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, January 13, 2011

New Bedford in Winter

In most respects, New Bedford is not much different from other New England cities that have fallen on hard times.  If you've seen Somerville, Gloucester, or Waltham, for example, you've seen New Bedford.  The narrow streets, the scruffy late-19th-century wooden housing, the struggling downtown -- it's all the same. 

Of course, one thing New Bedford has that those other cities don't is the New Bedford Historic District, in which the look of a Melvillean whaling port is kept alive.  The streetcapes in the historic district evoke the New Bedford that Ishmael wandered through one December night:
Blocks of blackness, not houses, on either hand, and here and there a candle, like a candle moving about in a tomb. At this hour of the night, of the last day of the week, that quarter of the town proved all but deserted. ... Moving on, I at last came to a dim sort of light not far from the docks, and heard a forlorn creaking in the air; and looking up, saw a swinging sign over the door with a white painting upon it, faintly representing a tall straight jet of misty spray, and these words underneath—"The Spouter Inn:—Peter Coffin."
Passages like this make me appreciate that New Bedford is not scrubbed and manicured, like some sort of Whaling Williamsburg.  While the historic district has for the most part a touristy air to it, with upscale coffee shops and fern bars where Ishmael found warehouses and questionable accommodations, the rest of the city reminds us that Melville's New Bedford was (as it remains today) a working port.  It was filled with working men, and no doubt working women, who labored aboard ships or in the trades that catered to them. 

The frozen winds that blow through New Bedford's unkempt snow-encrusted streets also bring Ishmael sharply to mind:
[The Spouter Inn] stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul's tossed craft. Euroclydon, nevertheless, is a mighty pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed. "In judging of that tempestuous wind called Euroclydon," says an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant—"it maketh a marvellous difference, whether thou lookest out at it from a glass window where the frost is all on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier." True enough, thought I, as this passage occurred to my mind—old black-letter, thou reasonest well. Yes, these eyes are windows, and this body of mine is the house. What a pity they didn't stop up the chinks and the crannies though, and thrust in a little lint here and there.
Trudging to and from the marathon in early January, along icy sidewalks that the low-rising, soon-setting sun barely touches, puts you in the proper frame of mind for entering into the world of Moby-Dick.

North Water Street, New Bedford

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