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.

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Very Early Posthumous Assessment of Melville

William Gilmore Simms

Every Melville fan has a basic idea of the arc of his career and the critical reception of his work. It goes something like this: Melville achieved early fame with his first book, Typee (1846), after which he entered upon a slow, steady, life-long decline into obscurity. By the time of his death, he was barely a footnote even in the minds of professional critics. His greatest work, Moby-Dick, was little appreciated when it was published and for some 70 years thereafter. But then, in the late 1910s, Moby-Dick was rediscovered and finally began to be recognized as the masterwork it is. The low point of Melville's literary standing can easily be exaggerated, however. This struck me recently when I was reading an old biography of the South Carolina novelist, poet, playwright, controversialist, and mad Secessionist William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870). The biography, by William P. Trent (an English professor at Columbia), was published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1892 -- the year after Melville's death. In a work of that vintage, I never expected to come across a reference to Melville. But there it was, in Trent's closing evaluation of Simms's output. Trent asks (at pg. 329) whether Edgar Allan Poe was right "when he ranked Simms above the herd of American romancers, just after [James Fenimore] Cooper and [Charles] Brockden Brown." In Trent's opinion, Poe was right:
With regard to romancers like Dr. [Robert Montgomery] Bird, [John Pendleton] Kennedy, and [James K.] Paulding, to say nothing of writers like Miss [Catherine] Sedgwick or Dr. [William Starbuck] Mayo or Melville, Poe would appear to have stated Simms's position correctly. Both with regard to quantity as well as quality of work [Simms] is their superior. His style at its best is not inferior to theirs, and with none of them is it safe to make much question of style. He was more frequently slipshod than they, but that is all that can be said in their favor. In imaginative vigor, in power of description, in the faculty of giving movement to his stories, he leaves them behind. He strikes one as being a born writer, a professional; their works read like those of amateurs.
When I first read this passage, I thought Trent couldn't possibly mean our Melville. Who spared a thought for Melville in 1892? But the book's index confirms that, yes, he means Herman Melville. And I'll take Melville's amateurism over Simms's professionalism any day.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Tonight's All Things Considered on Boston-area station WGBH had a short piece about the New Bedford MDM (length: 3:24). Wyn Kelley and Robert Wallace, from the annual Stump the Scholars, are quoted.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Virtual Stump the Scholars


A couple of years ago, I came up with what I thought would be a great question for the annual Stump the Scholars session at the MDM. Because that question never was used (and probably is too long to ever be used), I'll post it here for anyone who might care to take a shot at it:

This question relates to an image employed by Melville to capture the appearance of sunlight.

In their critical edition of On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by the Roman poet Lucretius, the classical scholars William Ellery Leonard (who was himself a poet) and Stanley Barney Smith compared an image used by Lucretius to similar images in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, a poem by A. E. Housman, and Moby-Dick. I will provide below a translation of what Lucretius wrote and then the comparable lines from Kipling and Housman, and my question will be, What metaphor did Melville use in Moby-Dick to describe something similar?

First, this is Lucretius:

Neither the spokes of the sun nor the shining spears of day
can dispel the fearful shadows from our soul,
but only the face and law of Nature.

The image that Leonard and Smith focused on is "the shining spears of day." They compared it to these lines by Kipling:

Far to Southward they wheel and glance,
The million molten spears of morn

And they also compared it to these lines by Housman:

And where the light in lances
Across the mead was laid

The question is: What metaphor did Melville use that is comparable to "the shining spears of day," "the million molten spears of morn," and "the light in lances"? Extra credit if you know what chapter it's in.

One hint: It's not "harpoons." That would be way too easy. But it is an edged weapon.

Another hint: He uses the same metaphor once to describe the spouts of a herd of sperm whales.

Friday, January 12, 2018

MDM22 "post-mortemising"

It's the most fun I've ever had without laughing.
                                                        - Alvy Singer
This year's MDM felt self-possessed—calm and assured, like a virtuoso taking the stage after twenty-one rehearsals. It was great to be back, to take refuge from the tempestuous political/cultural world "outside."
Message to He Shan-Jun, owner of Japanese ship Dan He Wan,
translates roughly to Have Compassion for All Mankind.
Plaque, ca. 1880. NBWM, 00.169.26
Credit for the apparent effortlessness of the proceedings goes to the museum staff and volunteers. Most were familiar from past years, though I know only a few by name. Sarah Rose, VP of Education & Programs, seemed to be everywhere at all hours. Michael Lapides, Dir. of Digital Initiatives, got very little sleep due to a video-streaming gizmo that apparently was not designed to run non-stop for twenty-five hours.

The MDM attendees also deserve credit. They are respectful toward the text and toward each other, and they are interesting folks. High-school teacher Dallas, came from St. Paul, Minnesota (to gather motivation for his students?). British artist Caroline Hack spent most of a week in the museum, gleaning grist for her creative mill. Dutch couple Tjitske and Tonnie returned for their eighth consecutive MDM. Ed Camara read for his twenty-first time, the record!

The number of attendees is always weather-dependent. The ice-sheeted roads and sidewalks of New Bedford seemed to keep the numbers "manageable." A few of us all-nighters were stymied by the new ban on backpacks. (My guess is that backpack wearers underestimate their rearward dimension, and collide with exhibits behind them; hence the ban.) The all-night snack & coffee stand was moved to the outer room at the back of the Harbor View Gallery, claiming what used to be a sleeping area. Most sleepers crashed in the brightly lit area behind the podia.

A quick recap of the 2018 Moby-Dick Marathon

Note that the museum's Facebook page has photos, video clips, and links to media coverage of MDM22; Twitter hashtags for the event are #mdm22 and #MDM2018; video of the reading is archived here.

Saturday morning started with Stump the Scholars of course!
Emcee Michael Dyer (Curator of Maritime History) gave another in his series of imaginative, witty introductions to two teams from the Melville Society:
  • Fast Fish—Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (Mystic Seaport, Univ. of Connecticut), Jennifer Baker (N.Y.U.), Tim Marr (Univ. of North Carolina)
  • Loose Fish—Robert Wallace (Univ. of Kentucky), Wyn Kelley (M.I.T), Chris Sten (George Washington U.)
This "competition" is always a great demonstration of these scholars' detailed knowledge of Melville's works (e.g. How long does it take Stubb to behead a whale?), as well as their broad understanding of the historical context and critical analyses of his works. Some of the questions generated as much discussion among audience members as among the panelists.

How fortunate we are to have these scholars, the entire Melville Society Cultural Project committee, on-hand for the MDM weekend year after year! What would the MDM be like without them!?

One memorable question stumped everyone: What rock-and-roll legend owned a first-edition Moby-Dick?
Answer: Jim Morrison. His copy still may be for sale online, for $39,900 (plus $10 shipping).
. . .

11:30 AM - "Stump" concluded, we are in the Lagoda Room for the opening six chapters.
5:00 PM - Seamen's Bethel and Lagoda Room sit vacant.
The Maratona em Português has ended. The full reading continues in the Harbor View Gallery.
5:30 PM - While the reading continues, chowder and beer (nice!) are served in the Jacobs Family Gallery.
Midnight - Chapter 58.
In the Harbor View Gallery, the crowd thins.
Midnight - The Lagoda Room is quiet, but too chilly to nap there.
2 AM - Chapter 73.
In the heart of the Graveyard Shift—readers stand a good chance of getting a second turn at the podium.
9 AM - Chapter 112.
The crowd swells.
9:25 AM - Tjitske reads in Dutch.
11 AM - The Chat with Melville Scholars adjourns.
Both Saturday's and Sunday's "Chats" were lively and well attended.
12:44 PM - Michael Dyer leaves the podium after reading the Epilogue.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Get Ready (again)!

If you're planning your first Moby-Dick Marathon, you'll find some practical advice in this post from 2011 and in the "Essentials" section at the right of this page.

For stay-at-homes, a live video stream will commence at 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, January 6.

Follow #MDM22 on Twitter.

Salute to James Russell

James Russell, who served as the President and CEO of the NBWM for nine years, has left to head the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
On his watch, both Stump the Scholars and Chat with Melville Scholars (my two favorite parts of any MDM) were added to the marathon.
My abiding memory of Mr. Russell comes from MDM20. At about 6 A.M. that Sunday he slipped into the back of the gallery, and quietly set about gathering abandoned coffee cups and water bottles, the night's jetsam. His dedication to the museum, the MDM, and us marathoners was that real.
Thanks for some great MDMs and good voyage to you, Mr. Russell!