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, October 23, 2011

Ahab's "attaboy"

Here's something I've wanted to check since reading Lemuel's post about the the current purchasing power of the $1.25 he spent on M-D in 1977.

In Chapter XXXVI Ahab memorably takes a page out of the corporate manager's Big Book of Manipulation to offer a gold "sixteen dollar piece" to the first crewman to spot Moby Dick. Using the tool that Lemuel cited to gauge the purchasing power of $16 in 2010 dollars (2011 figures are not yet available), we get the following values. In the novel, Ishmael tells us that the Pequod sailed "some years ago," so I present numbers for the ten years preceding M-D's 1851 publication date.

$16 in 1841 is worth$412 in 2010 dollars

So we're talking about an "incentive" worth something like $450 today (although the coin might be worth somewhat less with a big nail-hole through it).

Not what you'd call a killer bonus for three years' work, but certainly a respectable "attaboy"—particularly since it was coming out of Ahab's pocket, not some productivity-enhancement budget.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Today in History

160 years ago today, Moby-Dick was first publicly available.

Richard Bentley
On October 18, 1851 The Whale (as it was then titled) was published in London by Richard Bentley—500 sets of three octavo volumes.

According to A Note on the Text in my venerable Penguin paperback, Melville's agreement with Bentley was that "the English edition was to appear at least a fortnight before the American." Melville would receive £150 on delivery of the manuscript as an advance of 50% share of the profits. (Using the "pounds" version of Lemuel's "purchasing power calculator," that's equivalent to a wage today of £116,000, or $183,103.)

The text was heavily edited to remove "dubious sexual, or political, or religious overtones" (Penguin). Chapter 25 was entirely missing. Most confusing to critical readers was the absence of the Epilogue—if everyone perished at the end, then who's telling the story?

Contrary to prevailing myth, the initial reviews were not uniformly scathing. They ranged from "...a most extraordinary work..." to "...wantonly eccentric; outrageously bombastic..." This collection of contemporaneous reviews is worth reading.

The American edition was published by Harper & Brothers, New York, "probably on November 14, 1851" (Hershel Parker). The title on this edition was changed to Moby-Dick. It was published as a single volume in a run of 2,915 copies.

Thus the novel was typeset twice, which resulted in two versions of the text (the English version unsympathetically edited to boot). The dedicated sleuthing of Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, later with G. Thomas Tanselle, rationalized the differences in the two versions to determine "as nearly as possible the author's intentions." The result was the Norton Critical Edition (1967), followed by the Northwestern-Newberry edition (1988).

The logic whereby Hayford and Parker untangled the M-D knot is for another post. Of course, not everyone agrees with their editorial choices, so the search for Melville's "intentions" continues (see the Longman Critical Edition). Some publishers skirt the issue entirely by simply selling (error-ridden) public-domain versions.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sign up now to read at MDM16

Quietly added to the Whaling Museum's MDM page was the call for Marathon readers:
Reservations to read are limited. Call (508) 997-0046, ext. 151.
Slots fill up well before January, so if you want to read (and be listed in the handout everyone gets), don't procrastinate.

If you're planning on staying for the entire reading, you can sign up as a standby reader when you arrive for the Marathon.  No guarantees that you'll be called to the podium, but there always seems to be a need for readers in the small hours of Sunday morning.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Well, I uh started it, but um...

That's OK.  I'm told that no human can read the whole thing.
Amusing video over at Iron-bound Bucket.  Nice music, too.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"Mentally ill"

Searching the online catalog of my local library for a PlayAway (something like a pre-loaded MP3 player) to accompany my geezer-walks, a listing for Moby-Dick jumped out. Scanning the entry, I was struck by the phrase "mentally ill" as one of ten keywords (keyphrases?) for our beloved text.

My metaphorical knickers began to twist themselves...

I can't blame the esteemed staff of the Minuteman Library System—clicking a link at the bottom of the webpage, it appears that these online entries are generated by Syndetic Solutions, a division of R.R. Bowker, LLC. This "service"... libraries more than 40 million unique, descriptive data elements relating to books, audio books, videos, CDs, and DVDs, which deliver richer, more informative results and create a significantly better catalog search experience.
A wise man once told me, "Everything that does something for you, does something to you." Syndetics spares libraries the task of summarizing M-D by distilling it for them to: an "epic saga," a "heroic conflict between man and his fate," that deals with the psychology of a whaling ship captain who is mentally ill.

You call that a "better catalog search experience"? Feh!

Was Ahab mentally ill, or merely "obsessed"? Was he manic-depressive (bipolar), as David Dowling outlines in Chasing the White Whale (p;146)? How about Starbuck, who comes close to murder? Or Ishmael, who ships out to avert suicide?

Wendy Stallard Flory writes (as quoted by Dowling), "No romance writer has dramatized the experience of manic-depressive mood swings more comprehensively than Melville in Moby-Dick." Flory sees the other characters in M-D embodying ways of dealing with manic-depression: Starbuck through conscious will, Stubb and Flask through "substance abuse," over-indulgence, and willful ignorance. The anti-Ahab, the "integrated personality," is Queequeg.

So, sure—M-D about mental illness. It's also about the tension between capital and labor, ambergris, and whale anatomy; but would you expect to see "Marxism," "perfume," or "cetology" among the top ten keyphrases?

A review of M-D on Amazon is emblazoned on my memory. Under the headline, Do NOT Read This Book, an aggrieved student's prĂ©cis was: "Boringest book ever!"  Now there's a keyphrase for Syndetics, though none of us M-D devotees would concur.

Years ago, I fell into a discussion with a colleague about one of the Jasper Johns "target" paintings. At one point he looked at his watch and said, "We've just spent 45 minutes talking about it. We could do that because it's Art." I'd bet that most Marathon attendees share the feeling that the more you look into M-D, the more there is to discover. You think you have a good grasp on it until you hear someone like Wyn Kelley field audience questions during "Stump the Scholars."

To reduce a work as substantial and multifaceted as M-D to a list of search terms is not an easy matter. But "mentally ill" would not be in my top ten.

Would it be in yours?