If you were to read “Moby-Dick” straight through — from “Call me Ishmael” to “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan” — it would take about 24 hours.
That’s what I did, beginning at noon on Monday, July 31, the day before Herman Melville’s 198th birthday, on the sole surviving wooden whaleship, the Charles W. Morgan.
Noonish on Tuesday, I reached the last page. Swallowing a square of chocolate cake with buttercream frosting the color of the title character, I stepped out into the waterfront museum village called Mystic Seaport.
I hadn’t tackled the tome alone. And, to be honest, I’d slept for five hours, if lightly. Most participants in this 32nd annual “Moby-Dick” read-aloud marathon bedded down after midnight; a few kept the narrative going, reading by a rigged-up lantern.
A Connecticut-bred literature buff, I made a point this summer of traversing New England’s Melville Triangle: Mystic Seaport, the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the author’s Berkshire County farmhouse, Arrowhead.
Mystic Seaport’s tag-team reading of “Moby-Dick” — in which monomaniacal Captain Ahab pursues the white whale that “dismasted” him — is the longest-running and probably the most down-to-earth endeavor of its kind. It felt like Melville karaoke. Whoever wandered onto the ship could sign up for a chapter and take the plunge.
We marathoners were living in three realities at once: the virtual one Melville had conjured in 1851; a maritime version of “Night at the Museum”; and, outside the gates, the Connecticut hamlet on the Mystic River (not the one in the Clint Eastwood film).
An actor portrayed Melville at the marathon’s start and finish; the rest of us — 30 or 35, counting drop-ins and staffers — were amateurs, though some had participated in the marathon readings for five or even 10 years running.
The language of “Moby-Dick” — in 135 chapters and an epilogue — is an ocean of sailors’ slang, intentionally over-embroidered rhetoric, scriptlike episodes, pseudoscientific categorizing and stream-of-consciousness monologues. Its echoes of Shakespeare and Milton help turn a tale of adventure into high and tragic art. But, like Shakespeare, Melville was also fond of low comedy.
The first chapter I read aloud, Chapter 16, in which Ishmael boards the Pequod to sign on for his fateful voyage, felt like a vaudeville routine starring Peleg and Bildad, the ship’s owners. I got a laugh reading Ishmael’s description of the Nantucket captains: “They are fighting Quakers; they are Quakers with a vengeance.”
Much like the sermonizing Father Mapple in Chapter 9, Melville is a dazzling entertainer with a somber purpose. I decided the best way to get through the booby traps — words like “ferule,” “fossiliferous” and “forecastle” (pronounced FOCK-sill) — was to channel the thrill of being “onstage.”
The 113-foot black-and-mustard ship being a counterpart to the fictional Pequod — and to the Acushnet, a New Bedford whaleship on which Melville sailed — the narrative took on a tangible quality, enhanced by our crew’s attempts to sleep on deck as the temperature dropped below 60 degrees. About 15 of us spent the night.
I signed up for my fourth chapter (I ended up reading six) at 5:45 a.m. The sun had come up off the port side, casting shadows of the hull, the masts and a hanging whaleboat on the olive-green water. Hearing a motor, I looked over the Morgan’s starboard side to see a man in a boat, hosing her down.
Young Mystic Seaport staffers in blue caps, blue shirts and khaki shorts arrived just after 9 to hoist the sails for the day’s visitors. Throughout the morning, families streamed aboard to tour the ship and take part in whaleboat demos and chantey singing, oblivious to us and our bedrolls.
The arrival of the Morgan in 1941 put Mystic Seaport on the map, spurring its growth into a picturesque living-history park with dozens of relocated historical structures, museum displays, boat rides and a shipyard restoring the Mayflower II.
Mystic itself (population 4,000) was never a whaling port, unlike New London to the west, home of the Coast Guard Academy. A historic village with the charm turned up, it’s not much like the town in “Mystic Pizza,” though you can visit the restaurant that lent its name to the film. Also nearby are Mystic Aquarium and (you may have heard) two of the largest casinos in the hemisphere.
The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Mass., in 1841. Eight decades and 37 voyages later, she was saved by the son of “Witch of Wall Street” Hetty Green and eventually towed to became the stationary centerpiece of Mystic Seaport. The Morgan made her 38th voyage in the summer of 2014 after a multimillion-dollar restoration, visiting New London, Newport, Boston and her former home port on Buzzards Bay.
In Chapter 2 of “Moby-Dick,” Ishmael arrives in New Bedford on a gloomy December night. He rooms at the Spouter-Inn with Queequeg, a headhunter turned harpooner, until they sail to Nantucket. (You can now take a high-speed ferry, Seastreak, from New Bedford to Nantucket, an island adjunct to the Triangle.) Writes Melville/Ishmael: “nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.”
It isn’t like that now. Rich in the whale-oil era and sustained for another 50 years by textile mills, New Bedford, however fascinating, is far from flourishing. The bright spots: sea scallops (the highest-value catch in the nation, at $322 million in 2015); golf balls (the parent of Titleist is across the Acushnet River in Fairhaven); and cultural tourism.
On Johnny Cake Hill, at the center of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, is the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Across the street is the 1832 Seamen’s Bethel, which inspired the Whaleman’s Chapel in “Moby-Dick.” Though the unsavory boardinghouses that lined the former Bethel Street are gone, the Bethel itself and the adjacent Mariners’ Home, now a museum space, were preserved and recently restored by the New Bedford Port Society.
The Whaling Museum houses thousands of artifacts and documents; first editions of Melville’s works; the Lagoda, a half-size ship model you can board; and four whale skeletons. Three hang overhead in the atrium, including a 66-foot blue whale, KOBO, for King of the Blue Ocean, that was struck by a ship in 1998 and is still leaking. (“He’s gonna drip forever,” said docent Carolynn Curcio.)
In the gallery titled “From Pursuit to Preservation” is the skeleton of a 48-foot male sperm whale that washed ashore in Nantucket in 2002. The fully equipped whaleboat next to it brought all the fine points of whale-hunting we read about in “Moby-Dick” into focus.
The Whaling Museum held its 21st “Moby-Dick” marathon in January, moving to the Bethel for Father Mapple’s sermon, serving a chowder dinner and also hosting a children’s mini-marathon and a reading of an abridged version in Portuguese.
More than 40 percent of New Bedfordites are Luso Americans, descendants of immigrants from Portugal, largely from the Azores in the Mid-Atlantic, or from Portugal’s former territories, especially Cape Verde off the west coast of Africa. The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, held the first weekend of August, is the world’s largest Portuguese festival.
The queen of the city’s 19th-century homes is the 1834 Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum on County Street, designed by Richard Upjohn for William Rotche Jr., scion of a Quaker merchant family with Nantucket roots. In the vicinity are the home of Melville’s sister Catherine and the bed-and-breakfast where I slept under the eaves, Captain Haskell’s Octagon House.
For a drink and a bite, I recommend the mules at Cultivator Shoals (named for a fishing grounds), the soup at Destination Soups, the Cape Verdean dishes at Izzy’s and the homemade ice cream at Dorothy Cox’s on Pier 3.
The third point of New England’s Melville Triangle is Pittsfield, Mass., where Melville bought a 1790s farmhouse on 160 acres in 1850. He lived at Arrowhead for a dozen years with his wife, Lizzie, two sons and two daughters (three born there), and his mother and sisters. Among Melville’s additions to the house was a north-facing porch he called the piazza. In the second-story library above the piazza, facing Mount Greylock, he enlarged, revised and completed “Moby-Dick.”
The Berkshire County Historical Society, which acquired the house in 1975, replicated the piazza, torn off years ago, and continues to carry out restoration work. Open to the public from late May to late October, Arrowhead held its first “Moby-Dick” marathon in many years in a large barn on the property over four days.
I took a 10-minute slot in the last installment on Aug. 6 after joining an easy group hike up Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. The annual ritual, culminating in a recitation of William Cullen Bryant’s ode to the mountain and a sparkling-cider toast, pays tribute to the Aug. 5, 1850, picnic at which Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated “Moby-Dick.”
Had this encounter not taken place, many think Melville would have written a shorter, more straightforward book; instead of a marathon, we could probably wrap things up with a 5K.
Selden is a writer based in Baltimore. Find him on Twitter: @richseld.
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