THE 21st annual Moby-Dick Marathon was the first to take place in a blizzard. Somehow, the event had never coincided with a major snowstorm before, despite being held every January in New Bedford – a squall-prone seaport on the Massachusetts coast, where North Atlantic weather systems spin like sawblades against the edge of the United States.
On January 3, 1841, Herman Melville sailed out of that port in an icy gale, bound for the South Pacific on the whaleship Acushnet. A decade or so after that, his mighty book Moby-Dick placed its narrator Ishmael in New Bedford in the freezing sleet and mist, en route to nearby Nantucket and his own fateful voyage on the Pequod under Captain Ahab.
I arrived between two cold fronts some 170 years later, about a week into the new year, in the dying days of Barack Obama’s presidency. There was already snow on the streets and rooftops, and across the bronze shoulders of the whaleman statue outside the city library, which bore a killer quote from Moby-Dick: “A dead whale, or a stove boat.”
But a heavier fall was forecast, with estimates revised ever upward from 12 to 16 to 18 inches. Having first conceived the Moby-Dick Marathon to fill the emptiest space on the midwinter calendar, organisers at the New Bedford Whaling Museum now worried that only their closest neighbours would be able to make it.
The reading would go ahead regardless, said museum president and CEO James Russell at the welcome dinner the night before. To cancel, or even to prevaricate, would not be in the spirit of the occasion, nor the character of the townsfolk, and perhaps – who knows? – invoke the thunder-browed opprobrium of Melville’s own ghost.
This was not to say that the whole population venerated the author, or his quasi-biblical novel, to the same devout degree. Twenty years before, when disciples first proposed a non-stop public recitation of that monumental text – with an unbroken sequence of speakers taking turns to read aloud, in a kind of liturgical relay that would go on for 26 hours, give or take – it didn’t sound like fun to everyone.
“There were plenty of naysayers,” Russell told me privately, after his opening remarks. “Philistines,” I rephrased, affronted, being something of an over-zealous Moby-Dick freak myself. “Uh, let’s just call them agnostics,” said Russell, going on to explain how the idea caught on. More locals, and more visitors, were wanting to read and coming to listen every year. If it wasn’t for the looming whiteout, this 2017 marathon might have been “overwhelmed” he said. Demand for slots was so high that reading times had been cut to roughly five minutes per speaker, and they had more than 150 names on the waiting list.
My own place was secure, under the generic but gratifying title “Melville Aficionado”. Flicking through the programme, I saw many of my fellow readers credited as such, along with high school teachers and college lecturers, New Bedford cops and coast guardsmen, rowers from a local crew called The Higgs Boatswains, representatives of the Miracle Fish Puppet Theatre and the New England Giant Pumpkin Grower’s Association.
The opening chapter would be orated by Peter Whittemore, the great-great-grandson of Herman Melville himself. I met Whittemore in the queue for the buffet table, and told him I was honoured. Self-effacing straight away, he said he’d tried not to dine out on his ancestor’s achievements. He considered himself a hereditary member of “the lucky sperm club”. His aunt Eleanor, on his mother’s side, had always handled the Melville legacy enquiries, and in middle-age he’d assumed that role almost by default.
“I didn’t earn it or apply for it,” he said. “I only sat on the lap that sat on the lap … ” His great-great-grandfather’s name had made no material difference to Whittemore’s personal fortunes either. The publishing history of Moby-Dick, a saga unto itself, records that Melville was long dead by the time his failed, forgotten masterpiece earned any serious cash or credit – rediscovered after the first world war and upheld as proof that the newly ascendant United States could claim a distinctive and distinguished national literature.
It was well out of copyright at that point though, which meant no royalties for the family. Whittemore told me that he lived a frugal bachelor’s life of low overheads in nearby Cohasset, Massachusetts. He’d majored in English at Harvard during the Vietnam War, and was one of the dissident students who occupied the administration buildings in 1968.
After dropping out, he tinkered with engineering and patented the tech for one of the earliest solar panels, which he and his partner could never build affordably enough to sell. He did a little sailing, learned carpentry skills, carved electric guitars on commission. When he went back to college much later, he studied divinities instead, though his attitude to religion sounded pretty Einsteinian. He said he didn’t want to die before understanding relativity, and what he called “the cosmic oomph” – the force or whisper that encourages “that top molecule of grass to rise up through the crack in the pavement”.
I thought I heard something Melvillian in this too, as I was searching Whittemore’s face for traces of the great man’s profile, mouldings melted down in the bloodline and recast in his own features. (I also noticed here that my written notes were taking on mildly hysterical Moby-Dickish flourishes, as they would continue to do in fits and spells throughout the weekend.) He had suffered this look before, from other giddy white whale cultists gaping at him like mooncalves. “There are some portraits of Melville where I can definitely see the resemblance,” he said. “Especially when I had a beard. But it got so grey I shaved it off.”
The next day at noon, Whittemore fired the proverbial starting gun with that resounding first line, “Call me Ishmael”, in the main gallery of the museum’s Bourne Building. A cluster of us listened from the deck of the Lagoda, a half-scale replica of a 19th-century whaling vessel said to be the largest model ship in existence. Already beside myself, I tried to imagine what genetic quantum of Herman Melville’s voice was now vibrating outward from his descendant’s throat, gusting into the sails above our heads, singing in the rigging.
The event moderators on the early shift (or First Watch, as they called it) were reading along closely. One stopped Whittemore with a quiet “thank you” after Ishmael’s commencing meditation on the narcissistic pull that draws humans to rivers and oceans, and haunts their watery reflections – “the ungraspable phantom of life”.
National Park superintendent Megan Kish took over the narration, followed by museum apprentice Daniel Perry, followed by Beth Perdue, editor of local daily newspaper The Standard-Times. And so on. Successive readers recounted Ishmael’s first night in New Bedford at The Spouter-Inn, where he’s forced to share a bed with Queequeg, a savage-looking, face-tattooed harpooner from an island tribe of South Sea cannibals. The story, and the marathon, were well underway, and my own attention swam in and out.
My father was a mariner. I learned that term from a children’s edition of Moby-Dick, which came in a set of abridged and illustrated classics I got for Christmas circa 1983 – one of those Christmases that he couldn’t spend with us in Dublin because he was away at sea. Through that massively abridged first reading, I projected whatever words I liked onto whatever I knew of his job. I swapped out the sperm whale oil for petroleum, and the Pequod itself for the tanker ships on which my father manned the radar and radio.
I tracked him on my atlas as he carried crude oil, refined oil and liquid natural gas out of the Persian Gulf and across the Pacific, from Brunei to Yokohama, over all the same latitudes where that madman Ahab chased the big “fish” who bit his leg off. I was a fretful kid, but not especially fanciful, and most of my nightmare scenarios were drawn from the evening news. I thought thermonuclear war was more likely to happen than not.
Less credible to me was the prospect of an enraged sperm whale, however endowed with mythic animus, stoving in the steel-plated double-hull of a modern merchant vessel that weighed 350,000 tonnes and measured half a mile long. “Really big bastards,” my father called his workplaces. Whenever he came home I’d ask about his own encounters with whales, and he’d tell me they were always benign. The bulls and cows would wave with their tails from the sidelines of the shipping lanes. The calves would often weave right out in front of the boat, scratching their itchy bellies against the rounded lower bow.
He also brought back other, grimmer stories like exotic presents, which seemed to share a certain deep-ocean blackness with even that first child-friendly adaptation of Moby-Dick. My favourites were the least age-appropriate, the ones my mum said I was way too young for. I always cracked up at the one about the berserking cook who tried to murder an able seaman in his sleep with a stirrup-pump, when falsely and maliciously informed that the oblivious fellow had badmouthed his food. Swinging his weapon in a small cabin, he got it stuck in the wall, and had to be subdued with excessive force by Singapore port police.
Sadder, and grislier: the one about young engineer who got a Dear John letter from his girlfriend and jumped overboard into the Mozambique Channel. The ship slowly turned to look for him, and found the spot frothing with sharks.
More banal, but even more horrible: the one about the crewman whose harness snapped while he was painting the signal mast, dropping him at least 50 feet to the deck in a seated position, and driving his head down into his chest cavity. They buried him at sea.
When I later graduated to the uncut, grown-up edition of Moby-Dick, I came across a line that seemed to precisely describe how I had pictured that poor guy’s death: “the speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity.”
Such mortal thoughts occur to Ishmael at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford, where he shelters from a portentous storm and reads the wall-mounted marble tablets dedicated to young sailors killed at work. That old clapboard church, now better known as the Seamen’s Bethel, still stands today on Johnny Cake Hill, just across the street from the Whaling Museum. When our marathon reached that section of the text, Mayor Jon Mitchell led us over there like penguins, a short walk made epic by the blizzard now upon us.
In terms of atmospherics this was surely ideal. A touch of augmented reality, a sort of interactive interlude. The snow was thick as smoke, blowing right into our faces from the corresponding pages of the book. Inside the bethel, I angled for a place in Melville’s Pew. This was where the author sat for Sunday service in December 1840, just before shipping out. Beside the plaque explaining this was a memorial for one William Benchley of Norway, New York, a contemporary who fell from his ship and drowned on November 12, 1844.
Later, writing Moby-Dick, Melville mixed remembered details with dramatic embellishments for Ishmael’s visit. He included part of a hymn that our frozen congregation now sang from a prepared sheet. Titled The Ribs And Terrors In The Whale, the music had been recently written and arranged around original lyrics from the novel. The melody was tricky to follow, with high and low notes all over the place, which made us sound like tuneless drunks under a bridge. Melville had also added an imaginary prow-shaped whaleship pulpit, a ballsy piece of set design that was finally installed for real more than 100 years later.
Reverend David Lima, executive director of the New Bedford Inter-Church Council, now climbed up on this to inhabit the character of Father Mapple, the harpooner turned minister whose brief appearance in the book sends psychic waves through the rest of it. From there he delivered Chapter 9: The Sermon – the story of Jonah and the Whale, as told in the Bible and the Quran and retold by Melville, via Ishmael, via Father Mapple.
The reverend had filled the role before, and was said to be a star of previous Moby-Dick Marathons. A big man with the rolling, low-vowelled, East New England accent of a Boston crime boss, he gave the godly threats and warnings of the parable a certain earthy heft and menace. Orson Welles’s Mapple was more theatrical, more rhetorical, in the movie adaptation by John Huston. Welles supposedly read the sermon in one take (albeit edited way down in Ray Bradbury’s script), followed by a standing ovation from cast and crew.
That scene was shot on a soundstage though, and Huston only filmed one short exterior sequence in front of the bethel. The director and his scouts looked for possible locations along the New Bedford waterfront, but couldn’t find enough evidence of past glories to fill a single frame. So Huston – a cigar-chewing, half-crazy Ahab figure in his own way – shifted the production to Ireland, where old New Bedford was mostly played by the quainter harbour at Youghal, County Cork. The city did get to host a big gala premiere when the movie was released in 1956, but the pride in this was tempered by a kind of civic embarrassment at how much had changed over the century since Moby-Dick.
New Bedford was in Melville’s day the wealthiest place in America, the centre of a global-industrial empire. Its merchants and ship owners were reaping huge returns on their investments in whaling. Or, more specifically, in the wildly lucrative business of harvesting and processing spermaceti – the liquid wax extracted from the vast cranial cavity of the sperm whale, which was then used to make candles and fill oil lamps in the dark nights before Tesla and Edison.
Even while New Bedford was still known as “the city that lit the world”, the smart money was already moving into textiles, which seemed to promise less risk, more reward. The mills triggered another boom after the market for whale oil dried up, but by the mid-20th century they were going bust too. Throughout the long decline that followed, the Old Dartmouth Historical Society had been working to restore and preserve local heritage – the cornerstone of which was the whaling museum itself.
We trudged back over there when Reverend Lima had finished, and the marathon continued upstairs in the Harbour View Gallery. There was no such view now, the world outside the windows as white as the whale in our book, save for dim, spectral street lamps that only added to the anachronistic mood.
I had to ruin this a little when my turn came at the lectern. A staff member gave me an announcement to read first, requesting that the owner of a half-buried silver Honda Civic dig it out and move it so the snowplough could get through. Then I started into the chapter titled A Bosom Friend, which sees Ishmael throw over the abiding prejudice of his white Christian context to allow for a broader, more redemptive kind of brotherhood with his pagan, idol-worshipping, manifestly loveable new buddy Queequeg.
I’d been advised by several old hands to run through the passage in advance. Melville’s sentences might be compared to long, uncoiling ropes, knotted with perverse syntax and flummoxing gerunds that were known to trip the unprepared marathon reader. Having duly scanned ahead, I was so focused on the deft enunciation of awkward, elongated adverbs like “phrenologically” and “cannibalistically” that I skipped over the word “not” at a critical corner in Ishmael’s change of attitude, thus conveying the exact opposite meaning.
Nobody tutted, or corrected me, or yanked me away by the neck with a shepherd’s crook. It wasn’t that kind of crowd. The gallery was only half-full because of the weather, the hush amplified by the falling snow, the audience warm and benevolent. But I was mentally thrashing myself after that slip, and almost stumbled at the finish on one of my favourite lines: “No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.” Like so many Melville Aficionados, I have a lot of favourite lines.
Most of mine flow out of Ishmael’s openness to experience, his widening embrace of existence as the voyage and narrative wear on. As an active character he slowly withdraws into the crowd of crewmen aboard the Pequod, but his consciousness just keeps on expanding, and painting its progress in fountains of poetry.
Even so, I’d be a dandified liar if I said I wasn’t bored or baffled on my initial struggle through the whole book. I was in my teens then, and living on the Isle of Man. We had moved there for the sake of my father’s new employment. Sick of spending up to 8 months of every year away from his family, he’d taken work with a shipping company on the island – still nominally “offshore” but to all intents and purposes a landlubber’s job.
Fair enough, we agreed, though I was flouncingly unhappy there, alienated by its weird parochial miasma and gloomy microclimate. Floating exposed in the middle of the Irish Sea, the island seemed forever raked by gales or wrapped in fog, the population hunkered and blinkered. Not a bad environment for getting into Moby-Dick though.
Our house in Castletown had been owned by a ship’s captain around the time that Melville was writing, and if the town’s castle dated back to the Vikings, the surrounding harbour had more of a 19th-century feel. The island had a native emissary in the book too. The grey, sepulchral Manxman, the most wizened and superstitious sailor on the Pequod, whose stock in “the old sea-traditions [and] immemorial credulities” had invested him with “preternatural powers of discernment”. A minor but memorable player, the Manxman provided an anchor point by which I could locate myself at the edge of Melville’s map.
Which didn’t stop my eyes from rolling, watering, closing under all those plotless digressions; the laborious cetological chapters that anatomise the whale, and the business of whaling, and cause so many readers to drop the novel like an anvil to the deck. But as with most of those who hold fast and come around to it, I could also hear in Melville’s prose, and Ishmael’s voice, a kind of cosmic murmur that appealed to my burgeoning love of language, and my unformed impressions of the universe.
“Doubts of all things earthly, and intimations of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.” That sounded pretty much like the man I thought that I aspired to be, as an already-lapsed Catholic adolescent. My father, no believer either, reminded me more of the Pequod’s second mate Stubb, with his jokey, pipe-smoking manner.
And if a therapist might consider him the causal agent of the somewhat vagrant life I’ve led since leaving home, it’s possible that Ishmael was as much of an influence – nagging at me to see the world, and hinting that some other, unseen world might be out there too. I have reread Moby-Dick while living in a small, decaying port town on the Sea of Japan, and in a riverside suburb of Buenos Aires, and most recently in landlocked Madrid. It seems to validate my choices, and salves my sporadic panics over lost or wasted time.
Atheist that I am today, it might also be this book that still makes me receptive to the odd flash of providence, as seen a few hours further into the marathon. It was getting dark now, and the road conditions had stopped many allocated readers from travelling, so the event staff were looking for substitutes to fill those slots. Keen to go again, I went back on the list for another turn, and the passage randomly assigned to me was my favourite in the whole novel – the back section of The Mast-Head chapter.
Ishmael contemplates the view from that lookout high above the ship, and considers the occupational hazards of putting introspective types (like himself, it is suggested) in a post that invites dreamy, work-shy reveries and rhapsodies over the surrounding blue vortex. To such a “sunken-eyed young Platonist” in such an elevated position, “every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form; seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.”
I was practically levitating when I read these lines, but even more ecstatic was the guy who followed soon after. Sean Reynolds knew the book better than me, and believed that it was best appreciated out loud like this. “It’s the only way to get the full gorgeousness,” Reynolds had told me earlier, over complimentary chowder ladled out for us downstairs, in the “learning lab” that served as a break room. He was some kind of Platonist himself.
He’d been set for an academic career but became disillusioned after studying Ibsen and discovering that the great playwright’s English translator had a completely different turn of phrase and mind. Looking for “honest work” instead, he ended up typing medical reports at a Chicago hospital. As a lifelong fan of Moby-Dick, he’d wanted to do this marathon since he first heard of it, and was only getting the chance now because his mother had just died.
“Funny,” said Reynolds, “I’ve always felt that this book was full of absent women.” He’d come out of his way to New Bedford en route to her memorial service in New York. And he really wanted a shot at The Quarter-Deck chapter, a chance to “rant grandly” as Ahab, but his own programmed reading time was later that night. Then the weather intervened on his behalf too. Asked to step in for someone else who had to drop out, Reynolds got his wish.
He didn’t squander it either, shrieking and bellowing Ahab’s declaration of war against the white whale, animated perhaps by his private grief but also by an obvious joy in the words, raving on through the scene where the captain passes grog around his harpooners to help win them over. “Short draughts – long swallows men; ‘tis hot as satan’s hoof.”
Reynolds burst out laughing here and had to break character. “I’m so glad I got to say that,” he told us, then apologised and recovered in time to really nail the line that he’d been building to: “God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby-Dick to his death!”
My newish Penguin Classics edition of the novel, with its lovely hardback jacket design of diving whales and flying harpoons, contains an introduction by Andrew Delbanco – a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and author of the well-regarded biography Melville: His World And Work. In that essay, Delbanco posits Moby-Dick as “a disorderly elegy to democracy”, written by a broad-minded observer of the narrow-mindedness that would soon lead to the American Civil War.
He also nominates the chapter just mentioned as “the most brilliant demonstration in modern literature of the power of demagoguery”, and suggests that the book’s lasting relevance derives in large part from its portrait of “the reciprocal relationship between a demagogue and his adoring followers”.
Rereading it yet again before this marathon, and after last November’s US elections, I wanted to hide inside the story from news of the new American president. But there was no escaping apparitions of Donald Trump, which seemed to arise from within Moby-Dick.
I was not the only one to notice. In that ominous lull before the inauguration, Charles P Pierce wrote in Esquire of “a feeling that the country is at the edge of something out of anyone’s control. It’s like we’re all the crew of the Pequod, waiting for the mad captain to emerge from his cabin to explain how his obsessions should be ours as well.”
At the marathon itself, Trump might also have been the white whale in the room. I heard no mention of his name in official announcements or even casual conversation until it came up a popular side-event called Stump The Scholars, held in the museum’s Cook Memorial Theatre. An audience of well-read amateurs was invited to fire assorted, often esoteric questions at visiting pointy-headed pros from the Melville Society.
One guy asked what modern technology was most uncannily predicted in Moby-Dick. “Prosthetics? Cybernetics?” suggested Wynn Kelley, a senior lecturer at M.I.T., making the case for Ahab’s whalebone pegleg as precursor to the ever-smarter artificial limbs of today. Then another voice challenged the panel to find quotations in the text where Melville seemed to prophesy the coming of Trump.
Some laughed and some groaned, before the auditorium turned conspicuously silent. A few scholars spoke up with thoughtful responses, but none called down the lightning like the extract that the questioner himself had ready. It was from The Specksynder chapter, in which Ahab recognises the need to go easy with his monomania, to make his demented quest look as close as possible to business as usual, to keep his crew on-side by acting as normal as he can. Through that long passage the captain is likened to one of “those men who become famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than through their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass.
“Such large virtue lurks in these small things when extreme political superstitions invest them, that in some royal instances even to idiot imbecility they have imparted potency.”
Now there was an audible chorus of sharp inhaling and exhaling, heads slowly nodding or shaking at Melville’s insight and foresight. Not that any of us could kid ourselves that Trump was an exact fit for Ahab, having never shown the mental discipline required to focus all his hate on one single target.
The marathon ran on through the night, and those who could get home headed out into the snow. A remaining hardcore of volunteers stayed to let the book keep them awake, or lull them to sleep in quiet corners. I drank a lot of coffee, and a bit of whisky, and chatted to whoever else was around.
Hillary Salmons showed me her vintage copy of Moby-Dick – the first trade edition published by Random House in 1930 – which cost her more than she would say. That version added the stark, mesmeric illustrations of Rockwell Kent, whose pictures, said Salmons, did more to resurrect the novel, and the author, than the words themselves.
She was in fact a Kent fan as much as a Melvillian, and knew all about the artist, a nomadic mystic and transcendentalist who developed his style while living in the wilds of Greenland, Alaska, northeast Canada, a converted cowshed in County Donegal. She had travelled to most of those places herself, and bought a sort-of holiday home near one of his old stomping grounds in Newfoundland. Given recent changes in the wind direction of US politics, Salmons said was now thinking of using it as a full-time bunker.
Most New Bedforders were Democrats, I gathered, which they had in common with almost every electoral district in the solid blue state of Massachusetts. The residents of this city had voted for Hillary Clinton by a factor of about 2:1. Not a landslide, but not a close-run thing either. A local defence lawyer and former assistant district attorney named Bob Schilling told me in a half-whisper that he might be the only Republican present.
Trump had not been his chosen candidate, he hastened to add, but in his work he’d seen the worst of New Bedford’s social problems – high crime and unemployment rates, pervasive heroin and opioid addiction – and no real sign of improvement during the Obama years. (Adding a little ironic flavour to Schilling’s expertise on the US penal system: the fact that his daughter Taylor plays the lead role in the smash-hit Netflix TV series Orange Is The New Black, set entirely in a women’s prison.)
I stood around snacking with David Brownell, a 75-year-old museum helper with a superb Shenandoah chin-beard that made him look like a veteran whaleman. For this reason he was often asked to play “Mate Brown” at the regular kids’ events held here on weekends.
“We voyage around the world in the plastic whaleboat firing Nerf [foam] harpoons,” he said. “I tell the kids, if I can be silly at my age then so can you, damn it.” Brownell had been less keen on real sailing since surviving a boating accident in which his mother was killed.
He was a former sheep farmer and high school Latin teacher, an enthusiastic part-time folk singer. He knew his local history too, and agreed that things had been “pretty rough” in New Bedford over the last half-century or so. For some operators, he told me, there was still plenty of money to be made in fishing, and especially in scallops. At least one of them went much further than others to advance his competitive edge.
“Ever heard of The Codfather?” Brownell asked me. I told him I had not. Also known by his real name, Carlos Raphael, said fishing magnate was indicted last year on 27 charges of falsely reporting his catches to get around federal quotas, and smuggling suitcases full of cash from Portugal through Boston’s Logan Airport. Also news to me this weekend was New Bedford’s older and above-board Portuguese connection.
Ships were once launched from this port with skeleton crews, who sailed them out to the Azores and Cape Verde and took on cheaper labour there to help hunt the abundant sperm whales in surrounding waters. Much of the city’s present population could trace their lineage back to those Atlantic outposts, and many could still speak the language.
The Moby-Dick Marathon was another way of celebrating this, with a separate, abridged Portuguese reading via livestream, linked to friends and family on the Azorean island of Faial. Select chapters were being read in Portuguese as part of the main event too, as well as German, French, Dutch, Turkish, Hebrew and Mandarin.
Later in the night, deeper into the story, the dissonance of hearing some of the more soporific chapters in one or other of those unfamiliar languages – save for untranslated nouns like “Doctor Snodhead” – seemed to prick up the ears of dozing listeners.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said museum chief James Russell, who had stayed to oversee the marathon through the small hours. “It shows the power of this book and the breadth of the community who have come to identify with it.” An immigrant himself, Russell was a fellow Irishman from County Meath. He first came to the US as young athlete (a hammer-thrower, no less) and studied engineering before converting to the humanities.
The way he saw it lately, the worldview of New Bedford was inclined by custom and kinship to keep facing outward, away from the inland rise of nationalism and nativism that had lifted Trump to office. “My feeling is that this city, this whole area, has always found unity in diversity,” said Russell. “As opposed to a lot of the heated rhetoric that we’re hearing from elsewhere in America right now.”
He offered me a quick guided tour of his museum, if only to keep himself alert. We stepped over bodies laid out in sleeping bags; slumped against walls; lying face down on paper pillows formed by open copies of Moby-Dick; curled foetally around the glass case containing Monica Namyar’s geological sculpture of Queequeg’s head, the tattoos carved across his skull like Nazca Lines, or contours on an ordnance survey map.
Beyond the margins of the main event, the halls and galleries were empty. The underlit exhibits took on a witchy aspect. Patrolling them with the CEO I felt like a trainee night watchman. We passed racks of rusted iron barbs and toggling claws, wooden druggs, antique flensing equipment – all the wicked-looking tools of the whaling trade that remind the visitor it was a butchering business. When questioned on animal ethics, as he said he sometimes was, Russell maintained that this institution did not glorify the past slaughter of whales any more than a war museum delighted in the mowing down of soldiers.
Since taking over in 2008 (“A bad time, economically, to be doing anything, anywhere in the US,” as Russell put it) he’d tried to front-load the building with up-to-date displays on conservation efforts. Its huge showpiece whale skeletons now hung under an eco-friendly banner that signalled the altered course of human-cetacean relations: From Pursuit To Protection.
“As far as the history goes,” said Russell, “I’m just fascinated by the characters.” He seemed to mean both real and fictional. Whaling, as he understood it, was an early American meritocracy. While the hunt was on, an unskilled white worker like Ishmael would follow the lead of higher-ranking non-white specialists like Queequeg, Daggoo and Tashtego, the Pequod’s Polynesian, African and Native American harpooners. “This was a world where prowess vaulted you to the top.”
Across the museum, New Bedford itself was presented as a northern haven of relative tolerance during the peak years of the spermaceti economy, which coincided roughly with the last, desperate decades of southern slavery. It was a Quaker hub of abolitionism, and terminus for the underground railroad.
Russell pointed out a portrait of Captain Paul Cuffee, a local sailor, ship owner and anti-slavery campaigner of mixed native Wampanoag and Ghanaian Ashanti background, whose meeting with George Washington made him the first black man to be received by a sitting US president. Frederick Douglass began his post-plantation life in New Bedford too, working on the wharves. He helped organise the American League of Coloured Labourers in this city, and preached to fellow members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The scholars couldn’t say for sure if Melville met Douglass here at some point, or at least heard him speak, but Moby-Dick did include a quick description of the church. Our marathon was a long way past that now, the Pequod having sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and through the straits of Sunda, heading for the Japanese cruising ground.
I left Russell to check on proceedings and went back inside the Bourne Building to take a rest on the darkened deck of the model ship Lagoda. A few stowaways had got there before me, and were already crashed out under blankets at the base of the mainmast. I lay down near the mizzen for a while and looked up at the sails. The long unbroken sigh of the air-conditioning sounded almost like a low and constant breeze on a calm sea if you detuned your ears a little.
There was just enough light to read by, and I tried to guess which chapter the others had reached so I could follow along at this distance. The Castaway seemed about right, and I jumped in at the section where Pip the cabin-boy is frightened overboard out of Stubb’s whaleboat (for the second time), and accidentally left abandoned in the open ocean.
“The sea had jeeringly kept his body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul … and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.” Somewhere around there I drifted off myself.
When I woke and went back upstairs the sun was rising in the Harbour View Gallery. The storm had passed, the sky had cleared, the dawn light made shadows of the fishing boats, glowing pink and gold on all the fallen snow. Obnoxious seagulls at the windows told us we were close to home, but some of the readers were flagging badly now, dragging out the final stretch with flat and listless intonations that a seasoned sailor-storyteller might describe as “lubberlike”.
I can’t say I did any better when called up to the lectern for a third time, filling in for someone who had not yet shovelled out their driveway. Sunbeams blurring my vision and caffeine jittering my fingers, I quavered through the chapter on The Carpenter – the stolid, multi-tasking shipmate who comes off as “a stript abstract; an unfractioned integral; uncompromised as a new-born babe; living without premeditated reference to this world or the next.”
I admired the carpenter and wished I was more like him. If he could hear my shoddy rendering of his brief turn centre-stage, I supposed that he would blink inscrutably and shuffle back to his own duties and soliloquies. Which made me wonder about his creator.
Part of Herman Melville’s posthumous fame resides in the very fact that he was well on his way to obscurity even before he died in 1891. An article in Publishers Weekly the year before noted that those few critics and readers who remembered him thought he had died decades earlier. He was actually grinding out a day job at the New York customs house, writing occasional poems and stories in his spare time. Some of these, like Billy Budd, were left unfinished when he had his fatal heart attack, 40 years after Moby-Dick sank his career. A myth persists – untrue, but telling – that the New York Times got his name wrong (“Henry”) in their short obituary.
But where did he go after that? Was Melville’s soul saved by way of predestination, and taken to the highly provisional heaven of his Dutch Calvinist upbringing? Or did he transcend to something and somewhere else, as per the more mysterious, voluminous theology he vaulted toward in his work? Was he present at this Moby-Dick Marathon? Could he hear us speak his words?
Before we came to the end, I put these questions to Professor Tim Marr in a wood-panelled back room. A lecturer in American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Marr had given florid, even rapturous answers on matters of religion in Moby-Dick at various Melville Society talks and forums over the weekend. As a young man, he had taught the text to muslim kids in Pakistan, which gave him a timely perspective on the author’s “multivalent attitude” to faith.
He had also set out on his own “Ishmaelean search” for six years as an undergrad, living with villagers on outer Fijian islands, hunting periwinkles under the stars with lanterns made from kerosene-filled beer bottles. He discovered Baha’ism in his wanderings.
“And that’s the path I’ve followed since,” said Marr. “It holds that there’s one humanity, one tradition, evolving over time and enfolding all the world’s religions. I think Melville was similarly inclusive, and challenging of exclusion.”
OK, I said. But does that mean he’s listening right now? Does that all-encompassing belief allow for Melville’s continued existence, his ongoing awareness? Does he know how much we love him, and worship his book?
“Well, he doesn’t ‘know’, in the way that we do,” said Marr. “In that sense, there is no Melville. At the same time, his words still circulate and animate people in a way he could not have imagined as a living writer. So even without moving to the mystical realm, we could say that he’s with us in this congenial, communal celebration of deeper truth.
“If he’s present in some other way, he might be laughing at the way we project our ignorances onto his art. He might be asking, ‘Have you not found anything else of value?’. But I think he’d also be honoured that we readers are connecting with what he wrote, and creating meaning together that lives far beyond him. What more could any artist want?”
The event was rushing to a close now, the last few readers steering into the last few chapters, covering that final three-day chase of Moby-Dick. The white whale rose with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, and boomed his entire bulk into the pure element of air. The boats were smashed; the Pequod was stove and sunk; Ahab was dragged down to hell by a noose-like loop of line tied to his own diabolical harpoon; his crew all drowned in the Pacific. (Save for Ishmael, of course.) “ … and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
I’d like to claim that I alone escaped to tell thee, but everyone survived the marathon. There was an anti-climactic round of thanks and applause, then we all dispersed our separate ways, on streets that had been ploughed clear overnight. I left New Bedford on the next bus to Boston, and a brief account of that journey will have to stand as epilogue.
On board I got chatting to my seat mate – call him Delaney – who was third-generation Irish and looked to be the Platonic ideal of a burly, friendly fisherman, with a bushy red beard and a lot of old-school nautical tattoos. Delaney had never read Moby-Dick, nor even seen the movie, but he knew about the marathon and always meant to check it out.
The boats he usually worked on would range up to 300 miles from the eastern seaboard for cod, haddock or swordfish. He’d not been out in months, though, after shredding his knee and rotator cuff with all the heavy lifting. He was still in a dispute over compensation, and the doctor had him on woefully inadequate painkillers for a man of his size, but he hoped to be back on the water soon.
“Tough job,” he said, “but the money’s good and they’re always looking for guys. Especially green guys, like you.” We bookish types are always pleased to be mistaken for capable by more demonstrably masculine fellows. I was lost for a moment in thoughts of actually going to sea, making use of my soft hands, earning the smallest, apprentice-level share of the catch and being happy with it.
Then Delaney started talking about how proud white men like himself did not expect government assistance and welfare cheques, did not have their hands out “like niggers”. And with that word I was knocked right out of Delaney’s boat, as if by the most casual flick of a gigantic, godawful tail. I didn’t fight, I just receded, picturing the ship of state sail away with Donald Trump’s tiny hands on the wheel.
I looked the other way, out the window, to the snowy Massachusetts sprawl. Then I opened my copy of Moby-Dick again. Ishmael’s world isn’t one I’d want to live in either. There are almost no women in it, and I would sob or retch all the fluids from my body before I ever harmed a whale. Its reality is no safer or cleaner than ours, no less cruel or more equitable. But it is so inviting nonetheless, so stirring to the spirit, so full of wonderful words that might yet wash away the ugly ones.
I climbed back down inside the book, and closed the cover behind me like a hatch.