he" was a "she." Steelkilt does whisper something upsetting to the captain and Radney—did he have some dirt on those two?

Matryoshka 1

Monday, February 6, 2012

Road Trip - Frederick Douglass Marathon

Just back from the Twelfth Annual Frederick Douglass Community Read-A-Thon of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. This is presented by the New Bedford Historical Society, and seemed to be "directed" by Melville biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant (of MDM "Stump the Scholars" fame). What a great way to kick off Black History Month!

I got to New Bedford early and took advantage of the balmy (for February) weather to roam the neighborhood. First stop: the Lewis Temple statue in front of the Public Library. Temple was a blacksmith, and inventor, who moved to New Bedford in the 1820s. Clifford Ashley in The Yankee Whaler notes that, with the opening of the Kodiak whaling grounds in 1835, whalemen observed the walrus and seal spears of the indigenous hunters. Their detachable spear-head was seen as being more effective than the flexible, single-flued iron then prevalent in whaling. "Over one hundred harpoon patent applications were filed in Washington within the next few years." In 1848, Lewis Temple came up with a design that "was of such extremely simple construction, and at the same time was so practical, that it was at once adopted to the exclusion of all others." Ashley continues...
With but one small change , to permit easier manufacture, it has continued to be the standard harpoon of the fishery. ... It is safe to say that the Temple toggle was the most important single invention in the whole history of whaling, since it resulted in the capture of a far greater proportion of the whales that were struck than had before been possible.
Temple's design was never patented. Upon his death, the statue's plaque informs us, "after business debts were cleared, there was no legacy left for his family."
On the next block is the Frederick Douglass Monument. From the website of the New Bedford Historical Society:
This monument is dedicated to Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna who escaped slavery by the underground railroad and made New Bedford their home for five years 1838-1843. Two of their children were born here, Rosetta (1839) and Lewis (1840). Dedicated on October 17, 1996, this monument commemorates the 100th anniversary of his death in 1895. Sponsored by the City of New Bedford and the New Bedford Chapter of the NAACP.
Friends Meeting House
Then it was on to the Friends Meeting House for the reading. For veterans of the Moby-Dick Marathon, this was like a small-town "fun run." The audience is smaller (maybe peaking at 100), the text is short (about 100 pages), the duration is brief (about 4.5 hours), and readers don't have to struggle with arcane references (Euroclydon anyone?).

Each reader was assigned a specific passage. Dr. Robertson-Lorant distributed the texts — five or six pages printed in a comfortably large font, stapled together. All attendees were given a Dover edition of Douglass's work, to follow along. A generous spread of food and drink was available in the adjoining hall.

Marlena Johnson
Rep. Barney Frank
Mayor Jon Mitchell
Rep. Wm. Keating
I arrived few minutes early and was struck by the sight of a young woman wearing a tiara! The program revealed that she was the 2012 Miss New Bedford, Marlena Johnson. She kindly posed for a blog photo. (Talk about poise!)

Ms. Johnson opened the event with a superb rendition of "Lift Every Voice." There followed a presentation to U.S. Representative Barney Frank, and a few introductions and announcements. Dr. Mary Louise Francis, Superintendent of Schools, was warmly applauded for her declaration that the Douglass autobiography will be "mandatory reading for New Bedford public schools."

Then we were off. Mr. Frank read first, followed by New Bedford mayor Jonathan Mitchell, and U.S. Representative William Keating.

A few familiar faces from MDM16 were among the readers -- Jen Nersesian (in her Nat'l Historical Park uniform), Scott Lang, Jim Lopes, and Michael Dyer.

Most impressive were the youngest readers, from local grammar and middle schools. I'd say that the future is in good hands.

Scanning the audience, I was reminded of the ethnically diverse New Bedford of Chapter 6 in M-D. We were a mix of cultures, of backgrounds, of ages; husbands and wives, parents and children. While the text described extreme cruelties, we pondered it together, and together marveled at one man's strength and intelligence. Was I the only one who felt a tacit, mutual pledge to look for the best in each other?

Young readers
Young readers
Jim Lopes
Dr. Laurie Robertson-Lorant

Sunday, February 5, 2012

At the Frederick Douglass marathon. Festive, expectant air... [more later]

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ishmael's Rights, Part III

As I mentioned in a previous post in this series (linked below), to appreciate the psychology in Moby-Dick we need to keep in mind that the Pequod was not a naval ship.  Her crew were employees, not enlisted men subject to military discipline.  They had a contractual relationship with the ship's owners (including Ahab), and the captain and mates could not normally use violence against the crew with impunity.

A fascinating U.S. case on this subject, from 1806, is Thorne v. White (D. Pa. 23 F. Cas. 1132).  The opinion, by Judge Hopkinson, contains much more in the way of instructive material than I could possibly quote here.  As in many other cases brought by seamen, the issue was wages -- specifically, whether the bad conduct of the seaman bringing the case entitled the owners to withhold his pay for the voyage.  This gave Judge Hopkinson the opportunity to discuss at length how the behavior of sailors and captains must be weighed to determine who was most at fault.

It is the duty of seamen to bear even the ill-temper of the master, and to get out of his way, when instances of passion occur. ... Some of the maritime laws are particular in adjusting how a mariner shall demand [sic] himself when the master is enraged, and when he may stand on his defense.  A master must not pursue (as was done in the case before me) a mariner, who flies from him when enraged. ... When the crime of a sailor is too great for the master's authority to punish (which should be evident on the trial, to justify severe measures) the master and his officers are to seize the criminal, put him in irons, and not take the law into their own hands, but bring him to justice on their return.  But the contract for wages is not affected. ...

I have generally thought myself warranted to give a latitude of construction to the words "moderate correction," where chastisement was salutary and merited, and in this I have never been overnice.  The safety of a ship sometimes depends on promptly checking disobedience, and stimulating exertion.  Subordination is peculiarly essential to be enforced, among a class of men whose manners and habits partake of the attributes of the element, on which they are employed. ... [But] instances have not been rare in this court (and they have not been overlooked) where the most enormously cruel, and unjustifiable acts of tyranny, and wanton abuses of power, have been exhibited by masters of ships. ... The sea laws enjoin on the master a temperate demeanor, and orderly and decent conduct, towards seamen.  By several of these laws, he is finable for abusive expressions[!], or misconduct, towards mariners. ... When a mariner is incorrigibly disobedient, and will not submit, and offer to do duty and make amends, the master may discharge him.  He may correct and confine him on board the ship, or dock him of his provisions. 

There is much more worth reading, but I fear I have already tried the reader's patience.  One footnote, however, needs to be quoted in full, because in it the judge describes an earlier case that bears some similarity to the Town-Ho's story:

In a case wherein confinement on board the ship, of two disobedient seamen, appeared to me proper, and indispensable, and where frequent endeavors to reclaim were ineffectually tried, for almost the whole latter section of the return voyage, I held the confinement in irons, so justifiable and necessary for the safety of the ship, that I refused to allow wages for that part of the voyage.  The two seamen were influential characters, and atrocious leaders of a rebellious crew.  [As] they had not misbehaved on the former part of the voyage, I considered it to be a partial breach of contract, and not a forfeiture in toto.  These seamen complained, I thought without cause, of high-handed and cruel treatment.  I left them to their remedy at common law, by action for false imprisonment, or any other mode of redress.
Ishmael's Rights, Part I

Ishmael's Rights, Part II

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Frederick Douglass autobiography "Read-a-Thon"

Frederick Douglass circa 1855
The work of another author (although that term only hints at his significance) with ties to New Bedford will have a public reading on Sunday, February 5. The New Bedford Historical Society's twelfth annual reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave runs from 2-6 PM.

Details, and contact information for volunteer readers, are on the Historical Society's site.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The 16th New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon -- the Wee Hours on the Third Day

According the New Bedford Whaling Museum's blog, the 16th Moby-Dick Marathon attracted a record number of visitors -- more than 2,900 over the weekend.  During most of the reading on Saturday, there were few or no empty chairs, unless you resorted to the overflow seating in the Cook Memorial Theater, where the reading was shown remotely with a slight delay. 

Spots in the main seating area, in the Jacobs Family Gallery, did not begin to free up until after the performance of Chapter XL ("Midnight, Forecastle") had concluded in the Theater, at about 10:00 p.m. as I recall.  From this point forward, the year-over-year increase in visitors became less noticeable.  There seemed to be a few more sleepers than at earlier MDMs stretched out on the mezzanine, and the number of awake participants seemed to dwindle more gradually, and to come not quite so close to zero, as in my previous years.

This increase in participation was good for all concerned -- except for us standby readers, whose chances of getting to read are inversely proportional to the number of people who show up.  I did get the opportunity to read once.  My selection happened to be "The Jeroboam's Story" (Ch. LXXI),  which I much prefer to what I read last year, about Derick De Deer and his lamp-feeder (Ch. LXXXI).  But neither I nor any of the other stand-bys had the chance to read more than once during the course of the night.

Just as in MDMs past, between midnight and sunrise, those who remained, and remained awake, were overtaken by the same surreal feeling of being trapped with Ishmael in a sea of darkness, listening to him go on and on, in a stream of seemingly inexhaustible eloquence, about Steelkilt and gams and tuns and sharks and whale skeletons and monstrous pictures and Malaysian pirates.  Meanwhile, the snack food in the break room slowly disappears, while each cup of coffee and tea you drink has less effect than the last.  Close to dawn, like Ishmael trying to make a bed out of a bench at the Spouter Inn, you find that every position you assume is uncomfortable. 

A few times, to stretch my legs, I went out into the dark to get some shots of the deserted New Bedford streets.  By this time, the unusually balmy weather had turned colder.  It was still not as bone-chilling as in prior years, but at least I now found it easier to relate to impoverished Ishmael when he wandered the wintry New Bedford waterfront in search of economical lodgings.

The Rodman Candleworks and part of the "Double Bank" on Water St.
Looking south on Water St. behind the Museum