Having described yesterday the outward manifestations of the New Bedford Whaling Museum's annual Moby-Dick marathon, I shall now proceed to examine the inner experience of a typical marathon participant, i.e., myself.
In his monograph Chasing the White Whale, David Dowling (lecturer in English at the University of Iowa) states that a marathon reading of Moby-Dick is equal parts heaven and hell. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that the hellish part equals the heavenly, there are certainly significant highs and lows during the experience, if you attend the entire reading.
The pre-reading events elicit festive emotions. The attendees are happy to be gathered again to honor their favorite or most-admired novel. On Saturday morning, the museum is filled with lighhearted buzzing, as the staff and volunteers finish their preparations, and the marathoners get themselves arranged for a taxing endeavor.
The reading itself can be divided into five stages: the Pageant, the Long Stride, the Graveyard Shift, the Awakening, and the Final Push.
The Pageant runs from the start of the reading, at noon on Saturday, to the return to the museum from the Seamen's Bethel, around 3 pm. This stage involves the celebrated readers (the Mayor, the U.S. Representative, the National Tour Guide, the Museum Director, the Minister, the District Attorney, et al.) and the dramatic settings (the Lagoda Room and the Bethel). The audience is large. The chapters are among the most familiar and the most conventionally novelistic. The marathoner is alert and attentive to the text.
The Long Stride takes us from mid-afternoon to 10 or 11 at night. At this time, the initial euphoria has worn off, and the participants have settled in for some serious content. We get large doses of philosophical Melville (Ch. XLII, "The Whiteness of the Whale"), scientific Melville (Ch. XXXII, "Cetology"), and Shakespearean Melville (Ch. XL, "Midnight, Forecastle"). Night falls as the summer soldiers, infants, and pensioners decamp one by one.
The Graveyard Shift lasts until about 7 or 8 on Sunday morning. This is when many marathoners grab some sleep. But the die-hards remain at their stations, tending the Melville flame. The gallery is perfectly quiet except for the reader's voice and the occasional whisperings of the "Watch Officers" who manage the process. The marathoner watches the large windows for signs of dawn, pulling his coat about his shoulders as the cold creeps up from the stone floor. Those who continue following the text are treated to Melville's best work.
The Awakening begins between 7 and 8 am and lasts for three or four hours. The light outside and the reinforcement of the museum staff and volunteers (bringing some breakfast food with them) causes the sleepers to rise and tidy up their gear. This is perhaps the most challenging stage, because distractions increase, while the text becomes more flamboyant and less amenable to public reading. A night without sleep while drinking coffee and eating at random takes its toll.
The Final Push then brings the marathon to a close, at approximately 1 pm. At this time, the crowd is as large as it was during the Pageant. The readers, perhaps inspired more by John Huston than by Melville, become excited and demonstrative. For the dedicated marathoner, there is a combination of the elation of having seen the whole thing through and the disappointment at not having been as attentive to the text as one could. You stagger off, exhausted and grimy.