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 14, 2011

Unpacking the New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon: David Dowling's "Chasing the White Whale"

As I've noted before, David Dowling, a lecturer in English at the University of Iowa, has written a study of the New Bedford Whaling Museum's annual Moby-Dick marathon, entitled Chasing the White Whale: The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today (U. of Iowa Press, 2010).  More accurately, I suppose, the book could be described as an analysis of Moby-Dick in light of the marathon.  In other words, most of the book is a scholarly (but not dry) literary analysis, guided by certain aspects of the marathon.

Prof. Dowling, who is also a marathon runner, attended the entirety of the 2009 marathon, where he recorded his impressions (including what it was like to be one of the readers, at 9:30 Sunday morning) and spoke with a variety of participants.  His longest sustained discussion of the marathon occurs in the introduction.  Thereafter, each chapter focuses on a different aspect of Moby-Dick and concludes with a section on a related aspect of the marathon. 

He takes a very favorable, but not idealized, view of the event.  He frankly admits, for example, that some of the readers are terrible (I believe that's the word he uses; I loaned my copy to Gansevoort and so can't readily check).  Yet he's not at all condescending toward the marathon or the people who are into it.  He admires its respectful ambience -- no Melville impersonators -- and its non-commercial, low-tech nature.  Imagine, people sitting for hours just listening to someone read a book.  Wonders never cease.*

Although Dowling never uses the term "folk art" (as far as I can recall), he seems to be headed in the direction of viewing the marathon as folk art or a folk ceremony.  The New Bedford marathon, originally inspired by the one each summer at Mystic Seaport, was initiated by local citizens in their spare time and continues to be largely volunteer-run (although the New Bedford Whaling Museum certainly makes a generous, valuable, and much-appreciated donation in staff hours, expertise, promotion, and facilities).  Thus, like Philadelphia's Mummers Parade or New York's Feast of San Gennaro or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," the New Bedford Moby-Dick marathon is an extra-market event rooted in local traditions and sustained by spontaneous, local impulses. 

*Subsequent developments have undercut this particular point of Dowling's, since this year the museum introduced live web-streaming of the marathon.  In addition, last year and this year, more and more e-readers (Kindles and iPads, especially) were spotted in use among the audience.  Even the Moby-Dick marathon is not completely insulated from technological developments.

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