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

Monday, February 6, 2012

Road Trip - Frederick Douglass Marathon

Just back from the Twelfth Annual Frederick Douglass Community Read-A-Thon of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. This is presented by the New Bedford Historical Society, and seemed to be "directed" by Melville biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant (of MDM "Stump the Scholars" fame). What a great way to kick off Black History Month!

I got to New Bedford early and took advantage of the balmy (for February) weather to roam the neighborhood. First stop: the Lewis Temple statue in front of the Public Library. Temple was a blacksmith, and inventor, who moved to New Bedford in the 1820s. Clifford Ashley in The Yankee Whaler notes that, with the opening of the Kodiak whaling grounds in 1835, whalemen observed the walrus and seal spears of the indigenous hunters. Their detachable spear-head was seen as being more effective than the flexible, single-flued iron then prevalent in whaling. "Over one hundred harpoon patent applications were filed in Washington within the next few years." In 1848, Lewis Temple came up with a design that "was of such extremely simple construction, and at the same time was so practical, that it was at once adopted to the exclusion of all others." Ashley continues...
With but one small change , to permit easier manufacture, it has continued to be the standard harpoon of the fishery. ... It is safe to say that the Temple toggle was the most important single invention in the whole history of whaling, since it resulted in the capture of a far greater proportion of the whales that were struck than had before been possible.
Temple's design was never patented. Upon his death, the statue's plaque informs us, "after business debts were cleared, there was no legacy left for his family."
On the next block is the Frederick Douglass Monument. From the website of the New Bedford Historical Society:
This monument is dedicated to Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna who escaped slavery by the underground railroad and made New Bedford their home for five years 1838-1843. Two of their children were born here, Rosetta (1839) and Lewis (1840). Dedicated on October 17, 1996, this monument commemorates the 100th anniversary of his death in 1895. Sponsored by the City of New Bedford and the New Bedford Chapter of the NAACP.
Friends Meeting House
Then it was on to the Friends Meeting House for the reading. For veterans of the Moby-Dick Marathon, this was like a small-town "fun run." The audience is smaller (maybe peaking at 100), the text is short (about 100 pages), the duration is brief (about 4.5 hours), and readers don't have to struggle with arcane references (Euroclydon anyone?).

Each reader was assigned a specific passage. Dr. Robertson-Lorant distributed the texts — five or six pages printed in a comfortably large font, stapled together. All attendees were given a Dover edition of Douglass's work, to follow along. A generous spread of food and drink was available in the adjoining hall.

Marlena Johnson
Rep. Barney Frank
Mayor Jon Mitchell
Rep. Wm. Keating
I arrived few minutes early and was struck by the sight of a young woman wearing a tiara! The program revealed that she was the 2012 Miss New Bedford, Marlena Johnson. She kindly posed for a blog photo. (Talk about poise!)

Ms. Johnson opened the event with a superb rendition of "Lift Every Voice." There followed a presentation to U.S. Representative Barney Frank, and a few introductions and announcements. Dr. Mary Louise Francis, Superintendent of Schools, was warmly applauded for her declaration that the Douglass autobiography will be "mandatory reading for New Bedford public schools."

Then we were off. Mr. Frank read first, followed by New Bedford mayor Jonathan Mitchell, and U.S. Representative William Keating.

A few familiar faces from MDM16 were among the readers -- Jen Nersesian (in her Nat'l Historical Park uniform), Scott Lang, Jim Lopes, and Michael Dyer.

Most impressive were the youngest readers, from local grammar and middle schools. I'd say that the future is in good hands.

Scanning the audience, I was reminded of the ethnically diverse New Bedford of Chapter 6 in M-D. We were a mix of cultures, of backgrounds, of ages; husbands and wives, parents and children. While the text described extreme cruelties, we pondered it together, and together marveled at one man's strength and intelligence. Was I the only one who felt a tacit, mutual pledge to look for the best in each other?

Young readers
Young readers
Jim Lopes
Dr. Laurie Robertson-Lorant

Sunday, February 5, 2012

At the Frederick Douglass marathon. Festive, expectant air... [more later]