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.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ishmael's Rights, Part III

As I mentioned in a previous post in this series (linked below), to appreciate the psychology in Moby-Dick we need to keep in mind that the Pequod was not a naval ship.  Her crew were employees, not enlisted men subject to military discipline.  They had a contractual relationship with the ship's owners (including Ahab), and the captain and mates could not normally use violence against the crew with impunity.

A fascinating U.S. case on this subject, from 1806, is Thorne v. White (D. Pa. 23 F. Cas. 1132).  The opinion, by Judge Hopkinson, contains much more in the way of instructive material than I could possibly quote here.  As in many other cases brought by seamen, the issue was wages -- specifically, whether the bad conduct of the seaman bringing the case entitled the owners to withhold his pay for the voyage.  This gave Judge Hopkinson the opportunity to discuss at length how the behavior of sailors and captains must be weighed to determine who was most at fault.

It is the duty of seamen to bear even the ill-temper of the master, and to get out of his way, when instances of passion occur. ... Some of the maritime laws are particular in adjusting how a mariner shall demand [sic] himself when the master is enraged, and when he may stand on his defense.  A master must not pursue (as was done in the case before me) a mariner, who flies from him when enraged. ... When the crime of a sailor is too great for the master's authority to punish (which should be evident on the trial, to justify severe measures) the master and his officers are to seize the criminal, put him in irons, and not take the law into their own hands, but bring him to justice on their return.  But the contract for wages is not affected. ...

I have generally thought myself warranted to give a latitude of construction to the words "moderate correction," where chastisement was salutary and merited, and in this I have never been overnice.  The safety of a ship sometimes depends on promptly checking disobedience, and stimulating exertion.  Subordination is peculiarly essential to be enforced, among a class of men whose manners and habits partake of the attributes of the element, on which they are employed. ... [But] instances have not been rare in this court (and they have not been overlooked) where the most enormously cruel, and unjustifiable acts of tyranny, and wanton abuses of power, have been exhibited by masters of ships. ... The sea laws enjoin on the master a temperate demeanor, and orderly and decent conduct, towards seamen.  By several of these laws, he is finable for abusive expressions[!], or misconduct, towards mariners. ... When a mariner is incorrigibly disobedient, and will not submit, and offer to do duty and make amends, the master may discharge him.  He may correct and confine him on board the ship, or dock him of his provisions. 

There is much more worth reading, but I fear I have already tried the reader's patience.  One footnote, however, needs to be quoted in full, because in it the judge describes an earlier case that bears some similarity to the Town-Ho's story:

In a case wherein confinement on board the ship, of two disobedient seamen, appeared to me proper, and indispensable, and where frequent endeavors to reclaim were ineffectually tried, for almost the whole latter section of the return voyage, I held the confinement in irons, so justifiable and necessary for the safety of the ship, that I refused to allow wages for that part of the voyage.  The two seamen were influential characters, and atrocious leaders of a rebellious crew.  [As] they had not misbehaved on the former part of the voyage, I considered it to be a partial breach of contract, and not a forfeiture in toto.  These seamen complained, I thought without cause, of high-handed and cruel treatment.  I left them to their remedy at common law, by action for false imprisonment, or any other mode of redress.
Ishmael's Rights, Part I

Ishmael's Rights, Part II

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Frederick Douglass autobiography "Read-a-Thon"

Frederick Douglass circa 1855
The work of another author (although that term only hints at his significance) with ties to New Bedford will have a public reading on Sunday, February 5. The New Bedford Historical Society's twelfth annual reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave runs from 2-6 PM.

Details, and contact information for volunteer readers, are on the Historical Society's site.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The 16th New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon -- the Wee Hours on the Third Day

According the New Bedford Whaling Museum's blog, the 16th Moby-Dick Marathon attracted a record number of visitors -- more than 2,900 over the weekend.  During most of the reading on Saturday, there were few or no empty chairs, unless you resorted to the overflow seating in the Cook Memorial Theater, where the reading was shown remotely with a slight delay. 

Spots in the main seating area, in the Jacobs Family Gallery, did not begin to free up until after the performance of Chapter XL ("Midnight, Forecastle") had concluded in the Theater, at about 10:00 p.m. as I recall.  From this point forward, the year-over-year increase in visitors became less noticeable.  There seemed to be a few more sleepers than at earlier MDMs stretched out on the mezzanine, and the number of awake participants seemed to dwindle more gradually, and to come not quite so close to zero, as in my previous years.

This increase in participation was good for all concerned -- except for us standby readers, whose chances of getting to read are inversely proportional to the number of people who show up.  I did get the opportunity to read once.  My selection happened to be "The Jeroboam's Story" (Ch. LXXI),  which I much prefer to what I read last year, about Derick De Deer and his lamp-feeder (Ch. LXXXI).  But neither I nor any of the other stand-bys had the chance to read more than once during the course of the night.

Just as in MDMs past, between midnight and sunrise, those who remained, and remained awake, were overtaken by the same surreal feeling of being trapped with Ishmael in a sea of darkness, listening to him go on and on, in a stream of seemingly inexhaustible eloquence, about Steelkilt and gams and tuns and sharks and whale skeletons and monstrous pictures and Malaysian pirates.  Meanwhile, the snack food in the break room slowly disappears, while each cup of coffee and tea you drink has less effect than the last.  Close to dawn, like Ishmael trying to make a bed out of a bench at the Spouter Inn, you find that every position you assume is uncomfortable. 

A few times, to stretch my legs, I went out into the dark to get some shots of the deserted New Bedford streets.  By this time, the unusually balmy weather had turned colder.  It was still not as bone-chilling as in prior years, but at least I now found it easier to relate to impoverished Ishmael when he wandered the wintry New Bedford waterfront in search of economical lodgings.

The Rodman Candleworks and part of the "Double Bank" on Water St.
Looking south on Water St. behind the Museum

Friday, January 13, 2012

The 16th New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon -- Second Day (Part Two)

Immediately after the "Stump the Scholars!" program, the scholars headed over to the Lagoda Room to conduct a reading of the Extracts that preface Moby-Dick.  This was the first time in the history of the New Bedford MDM that the Extracts have been included in the reading.  In prior years, the Marathon has always skipped the Extracts and begun instead with Chapter I ("Call me Ishmael" etc.) -- something that we and other fans have deplored in the past.

Wyn Kelley reads an extract.
The idea behind this Extracts reading was excellent.  The plan was to begin the Extracts at 11:30 a.m. and get through as many of them as possible before noon.  That way, the Marathon formalities could still commence on schedule at the same time as in every other year, without the necessity of determining precisely how long it would take to read all the Extracts.  The scholars stood around the balcony of the Lagoda Room and took turns reading one extract each, an arrangement that made it easy to separate one extract from another and that spared the readers the trouble of reading the source after each extract. 

Jennifer Baker reads; Mary Bercaw Edwards waits her turn.
There was just one problem, which I don't think anyone could have foreseen:  The audience did not seem to grasp that this was part of the reading of Moby-Dick.  Instead of listening quietly as they do to every other part of the book, the audience members talked over the readers as if Melville were just background noise.  As a result, it was nearly impossible to hear the Extracts.  I don't know whether this happened because most people didn't understand what was going on, or because a small number of talkers caused everyone else to give up and talk too, or because most people just don't like the Extracts.

Whatever the cause, I hope the Museum will continue to include the Extracts in future years.  Perhaps if they began the Extracts reading by having someone ring a bell or blow a bos'n's whistle from the podium, and announce what is about to take place, the audience will be more attentive.

After the Extracts, I went out to grab some lunch and take pictures around town.  Gansevoort stayed on and later attended a sort of round-table discussion with the scholars and other serious fans, something I'm sorry to have missed and expect he will write about in the days to come.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Kids Are Alright

The under-20s were well represented this year. Gives one hope, eh?
Sat. 5:08 PM Sat. 5:09 PM Sun. 12:11 AM Sat. 9:26 PM

The 16th New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon -- Second Day (Part One)

Saturday (Jan. 7) began with the second annual "Stump the Scholars!" program in the Cook Memorial Theater at the Whaling Museum.  This event was organized the same as last year's, except many more people participated this year, and the audience's questions were (I thought) tougher.  Anyone who had a Moby-Dick-related question for the scholars (from the Melville Society) could write the question on a form and be assigned a number, first come, first served.  Then the questions would be posed in numerical order to two teams of three scholars each (named the "Clams" and the "Cod," after Chapter XV, "Chowder").  A team who answered a question satisfactorily would be awarded points; if neither team was able to answer, the questioner received an "I Stumped the Scholars" button.

The Scholars
It's no easy task to "stump" teams like these. We're talking about some of the rock stars of Melville studies, with knowledge broad and deep. From the left in the photo above:
  • Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (U. of Connecticut)
  • Robert Wallace (Northern Kentucky U.)
  • Wyn Kelley (M.I.T.)
  • Chris Sten (George Washington U.)
  • Laurie Robertson-Lorant (U. of Massachusetts Dartmouth)
  • Jennifer Baker (NYU)
Michael Dyer works the crowd
The judge and scorekeeper, as last year, was Michael Dyer, the Museum's Maritime Curator. He did a great job, balancing entertainment and erudition. In the end, he was as surprised as anyone (i.e., no one) that once again the teams were tied!

The questions ranged from gimmes to true head-scratchers.  E.g.:
- In what country was Ishmael when he related the story of the Town-Ho? (Answer: Peru)
- What is a sword-mat? (Answer: a fender or bumper for a boat)
- How many words are in Moby-Dick? (I think this was a gag question, but Robert Wallace made an educated guess that came very close to the correct number.)
- A complex question about synchronicities that I didn't follow.
- What once celebrated, later notorious, American military figure was instrumental in the creation of Moby-Dick?  (Answer: Benedict Arnold, who [if I heard correctly] saved the life of the future Mrs. Peter Gansevoort, Herman Melville's maternal grandmother.  This stumper was the work of Peter Whittemore, who earned a button thereby.)

Shortly before the program started, Gansevoort and I had some excitement when I unintentionally outed us as the authors of this blog.  It happened when I asked Michael Dyer if I could take his picture for a blog.  When I said the word "blog," a voice behind me cried out, "Ahab Beckons?  Are you Ahab Beckons?"  I turned around to find Jim Lopes, VP of Education and Programming at the Museum.  By reacting, I had already betrayed myself.  Jim then introduced himself and asked me if I was Gansevoort.  I said no and led him into the theater, where Gansevoort was sitting.  Jim explained that (unknown to us) he and others had been speculating on our identities and had even asked the assembly at the end of the buffet dinner whether "Ahab Beckons" was in attendance.  (This was apparently after we had moved into the theater to get settled for Dr. Marr's lecture.)

In a whirlwind, Jim then introduced us to an assortment of notables, including Peter Whittemore (Melville's great-great-grandson), Robert Rocha (the Museum's Science Director and the commander-in-chief of this year's Marathon; he also read a chapter in Portuguese), Wyn Kelley, and Brian Witkowski (the Museum's Education Programs Manager).  With the help of our sister, we managed to get photos of some of the above, which are posted below.  After the "Stump" program, the Museum's Director of Digital Initiatives, Michael Lapides, also introduced himself.  Everyone was very gracious, and their kind words of encouragement were most appreciated.

Peter Whittemore
Robert Rocha
I'm positive that we also took a picture of Jim Lopes and Brian Witkowski, but I can't find it on my camera.  (Ynot explains in the comments that this may be the result of photographer's error.)

Alternative photo of Jim Lopes, at the podium Friday evening

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The 16th New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon -- First Day

Gansevoort and I arrived at the New Bedford Fairfield Inn within minutes of each other on Friday afternoon.  He had driven down from Waltham, and I had taken the train from Wilmington to Providence, where my sister (who was also heading to the Marathon) picked me up for the drive from Providence to New Bedford.  We dropped our bags and walked over to Freestone's (a/k/a "The Marathoner's Rest") for a pre-Marathon-buffet drink.

Melville fans arrive early to get good seats for the lecture
This was our first year attending the Marathon buffet dinner, a pleasant, communal way to kick off the Marathon activities. Our table included my sister and brother-in-law, the Dutch Melvilleans Tjitske Zwerver and Tonnie Schakenraad, and RISD professor Burton Van Name ("Van") Edwards, with whom I had a nice chat about parchment, papyrus, and points.

After dinner and a quick trip to the museum shop, we headed into the Cook Memorial Theater for this year's lecture, "Moby-Dick in American Popular Culture," by Timothy Marr of UNC.   The lecture -- illustrated with photos, videos, and music -- earned lots of laughs, as we watched clips of cartoons, video games, and movies, very, very loosely inspired by Moby-Dick.  (Professor Marr omitted one Moby-Dick by-blow, however: Age of the Dragons, starring Danny Glover as Ahab.)  Among the photos were some intriguing, and some just plain odd, covers of editions of Moby-Dick from the collection of our blogging compatriot Bill Pettit.

After the lecture, we strolled back to the hotel to rest up for the main event.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Four Graces of the Marathon

The group of volunteers "manning" the galley varies a bit from year to year. I didn't get a photo of the MDM16 ladies — here's a memento from MDM14.

Thank you x 4.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Much more than we expected

MDM16 turned out to be much more than we expected. We met some interesting folks who greatly expanded our understanding of M-D.

It's going to take a while to unpack and process everything — photos and posts are coming. For now, we'll say:
Thanks to all involved! (and, only 363 days till MDM17).

Friday, January 6, 2012

Live streaming of MDM16

If you're not able to make it to New Bedford this weekend, you can watch a live stream of the entire Marathon. Last year's inaugural stream was very well done — the camera and audio techs stayed attentive for the entire 25 hours, following the Marathon as it moved to the Seamen's Bethel, and through several rooms in the Museum. The streams were available later as archived recordings. (You can view recordings of MDM15 now, although they may be replaced by MDM16.)

Note 1: My Safari browser under Mac OS X 10.5.8 has trouble with the video player, but Firefox works fine.

Note 2: If you tune in before the kick-off at Noon this Saturday, you may only see a static image or some canned footage.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What to expect?

Packing for MDM16 now, I was reminded of reading this 4-part post when I was anticipating my first MDM.
 ... The young woman Carol spoke with last night is one of them, now attired in pajamas and bathrobe. ...
 If this is your first MDM, you can expect a well-organized, tolerant, focused, quietly convivial affair.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Today in History

New Bedford Harbor, 1893
In the hectic run-up to MDM16, we're grateful to The Writer's Almanac for noting that today is the 171st anniversary of Herman's departure on the whaleship Acushnet, from New Bedford Harbor. (The ship was registered in Fairhaven.) In 1841, he was just 21 years old. That voyage proved to be his "Yale College and [his] Harvard."

For its first thirteen editions, the Moby-Dick Marathon began on January 3 in remembrance of Melville's sailing. It wasn't until 2010 (MDM14) that the event was moved to the first weekend after the New Year holiday, to make it more accessible for the conscientious laborers among us.

The ship Acushnet was named after the Acushnet River, which forms New Bedford Harbor where the river enters Buzzards Bay. According to Wikipedia:
The name "Acushnet" comes from the Wampanoag Algonquian word, "Cushnea", meaning "as far as the waters", a word that was used by the original owners of the land in describing the extent of the parcel they intended to sell to the English settlers from the nearby Plimouth colony.