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.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The 16th New Bedford Moby-Dick Marathon -- Scholar "Chats"

photo: Metro Library and Archive
For the second year in a row, the Marathon offered "Chat with a Melville Scholar." The scholars were available in a side-gallery, for two hours Saturday afternoon and one hour Sunday morning. I imagined this as sort of a visit to the library's reference desk — you ask your question, get your answer, and move on — but it turned out to be much more.

On Saturday I walked in on scholars Wyn Kelley (M.I.T.) and Timothy Marr (UNC), engaged in a free-form discussion with a small knot of marathoners. Ms. Kelley called me over to join the group. Other marathoners, as well as scholars Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (U. of Conn.) and Chris Sten (George Washington U.), wandered in until the circle swelled to over twenty.

There followed a sort of Master Class on "Moby-Dick and other matters arising," with insights voiced from all quarters. Among the "audience" were several students of literature, and a number of amateurs who clearly had given M-D a lot of thought. (Marathoners are fascinating people.)

Scribbling notes as fast as I could, I walked away with "leads" that could occupy this Melville dilettante for months:
  • The Art of Fielding; fiction, somehow relevant
  • seek out Lisa Norling's history of whalers' wives
  • something about the 1919 centennial of Herman's birth, biographer Raymond Weaver, and his connection to Maria Melville (HM's mother)
  • Eleanor Melville Metcalf (HM's granddaughter) shared Herman's papers with biographers to fuel the "Melville Revival" of the 1920s. (Wyn Kelley has a paper about this, available online.)
  • M-D could be read as a poem; Melville's poem Clarel is significant
  • something about Hassidic texts' "holy life point" in all creatures
  • an interesting digression concerning Irish authors
  • something about Irish writer Walter Macken (sp?) and his poem "The Great Pyramid"
  • relevant: Whitman's poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
  • In Chapter 24, The Advocate, Ishmael's voice changes from that of greenhand to shipwreck survivor
  • M-D as "The Book of Ishmael," scripture of the final religion
  • When was Ishmael recounting his story (M-D)? Where? In Lima?
  • see "the Ibis trilogy" by Gaosh
  • Freud's writings similar in some ways to M-D
  • Freudian analysis of Ahab; in Chaper 119, The Candles, Ahab asks the Almighty, "what did you do with my mother?"
  • Ahab as the hero, as he "rages against mortality," going up against something "epically monstrous"
The scholars displayed their pedagogic talents, too, drawing each of us into the discussion, and considering all comments with respect. Those "rock stars" of Melville scholarship treated us as colleagues, or at least coreligionists.

I made sure to join the group again on Sunday. Although many in the group were enervated from all-night marathoning, this session was even meatier. There was a long (and long-overdue) discussion of what we might charitably call the racially insensitive passages in M-D. (From the looks on people's faces, it seemed several of us would have liked to consider this topic further.)

Then came a bomb.

Someone asked, "What did Steelkilt say to the captain?" (in Chapter 54, The Town-Ho's Story).

Ms. Berkaw-Edwards told us that there were stories of a woman in the days of sail who disguised herself as a man and joined a crew in the forecastle. "He" was reportedly the toughest seaman (sea-person?) on the ship. The disguise was only discovered when "he" was about to be flogged for some infraction. (Lemuel might have more to post about this.)

A scholarly marathoner added to this shocker, positing that Gabriel of Chapter 71, The Jeroboam's Story, was Steelkilt after "he" had left the Town-Ho. Gabriel's coat is described so as long-skirted, and it was the crew of the Town-Ho that told the tale of Gabriel to the Pequod's crew.

My head was spinning as we returned to the reading in the atrium. Melvillians, both professional and amateur, know that M-D contains worlds within worlds. It was clear then that within those worlds every word matters.

Update, 12/10/13: Re-reading Chapter 54, Steelkilt is described as having "a flowing golden beard like the tassled housings of your last viceroy's snorting charger." So it's unlikely "he" was a "she." Steelkilt does whisper something upsetting to the captain and Radney—did he have some dirt on those two?

Matryoshka 1

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