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.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Born today, 1807

Born 204 years ago today, the rock-star poet of 19th-century America, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
There is no mention, in Hershel Parker's biography of Melville, of Herman ever having met Henry. However, Mr. Parker reports that Longfellow and his second wife, Fanny, read Omoo aloud together. In a letter to her father, Fanny wrote, "...[we read] through Omoo which is very inferior to Typee..."
Longfellow died in 1882, so he certainly could have read M-D.
(If you're ever in Cambridge, MA, a tour of the Longfellow House, led by a well-informed National Park Service guide, is very worthwhile.)

Marathon Cinema

Over at Iron-bound Bucket, the captain has posted an assortment of marathon-related videos -- from New Bedford and elsewhere -- for your viewing pleasure.  Among the offerings is "The Moby Dick in All of Us," an artsy take on the 2010 New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon by one Stephanie Cardon.  The film is about 10 minutes long, with music but no narration or ambient sound.  (You may want to provide your own music if you don't care for serialism; Phillip Sainton's soundtrack for the 1956 Moby Dick might be a good substitute.) 

As I recall, Ms. Cardon is a native of France, now outwardly Americanized.  She and her video camera popped up throughout the 2010 marathon, and during breaks in filming, she took a few turns at the podium to read Moby-Dick in French.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Herman Melville Sexual Orientation Watch, Part 2

At the end of her quirky 1996 biography of Melville, Laurie Robertson-Lorant (now a professor at U. Mass., Dartmouth) includes a quirky discussion of Melville's sexuality.  It's short -- three pages -- which is good, because she avoids a sustained argument.

She begins with a fun poke at deconstruction, observing that scholars are "as mesmerized by Paul deMan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, and Jacques Lacan as Ahab was by Fedallah and his crew of phantoms[.]"  Their politicizing of "[t]he language of sex and gender" is not for her.  She prefers to treat sex and gender as "organic components of complex, changeable human beings."

She then lays it on the line: "In successive drafts of this biography, I have struggled to craft a language for talking about Melville's sexuality without force-fitting him into the Procrustean bed of theory."  She's simply not ready to label him a gay writer.  While she concedes (as anyone must) that "his writings reflect a deep longing for emotional intimacy with other men," we lack evidence of gay sex on Melville's part.  Set Melville beside Whitman, Oscar Wilde, or Charles Warren Stoddard, as she suggests -- the contrast is instructive. 

Melville confuses us because of the upheaval (she uses the French term bouleversement) in his sexual attitudes when he lived in the South Seas.  In the literary world of antebellum America, he was an exotic.  Today, it's easy, probably too easy, to see gayness in the exotics among us.  But we err in applying the same worldly wisdom to Melville.

Robertson-Lorant also tries to contextualize same-sex activities.  Male travelers often shared beds; "erotic tropes" were often used between close friends of the same sex.  She puts the brakes on headlong readings of Melville's heavily scrutinized letters to Hawthorne, which are "more narcissistic than erotic[.]"  And she rightly criticizes the view that Melville must have had gay sex "because all sailors did[.]" 

Melville's fiction was "transgressive" (there's that word again), probing and questioning the pieties of his day.  Reducing that to "Melville was gay" detracts from his artistic achievements and ultimately makes his work less challenging.

Still, we mustn't presume to be definitive.  Yet-undiscovered letters and diaries may wait out there, ready to work a bouleversement in our Melville orientation.  "One never knows what 'great gliding phantom' will emerge from the lost material about, or by, the elusive Herman Melville."

Herman Melville Sexual Orientation Watch, Part 1

Friday, February 25, 2011

Moby-Dick and Alien

The 1979 sci-fi film Alien was supposedly pitched to producers as "Jaws in space."  But in some ways it resembles Moby-Dick more than Jaws

Both Moby-Dick and Alien take place almost entirely aboard a commercial ship.  The Pequod is a whaler; the Nostromo a merchant vessel.  We enter into the shipboard lives of working crewmen -- people for whom sailing or space travel is just a job.  As their routine trip continues, however, both sets of crewmen discover that they have unwittingly signed up for something other than their jobs.  The men of the Pequod learn that they're serving their captain's plan of revenge, while the Nostromo's crew discover that they're being used as alien-bait by the military-industrial complex.*  Ultimately, both vessels are destroyed, and all the crewmen die but one, Ishmael and Ripley, who escape alone -- Ishmael on Queequeg's repurposed coffin, Ripley in the Nostromo's shuttle.

There is one enormous difference, of course: Moby-Dick, despite the earnest wishes of Hollywood producers and high-school boys, is really not a man-versus-monster story.  The whale, unlike the alien, belongs in our world.  Melville goes out of his way to impress upon us the plausibility of his narrative; we must not view it as "a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory" (Ch. XLV, "The Affidavit").  More importantly, if we believe anyone other than perhaps Ahab, Moby Dick is not out to get the humans.  The alien, on the other hand, will kill the humans if they don't kill it first.

That difference accounts in part for Moby-Dick's greater complexity, even in its stripped-down film version.  The questions Melville asks are not as simple as how to kill before being killed.  Does malice lie behind the forces of nature?  Should we blame Ahab for what happens to the Pequod and its crew?  Do men deserve punishment for daring to be proud?  Should we accept as fact that we are all slaves?  "Who ain't a slave?"  (Ch. I, "Loomings")

*Interestingly, the industrial-individual conflict is reversed in the two stories.  Ahab dies because he has deviated from the business purpose of his cruise, whereas Ripley survives by defying the business purpose laid out for her.  Indeed, one of the movie's most memorable scenes is when the Nostromo's crew destroys upper management's representative on the ship (an android, which would not be killed by the alien and would therefore "survive" to pilot the ship home).  This may say something about differences in how business was viewed in the late 20th century as opposed to the mid-19th.

...when Leviathan is the text - 3

Weird, but usable... (3rd in the search for the ideal edition for an MDM)

From out of the dark past comes a strange edition of M-D, thanks to an inter-library loan system that thinks one edition of M-D is the same as another. (I requested the Norton edition, dagnabbit!)

Here's a quick run-down on an edition of Moby-Dick from Spencer Press. There's no copyright on it, but its four-page history of book collecting is dated 1936. The spine shows "World's Greatest Literature" and the volume number, 17. Reading the aforementioned history, we're told that this is a series of 20 books "which would form the cornerstone of a fine home library for people of discriminating taste; ...[books] that would tend to broaden the vision and develop the inner resources of the reader..." You know the spiel.

The book is about 5.25" x 8.25" x 1.5", and weighs 18.4 ounces (on the Post Office scale); 462 pages. The cover boards are not thick, but they are rigid; the binding, sewn. The paper is slightly rough with a faint yellow color, looking like what you would find in an old, cheap paperback. There's no declaration of acid-free paper, but this library copy shows no yellowing around the edges after what could be 70 years. The margins and gutters are almost too narrow, the bottom margin especially. The rough paper, together with the sub-optimal printing that varies from faint to blotchy (see "Fedallah" in the photo below), give this one a whiff of cheapness, of books that were meant to be bought by the yard.

There is a table of contents, and Melville's footnotes appear, but no Etymology or Extracts. There is one illustration opposite the title page. Strangely, the Table of Contents breaks the chapters into Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III; perhaps following the original 1851 English edition which was in three volumes. Also following that first English edition (as described in A Note on the Text in my Penguin paperback) is the non-appearance(!) of Chapter 25, Postscript. Knights and Squires appears here as Ch. 25, and the mis-numbering continues to the end. This could cause confusion if you were to find yourself at the podium announcing "Chapter 53, The Town-Ho's Story" when the rest of the world has it as Chap. 54.

In sum, if you run into this edition at an estate sale, it could be pressed into service. The binding is very nice, and the contents are pared down for Marathon use; a little too pared-down, as Etymology, Extracts, and one of the chapters are missing. The search must continue...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

...when Leviathan is the text - 2

[revised 3/19/11]

So near and yet so far... (2nd in the search for the ideal edition for an MDM)

Breathes there a reader with soul so dead that she is not beguiled by Rockwell Kent's illustrations for M-D? You can find a first edition 1930 Lakeside Press copy, in three volumes, with Kent's illustrations, on for $7,500. If you're short on dead presidents, the Folio Society offers a one-volume reprint for $350. However, for the MDM, you want an edition that's less precious -- when Paula Radcliffe runs a marathon, she doesn't worry about her shoes getting muddy, and you don't want to worry about spilling tea on your M-D. So consider this: a single-volume reprint, with all of Kent's illustrations, in hard-cover, for less than $15 on Amazon.

The Modern Library has offered this edition since 1992. At first glance it meets all the criteria for an ideal MDM tome. It fits well in one hand -- about 5.5" wide x 7.75" tall, a little less than 1.5" thick with about 825 pages. It includes a table of contents, Etymology, Extracts, and Melville's footnotes. To the essential text, it adds only two pages of biography. The cover "boards" are firm; the smooth, cream-colored paper is a bit heavier than my Library of America edition, with only a slight "show-through." The margins are adequate. The type is not cramped. There's no colophon, but a note on the copyright page states, "Printed on acid-free paper."

Weight: 29.5 ounces [3/19/11]

And did I mention the Rockwell Kent illustrations?

So what's the problem?

Along the left edge of the page in the photo above, you'll see where the binding has begun to split, on this copy from the Boston Public Library. In one section, the book has split apart completely, into two chunks held together by the cover. This is because this edition does NOT have a sewn binding. The book's signatures are glued together. (Wikipedia describes the result as "a paperback with hard covers.") Furthermore, this method of bookbinding results in a book that, like a paperback, will not lie flat.

If you love the Kent illustrations as I do, and don't mind the fragile binding, this could be the Marathon tome for you.

NB: The text is not "Northwestern-Newberry compliant." [3/19/11]

I'll keep looking...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"and there is no new thing under the sun"

Chuck Palahniuk, the purveyor of "transgressive fiction" known for Fight Club, published in 2005 a collection of interconnected short stories entitled Haunted.  The collection's showpiece (if you will) is "Guts."  In "Guts" the narrator's bowels are pulled out by the suction pump at the bottom of a swimming pool, and he saves himself from drowning by chewing through his intestine.  According to Wikipedia, the story exerted such power that, at public readings, many listeners fainted:
While on his 2003 tour to promote his novel Diary, Palahniuk read "Guts" to his audiences. It was reported that over 35 people fainted while listening to the readings. On his tour to promote Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories in the summer of 2004, he read the story to audiences again, bringing the total amount of fainters up to 53, and later up to 60, while on tour to promote the softcover edition of Diary. The last fainting occurred on May 28, 2007, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where five people fainted, one of which occurred when a man was trying to leave the auditorium, which resulting in him falling and hitting his head on the door.
Perhaps something about "Guts" seems familiar.  Can't put your finger on it?  Permit me to help:
[U]pon Stubb setting the anchor-watch after his supper was concluded; and when, accordingly, Queequeg and a forecastle seaman came on deck, no small excitement was created among the sharks; for immediately suspending the cutting stages over the side, and lowering three lanterns, so that they cast long gleams of light over the turbid sea, these two mariners, darting their long whaling-spades, kept up an incessant murdering of the sharks, by striking the keen steel deep into their skulls, seemingly their only vital part. But in the foamy confusion of their mixed and struggling hosts, the marksmen could not always hit their mark; and this brought about new revelations of the incredible ferocity of the foe. They viciously snapped, not only at each other's disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound. Nor was this all. It was unsafe to meddle with the corpses and ghosts of these creatures. A sort of generic or Pantheistic vitality seemed to lurk in their very joints and bones, after what might be called the individual life had departed. Killed and hoisted on deck for the sake of his skin, one of these sharks almost took poor Queequeg's hand off, when he tried to shut down the dead lid of his murderous jaw.
 (from Ch. LXVI, "The Shark Massacre".)  As far as I am aware, no listener has ever fainted at the Moby-Dick Marathon.  Melville fans are made of stern stuff.

drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries...

From MDM15 at 8:56 PM, Chapter XLII, The Whiteness of the Whale, read by Dutch national (and newsmaker) Tjitske Zwerver:

Synopsis of M-D in Dutch:

De mythische strijd van kapitein Ahab met de witte walvis die hem ooit zijn been heeft afgebeten wordt verteld door de enige overlevende, die ons in de beroemde openingszin opdraagt hem Ismaël te noemen. Een meeslepend geromantiseerde encyclopedie van de zee, de walvisvaart, de potvis, de mens en de wraak.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Washington's Birthday

b&w film copy neg.

Today is the 279th anniversary of George Washington's birth.  As all Moby-Dick fans know, Washington was Queequeg civilizedly developed:

[Queequeg] looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington's head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.
(from Ch. X, "A Bosom Friend")

Monday, February 21, 2011

...when Leviathan is the text - 1

[revised 3/19/11]

O tell me where is fancy bread,
At Rourke's the baker's it is said.
- Ulysses

Our departments of Agriculture and of Health and Human Services released new, "science-based" Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which counsel, among other things, a maximum of two(!) adult beverages per day. You gotta have a goal in life, so I'm making an effort to conform. This discipline, however, leaves me with hours of sober idleness during which I contemplate the upcoming MDM (less than 11 months away).

Sober contemplation + "The Moby-Dick Collection" has bred, in heart and head, a fancy for the ideal edition to use at the MDM. Here we go...

What are the qualities of the ideal MDM tome? We want an edition that's like the axe of the journeyman guitarist or the backpack of the veteran hiker - it doesn't hinder you, it lets you do what you came to do without fuss or flash. Here's my starter list:

  1. Complete - Etymology, Extracts and Melville's footnotes must appear.
    The text must be from the "Northwestern-Newberry Edition." [added 3/19/11]
  2. Limited superfluities - a bit of nice artwork might be welcome, but nix the appendices and essays; this thing is going to sit in your lap for 25 hours.
  3. Easy on the eyes - pleasant font of a generous size, airy margins, good ink/paper contrast.
  4. Sturdy, supple stock - for ease of page handling and reading (no distracting "show-through").
  5. Hard-cover with sewn binding - so it will lie flat.
  6. Not particularly valuable - this is a working tome; if it falls on its corners while I nod off, no tears need be shed.

A visit to eBay turned up a good number of the "hard bound" titles shown in "The Moby Dick Collection," and then some. Many under $20. But how well do they match the other criteria? Here the excellent Minuteman Library Network, a federation of 43 suburban libraries, comes to my aid. I can search the combined catalog and request any book be delivered to my local. Between those 43 and the grand Boston Public Library, I should be able to examine any candidate edition (and report my findings here) before ordering it online.

I start with an appraisal of the stock on hand. My first love, the Penguin English Library paperback, will always be on my shelf, but it has no place at an MDM. Its yellowing pages are falling out; it's hard to hold, and hard to read.

My companion for MDM15 was a Library of America edition (about $25 new on Amazon). This is a definite step in the right direction - built to last, with sturdy sewn binding; supple, acid-free paper (on the thin side [note the show-through in the photo], but it "meets the requirements for permanence of the American National Standards Institute"); acceptable margins; well-printed in "10 point Linotron Galliard" (though my old eyes could do with slightly larger type and looser tracking letter-spacing).

The twenty-nine pages of "Chronology" and "Notes" aren't excessive. No, the deal-breaker with this one is its inclusion of Redburn and White-Jacket. Those two astonishing tales o' the sea add 770 pages to Moby-Dick's 638. No wonder my wrists got tired -- this volume weighs nearly two pounds (31.7 oz. on the digital scale at my Post Office). It's a desk-reader, not streamlined for the long haul that is the Marathon.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ipse Dixit: Hershel Parker Has a Blog

Hershel "Mr. Melville" Parker has a blog, begun last month, in which he discusses Melville scholarship, critical reactions to his own work, 19th-century American lit, academic feuds, and related topics.  It's already jam-packed with challenging material.

Don't dawdle here when you could be there: he is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear.

Higgledy-Piggledy Whale Statements - 2

Found in Google Books, a scan of Popular Mechanics, May, 1926. Write to J. A. Stransky Manufacturing Co. for details of the Stransky Vaporizer, which "makes practically any car give double its mileage to the gallon." Then turn to page 787 to read The Thrills of Whaling, an illustrated description of late-period whaling, using power-boats and cannon-fired harpoons.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Today in History

From the journal of Ralph Waldo Emerson, on this day in 1834:
Boston, Feb. 19 A seaman in the coach told the story of an old sperm-whale, which he called a white whale, which was known for many years by the whalemen as Old Tom, and who rushed upon the boats which attacked him, and crushed the boats to small chips in his jaws, the men generally escaping by jumping overboard and being picked up. A vessel was fitted out at New Bedford, he said, to take him. And he was finally taken somewhere off Payta head by the Winslow or the Essex.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Borders Inventory in 200 Stores Set for Liquidation

Attention shoppers: If you live near one of the 200 Borders bookstores slated for closure, some nice buying opportunities may be coming your way.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Borders filed bankruptcy this past Wednesday and announced plans to close 200 of its 642 stores.  Yesterday, the bankruptcy court approved Borders' sale of the inventories in the marked stores to a consortium of liquidating companies.  What will most likely happen is the liquidating companies (which specialize in this sort of thing) will conduct a store-closing sale at each of the locations condemned to die.  According to the Dow Jones Daily Bankruptcy Review (not available on-line, but many of the source documents can be seen here), Borders will get about 85% of the cost of the inventory plus 50% of the sale proceeds above the 85% mark and certain fixed amounts payable to the liquidating companies.

What does that mean to you and me?  Since time immemorial, retail bookstores have customarily marked up books 100%.  (Or, to put it another way, the "list price" of a book is usually twice what the bookstore pays for it.)  So, if a hardcover book lists for $25, we can assume that it represents a cost to Borders of $12.50.  Actually, the cost might be a bit less than that, because big buyers such as Borders can get better terms from publishers.  In any event, the liquidating companies are paying Borders 85% of its cost, or $10.62 for our hypothetical book.  If the liquidating company then sells the book at a 40% discount ($15), it pays Borders $10.62, pays itself certain selling expenses and fees, and splits whatever is left 50/50 with Borders. 

This can result in some good deals for the patient and lucky.  Years ago, when Encore Books breathed its last, I was able to get a new, unabridged Merriam-Webster's Third (yup, the Big Boy) at half price at our local store.  (They had one copy on the shelves, waiting for the day when some copy editor or word nut would wander in off the street and buy it, I guess.)

Melville's Relations, Pt. 2: Siblings

Allan and Maria Melvill had eight children, all of whom survived to adulthood:

Gansevoort (1815-1846), a gifted lawyer and Democratic politician in New York City.  He helped Herman get his first book, Typee, published.  He died at age 31.
Gansevoort Melville at about age 21

Helen Maria (1817-1888), who married Harvard-trained attorney George Griggs (1814 or '15 - 1888).  Reputedly a bit of a curmudgeon, George had met Helen through his friend Lemuel Shaw (my pseudonymous namesake), who was in turn a friend of the Melvill family before becoming Herman's father-in-law.

Herman (born in New York City at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 1, 1819; died in bed between 12:00 and 1:00 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 28, 1891).  I understand he was a writer of some sort.

Augusta ("Gus") (1821-1876), with Fanny, one of the two maiden sisters who lived with Herman and his wife at Arrowhead.  My sense is that Gus was one of life's Marthas; she helped to keep the family in touch as her mother aged.

Gus in her mid-30s

Allan (1823-1872), a lawyer who practiced with Gansevoort in New York and eventually became the wealthiest of the eight Melville children.  His first wife was Sophia Eliza Thurston (1827-1858); they had five daughters, of whom four survived to adulthood.  His second wife was Jane W. Dempsey (died 1890). 

Allan in his mid-20s

Kate (1825-1905), who became the second wife of John Chipman Hoadley (1818-1886) and bore him two girls.  The family lived in Lawrence, Mass., where John managed a locomotive-manufacturing business before he started his own business producing a portable steam engine he had designed.  He also became one of the original trustees of MIT. 

Fanny (1827-1885), Herman's other maiden sister.

Tom (1830-1884), who went to sea on a whaler at age 15 and thereafter rose to become a captain in the merchant service.  He married Catherine E. Bogart (1842-1928) relatively late in life. 

Tom Melville at about age 35

As you can see, this was an accomplished generation of Melvilles -- much more so than their father and his brother, Uncle Thomas.  

(The biographical data in this and related posts are drawn from Hershel Parker's 2-vol. Herman Melville: A Biography [Johns Hopkins Univ., 1996 & 2002], Laurie Robertson-Lorant's Melville: A Biography [Clarkson N. Potter, 1996], and Stanton Garner's Civil War World of Herman Melville [Univ. of Kansas, 1993].)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Melville's Relations, Pt. 1: Parents and Grandparents

In looking for information on Melville's family circle, I have discovered to my surprise that no single on-line resource provides a ready reference to the biographical essentials of Melville's various forebears, siblings, in-laws, children, nieces, and nephews, with some of whom he maintained close contact throughout his life.   I will therefore undertake to provde such information here, in a series of cross-referenced posts.  We begin with his illustrious grandparents.

*  *  *  

Herman's paternal grandparents:  Major Thomas Melvill (1751-1832) and Patricia Scollay Melvill (1755-1833).  The Major participated in the Boston Tea Party and, during the Revolutionary War, served in the Massachusetts State Regiment of Artillery.  Grandpa Melvill died when Herman was about 13, in the same year that Herman's own father died. 

Major Thomas Melvill

Herman's maternal grandparents:  General Peter Gansevoort (1749-1812), the hero of Ft. Stanwix, and Catherine Van Schaik Gansevoort (1751-1830).  The Gansevoorts belonged to New York's old "Dutch aristocracy," immortalized by Washington Irving.  Grandpa Gansevoort died some seven years before Herman was born.  Herman was about 11 (and his mother about 39) when Grandma Gansevoort died.

General Peter Gansevoort
Herman's parents:  Allan Melvill (1782-1832) and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (later "Melville") (1791-1872).  Herman's father was a merchant in the Atlantic trade in New York City, until he fled to Albany in 1830 to escape his creditors.  He died before retrieving his fortune.  Herman was about 13, and his mother about 41, at the time of Allan Melvill's death.

Herman's father in his late 20s.  In Pierre, Melville describes a portrait
of the protagonist's far-from-perfect father very similar to this.

Herman's mother, in her late 20s

The train of deaths and disaster in the early 1830s:  Granny Gansevoort dies in 1830, father's business ventures fail for good in 1830, Grandpa Melvill dies in 1832, father dies in 1832, Granny Melvill dies in 1833.  Death and poverty together become realities to the teenaged Herman, as he, his mother, and his siblings are left without a protector or a source of income.

Latest News from the Feejees - 3

He took my leg. I don't intend to give him my ass. - Captain Ahab

If you don't recognize the above quote, you haven't seen the Action-Adventure-Thriller 2010: Moby Dick. Stills from this direct-to-video production are here. The story seems to involve a nuclear sub, a big whale, and the year 2010.

Netflix subscribers can rent the DVD! (Yay!!)

Oh, Death, why canst thou not sometimes be timely?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Borders Files Bankruptcy

Borders Group Inc., the owner of the Borders book superstore chain, filed a chapter 11 petition today in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.  Chapter 11 enables debtor companies to restructure their debt and equity so that they can (hopefully) avoid total liquidation.  Borders plans to close its underperforming stores, which supposedly amount to about 30% of the total. 

As the Wall Street Journal reports:
In its bankruptcy petition, Borders listed assets of $1.28 billion and liabilities of $1.29 billion as of Dec. 25.

Borders' five largest unsecured creditors are the book publishers Penguin Putnam Inc., Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster Inc., Random House and Harper Collins Publishers.
This has not surprised anyone, since Borders had announced that bankruptcy was a strong possibility a month ago.  More information about the case is available here.

UPDATE: The WSJ has posted a handy list of the stores to be closed, sortable by city, state, zip code, and size.  (May be gated.)  Six are listed in Massachusetts, including one on Boylston St. in Boston.

How To Prepare for the All-Night Reading

What, if anything, can you do to stay alert for the entire 25-hour reading of Moby-Dick? Lemuel seems to have no problem staying focused for the whole show, while I start to flag around 4:00 AM and nod-off in my chair a couple of hours later. Chalk it up to age (mine), intelligence (his), or the fact that Lemuel arrives sober as the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, while I less so.

A troll of the Web returns lots of suggestions from college kids who face all-night cram sessions: caffeine, B-vitamins, pumpin' music, occasional 10-minute naps (and bumming Ritalin from dorm-mates [not recommended by Lemuel or me]).

One article cites "chronobiologist" Cynthia LaJambe who, even after her studies at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), can only advise "a short nap [less than 20 minutes] and a moderate amount of caffeine, like a cup of coffee, is still the best approach."

An article in The Guardian gives advice for cricket fans trying to go for days without sleep so they can watch The Ashes match series televised from Australia. They recommend: a high-protein meal beforehand, high-protein snacks during, no alcohol, no large doses of caffeine, vitamin B supplement afterwards.

One study holds particular promise for us Marathoners: "Sleep Extension Improves Performance and Facilitates Task Acquisition During and Following 7 Nights of Subsequent Sleep Restriction," by Dr. Tracy Rupp, also at WRAIR. Its findings were summarized by BBC News. The bottom line is: extra sleep each night of the week before the MDM will help you "perform" better, and recover faster. They call it "banking sleep." (Dr. Tracy also recommends naps.)

Here's my list of suggestions:

  • Arrange local accommodations for Sunday night well before the MDM. (See Lemuel's post on sleep-deprived driving.)
  • Come well-rested and well-fed. Try to "bank" some shut-eye the nights prior.
  • Bring a copy of M-D with large type.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Pace your intake of caffeine & sugar. Some folks use green tea for its reduced caffeine content -- bring your own (hot water is available).
  • Take breaks in the snack room. You'll meet some interesting folks there.
  • Step outside for some bracing January air and imagine Melville's arrival in New Bedford.
  • Save the adult beverages for after the reading, if you're absolutely convinced that it will help.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Did the Pequod Have a Poop Deck?

As I've elsewhere alluded to, my earliest mental images of the characters and settings of Moby-Dick drew upon the 1956 film directed by John Huston.  And because, in the film, the Pequod has a poop deck, I assumed for decades that that was what Melville had envisioned.  (I was also so hopelessly confused that I thought a "quarterdeck" was, by definition, a "poop deck.")

Huston's realization of the Pequod was constrained by the materials he had available.  The film's Pequod -- nicely observable in this YouTube clip from the movie -- had earlier served as the Hispaniola in the Disney version of Treasure Island and had first seen the light of day in 1887, when it was christened the Ryelands (according to Wikipedia).

As I now understand, "quarterdeck" refers simply to "[t]hat part of the upper or spar-deck which extends between the stern and after-mast, and is used as a promenade by the superior officers or cabin-passengers" (per the OED). It might be raised ... and it might not.  If it's raised (and has several other characteristics that I don't fully grasp), it's a generally called a poop.  But "poop" might also be used to refer to the stern, period; hence, we sometimes find the phrase "raised poop," which at first glance might appear to be redundant.  Then there are "raised quarterdecks," which some say are the same as poops, while others make a distinction. 

In any event, I'm using "poop deck" here to mean a quarterdeck that's a few steps higher than the rest of the main deck, like that shown in the John Huston Pequod.  For another example, here's a nice photo of the main deck of an 1877 sailing ship, the Elissa, with a poop deck.

Melville, as far as I can tell, does not directly indicate whether the Pequod had a poop deck.  From his memorable description in Chapter XVI ("The Ship"), we learn that this "rare old craft" had been in service as a whaler for "more than half a century[.]"  Thus, if we assume that Ishmael shipped aboard her in the same year that Melville sailed aboard the Acushnet -- i.e., 1841 -- then she must have been a whaler since before 1791.  On top of that, we don't know if she began life as a whaler or was converted from some other purpose.  We cannot assume, then, that the Pequod's architecture matched that of vessels built in the 19th century.

Still, for what it may be worth, the whaleship Lagoda, built in 1826 and a half-size model of which forms one of the crown jewels of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, did not have a raised quarterdeck.  She started out as a merchant ship and, some 15 years later, was refurbished as a whaler.  The companionway leading down to the living quarters below the quarterdeck was protected by a boxy deckhouse on one side of the quarterdeck.  (By contrast, in the movie's Pequod, as in most tall ships represented on film, the companionway is through double doors in the face of the quarterdeck [or the forward bulkhead?], like the portal at the top of a cuckoo clock.)  The Lagoda also had a skylight running fore and aft next to the deckhouse, protecting the steersman's compass and lighting the aftercabin salon.  The Pequod, we learn in Chapter XXXIV ("The Cabin-Table") had a skylight as well, through which one could peep at the captain and mates at dinner.

A Lagoda-like layout is what Mead Schaeffer shows us in one of his colorful illustrations to the 1923 Dodd Mead Moby-Dick.  (All the illustrations are beautifully reproduced here; scroll down to the one showing Ahab on the quarterdeck.)  But since it's possible that Schaeffer based his illustration on the Lagoda model, which was begun in 1916, his illustration should not be taken as a separate data point. 

Melville's reference to a skylight through which one could see the mates dining may suggest that the Pequod did not have a poop deck.  In addition, his mention of the Town-Ho's poop in Chapter LIV may indicate that, when a ship has a poop, Melville says so. 

Until additional evidence comes in, Melville's silence on the subject is enough for me: I hold that the Pequod did not have a poop deck.  In the words of U.S. Sen. James F. Simmons, of Rhode Island, during congressional debates over secession:
[T]he distinguished senator from Texas says that the old men who made this Constitution, of all things in the world, knew nothing about it; that they were very good men for generals, and such like, but they knew nothing about the Constitution.  Well, sir, they are good enough authority for me.
(Quoted in David P. Currie's The Constitution in Congress: Descent into the Maelstrom, 1829-1861.)

"Official" photos from MDM15

The Whaling Museum has posted a collection of photos from MDM15 on Flickr, and they are beauties. (You can't beat pro gear.)

Given the omnipresence of the "official" photog at the reading, one would have expected many more than the posted thirty-three, but who's complaining?

Other (amateur) photos from MDMs are scattered through the Museum's "Group Pool."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Another Fan Shares His Moby-Dick Collection

Something about Moby-Dick evidently inspires collectors.  One Steve Donoghue shares choice thoughts about, and photos of, eight editions of Moby-Dick at his blog, stevereads, including two I was not previously aware of.  I especially like what he says about the old Signet Classics:
These volumes were put together with rock-solid workmanship and on higher than average quality paper, and the results are visible even in this unthinkable year of 2010: this Moby Dick is a survivor – and if the movies are to be believed, it’ll out-last us all, since it’s this old Signet paperback that’s on the bookshelf of the evil Khan’s makeshift bookshelf in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And the volume boasts more than superior spine-glue! It’s also got a feisty afterword by Denham Sutcliffe, then of Kenyon College ....
Well worth a visit.

Letter to the Editors, Part 1

Regular reader Ynot sent us the following missive, about a new song that appears to have been inspired in part by Moby-Dick:

Don't know if you've heard this or even know about it but Elton John and Leon Russell have a duet out called "Hey Ahab".  The lyrics are below.  On their own they don't do much for me although I've liked the bits of the song I've heard.

It's a constant struggle getting up that hill
There's a change of guard every day
When you're clinging onto a driftwood boat
You pray a great white whale might come your way

No freeway traffic in the frozen North
Just a chain link fence full of birds
And when the harpoon's loaded in the cannon bay
You'll be rolling through the pages lost for words

Hey Ahab can you tell me where
I can catch a ride out of here
Hey Ahab hoist that sail
You gotta stand up straight
When you ride that whale

In a crumbling city we were trapped for days
With a broken sun above the clouds
Caught like Jonah forty fathams down
And a sign on the wall saying, "Hope Allowed"

All the cryptic symbols carved on bone
A far cry from a tattooed rose
And when the boys in the rigging catch the wind

We'll all weigh anchor and it's westward ho

Hey Ahab can you tell me where
I can catch a ride out of here
Hey Ahab hoist that sail
You gotta stand up straight
When you ride that whale

Hey Ahab can you tell me where
I can catch a ride out of here
Hey Ahab hoist that sail
You gotta stand up straight
When you ride that whale

For Valentine's Day

From Chapter XXXIX, First Night-Watch:
We'll drink to-night with hearts as light,
To love, as gay and fleeting
As bubbles that swim, on the beaker's brim,
And break on the lips while meeting.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Nantucket whaleship found after 188 years

Today marine archaeologists in Hawaii announced the discovery of Captain Pollard's whaleship Two Brothers, out of Nantucket and wrecked on a reef on February 11, 1823.

The full story is reported by the New York Times and the Associated Press.

Latest News from the Feejees - 2

Put down your teacup and swallow before you read further.

A new film, Age of the Dragons, is to be released in the UK on March 4. Here's the synopsis:

Set in a medieval realm where Captain Ahab and crew hunt dragons for the vitriol that powers their world, Ishmael, a charismatic harpooner joins their quest. Ahab's adopted daughter Rachel, beautiful and tough, runs the hunting vessel. Ahab's obsession is to seek revenge on a great "White Dragon" that slaughtered his family when he was young and left his body scarred and mauled, drives the crew deeper into the heart of darkness. In the White Dragon's lair Ahab's secrets are revealed and Rachel must choose between following him on his dark quest or escaping to a new life with Ishmael.

Oh, life! 'tis now that I do feel the latent horror in thee!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Live Whale Song

Today's post at the Whaling Museum blog links to the website of Jupiter Foundation, which is streaming live from hydrophones placed off the island of Hawaii. It's "humpback season" there.

The whales are starting to arrive with the peak month being February, so we should hear more and more singing.

Follow the links and listen in.

What Do We Know about "Ishmael"?

During the "stump the experts" program that the New Bedford Whaling Museum held as part of this year's Moby-Dick marathon, one audience member posed a question premised on the assumption that Melville tells us nothing, "nada," about Ishmael.  The experts quickly corrected that assumption, however.  Melville does in fact tell us a number of things about his narrator, as the experts went on to demonstrate.

He was a Presbyterian (Ch. X).  Interestingly, however, he says, "I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church" (emphasis added).   One is left wondering whether Ishmael had subsequently ceased to be a good Christian, or the past tense was used here simply in keeping with narrative convention.

¶ He had a stepmother, who was a stern disciplinarian (Ch. IV). 

¶ He strongly implies that he had been a schoolmaster shortly before going to sea in the Pequod (Ch. I).

¶ He had "repeatedly" sailed as a merchant sailor before signing aboard the Pequod (Ch. I; also Ch. XVI).

¶ He did not attend college -- "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard" (Ch. XXIV).

¶ He was nearly destitute when he arrived in New Bedford, having only "a few pieces of silver" (Ch. II). 

¶ He was nevertheless a well-read and bookish fellow, as testified by his "Etymology" and "Extracts," by his use of book sizes for classifying whales (Ch. XXXII), by his numerous references to the works of other authors, and by his learned vocabulary and highly literate style.

¶ He traveled to the Arsacides (Ch. CII) and Lima (Ch. LIV).

¶ He "talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney" (Ch. LIV).

¶ Finally, in telling his story, Ishmael reveals an enormous amount about his private fears, beliefs, doubts, and hopes.  He injects himself unhesitatingly into almost every topic he takes up; we are never permitted to forget for a moment that we're hearing this tale from a man who puts the unique stamp of his worldview on all he recounts. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Norton Critical Editions Moby-Dick

Norton Critical Editions are familiar to generations of English majors.  They contain "authoritative texts," explanatory footnotes, and generous supplementary material for budding scholars to cut their critical teeth on.  If you're the kind of person who always wants to know more when reading a classic -- what inspired the author, what was going on in his life during the book's creation, how readers and reviewers responded to it in his day -- the Norton Critical Edition will go far toward satisfying your curiosity. 

The publisher of Norton Critical Editions -- W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. -- is a rare bird.  In the publishing industry, where the landscape never rests and the returns on investment rarely climb as high as zero, Norton has managed to remain privately held and (to all appearances) healthy for over 85 years.  It was founded in 1923 as a non-profit, to publish lectures delivered at the adult division of Cooper Union.  (The company's current name comes from one of the founders, William Warder Norton.)  Norton, who was an importer-exporter, soon decided to devote himself full-time to publishing and used his importing know-how to obtain U.S. publication rights to various non-fiction works first published in Europe.  Norton also seemed to have a knack for sniffing out important titles, acquiring rights to, for example, Bertrand Russell's Philosophy and Jose Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses.  And by 1930, he had begun to tap what would prove to be a lucrative market after World War II: higher education. 

When William Norton died in 1945, his widow sold much of her stock to the company's employees.  The company has been employee-owned ever since.  Reportedly, about 50-60% of the stock, all of which is subject to transfer restrictions, is held by members of its board of directors, and the remainder is held by about half of its 400 employees.

I haven't been able to determine when Norton started putting out its Critical Editions.  The earliest one I've been able to find on is a Wuthering Heights published in 1963.  As you can see from the linked item, Norton Critical Editions originally had rather plain covers, printed in two colors with no artwork.  (The original cover of the NCE Moby-Dick, first published in 1967, can be seen at Mr. Pettit's blog.) 

The Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick is now in its second edition.  Pictured above on the left is the first, 1967 edition, with the last cover it had.  On the right is the second edition, which came out in 2001 (hence the "150th Anniversary" banner dimly visible running across the upper right corner of the cover). 

As you can see, the second edition is slightly taller and wider than the first, with a splashier cover.  It contains far more explanatory footnotes than the first edition (which had always struck me as very stingy in the footnote department).  They've kept most of the supplementary material -- including the crudely but effectively illustrated discussion of how whaling was done -- and they've added a good deal of new matter.  Most notable among the new additions are a short essay on Melville's reading, about 50 pages of source material on how Melville was viewed before the appearance of Moby-Dick, and an essay on "the grim effects" that Moby-Dick had on Melville's later career.  In addition, several of the critical excerpts have been switched out for different entries.

But wait, shipmates.  All is not as it should be.  Sadly, the editors decided to jettison from the second edition one of the first's most useful (and most scholarly) features: the lists of variant readings.  The first edition contained 28 pages detailing the textual differences between the first English and American editions, and textual emendations that the scholar-editors (Harrison Hayford and Hershel "Mr. Melville" Parker) determined were needed.   Thus, the serious reader could find out the sources of differences in wording among the various versions in print and rule out (or not) mere modern typos.  Now, it is true, as the second edition's Preface explains, that the publication of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Moby-Dick, detailing textual variants, made inclusion of a similar section in the NCE duplicative.  But why make purchase of an additional volume necessary? 

As so often happens, the new does not surpass the old.  By all means, buy the second edition.  But don't discard the first.

Earlier entries in this series:

Signet Classics edition

Penguin English Library edition

Penguin English Library Moby-Dick

Penguin Edition of Moby-Dick
In contrast to Lemuel, with his Signet Classics copy, I didn't seriously attack Moby-Dick until August, 1983. On my first trip to Europe, cycling out of Paris, I wanted something substantial to read to pass the evening hours in my tent. My Junior-year English prof had always touted M-D as "the great American novel," so an English-language edition became my monomaniac thought. (Pity I didn't think of it before leaving cosmopolitan Paris.) A few small-city bookshops had no romans en anglais -- it wasn't until reaching Dijon that it was sighted, in the grand Librairie de l'Université. The shop clerk understood my execrable French (she pronounced it "mo-BEE-dick," I recall), and 42.50 francs (about $5.50 in '83) later I walked out with the object of my quest; noted in my journal: it felt like Christmas morning.
The book is a log, with about half as many pages of ancillary material as there are of the novel itself, but the weight and space it took in my pannier wasn't any concern. I pedaled with it for three months; read it in bars and parks, in hostels and campgrounds; even visited the Heidelberg Tun described in Chapter LXXVII. It was my text at three Moby-Dick marathons, now retired in favor of a sturdy hard-cover copy with larger type (a gift from Lemuel).
'83 Tour MascotI still consider it an excellent edition. The editor, Harold Beaver, is described as "Reader in American Literature at the University of Warwick." It appears that he wanted to put everything needed to appreciate M-D in a single paperback package, with a dream-like Turner painting on the cover. (I only just now realized that it includes Chase's The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex; Lecomte's Le Cachelot Blanc, in French and English; and Mocha Dick from The Knickerbocker magazine!) There are the usual biography and history-of-composition, with a very useful and readable "Introduction" (more on that in another post). In classy-academic Penguin tradition, there are thorough notes on the differences between the first English and American printings. And in the middle of it all, right where the binding cracks, are eight pages of photographs -- period prints and paintings, a New Bedford whaleship, a gold doubloon, the Bethel, and a mummified Maori head (my mental mascot that summer).
For that first "committed" reading, Beaver's "Commentary" section was my private tutor, greatly increasing my understanding and appreciation of Melville's labors. There is about one page of notes for every two pages of source text. References to the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, Carlyle, etc. are elucidated. Internal references are tied together. Symbolism is discussed. Technical terms are described. (E.g., what are the carlines?)
I'm not sure if this all-in-one edition is still in print, or if it was ever distributed in the U.S. This book has the same IBSN, mentions Beaver, and lists about the same number of pages.
Look for the shrunken head on the first page of photos -- accept no substitutes!