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, December 30, 2018

If you can't make it to New Bedford...

MDM23 is now days away. The weather forecast is for chilly, but dry, conditions, so don't miss this opportunity to join the (quiet) celebration.

If this is your first time, check out the Marathon Overview page to get an idea of what you can expect. Links in the "Essentials" section (at right) can help you pack; and find parking, food, and lodgings.

If you can't make it to New Bedford, follow Twitter hashtag #mdm23, and check the Whaling Museum's website for a link to the live video stream. The reading proper will start Saturday at Noon, January 5.

If it's easier for you to get to Chicago, consider attending the Moby-Dick Read-a-Thon, January 19-20, at the Newberry Library.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Japan to Resume Commercial Whaling

photo: New Bedford Whaling Museum Blog
Bob Rocha, Director of Education and Science Programs, sums this up nicely on the Whaling Museum Blog.

Also noted in the New York Times, here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Norton Critical Editions of Moby-Dick x3

Originally published February 10, 2018;
Edited to append Gansevoort's "Physical Notes."
Norton Critical 1st, 2nd, and 3rd -- Collect 'em all.

I just got the "Third Norton Critical Edition" of Moby-Dick (NCE3).  I had to order it through a third-party seller on Amazon, and it shipped from Europe.  At the moment, it doesn't appear to be available at all on Amazon, whether from Mr. Bezos himself or a third-party seller.  Oddly, even the publisher's website shows only the second edition right now.  A number of sellers at ABE Books (which has become an affiliate of Amazon) are offering it, however.

First, let me say how surprised, pleased, and honored I am to see Gansevoort's (mainly) and my humble efforts mentioned on page 687, in Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Wyn Kelley's essay (written specially for NCE3), "Melville and the Spoken Word."  The essay digs deep below the surface of the Moby-Dick Marathon phenomenon, which is more extensive than even I had realized.  Of all the books that could have inspired so mighty a sound, why Moby-Dick?

Second, I am surprised and pleased to see that, while NCE3 does not have an apparatus as extensive as that of NCE1, the editor, Hershel "Mr. Melville" Parker, has provided a convenient list of emendations, something that was entirely absent from NCE2.  (This is the first Norton Critical Moby-Dick not to be co-edited by Harrison Hayford, who died in 2001, shortly before NCE2 came out.)

Between NCE1 and NCE2, the explanatory footnotes to the text itself were greatly and usefully expanded.  As far as I could tell from a quick spot-check, the footnotes in NCE3 have not changed from those in NCE2 (although a few have been split into multiple notes).  That's all to the good, as far as I'm concerned -- the quantity of footnotes in NCE2 was just right.

This is a new edition because the assortment of goodies at the end of the volume has been switched up, just as with NCE2.   Among the newcomers are Prof. Parker's "Glimpses of Melville as Performer" and six essays under the heading "Moby-Dick in the Twenty-First Century" (where Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Wyn Kelley's entry appears).

But this is only a glimpse of how NCE3's critical caboose differs from that of NCE2.  Though my opinion is not entirely disinterested, all three editions are well worth having.

Norton Critical Editions Moby Dick [NCE2 vs NCE1]

Added by Gansevoort, 12/12/2018.

Physical Notes

NCE3 is a "tighter" publication than NCE2. The pages are the same height, but are slightly narrower (by about 3/32"). The font, font size, and leading are identical. (See the Typeface Tally.) The width of the text block on the page is the same; however, top and bottom margins are reduced in NCE3, displaying 51 lines of text per page where NCE2 displayed 50. (The line breaks have changed, too; usually, but not always, rendering the same text in fewer lines.)

The net result is that NCE3 presents Etymology through FINIS in 405 pages vs. NCE2's 421—3.8% fewer pages. Less wood is good, right?

Measuring the thickness of 100 pages in each edition with calipers, the paper stock in NCE3 is about 14% thinner than that of NCE2. (The stock feels almost like bible leaves.) The show-through is about the same in each.


Hershel Parker, now in his eighties, has blogged that NCE3 marks "the end of a long career." The three Norton Critical editions represent over fifty years of rigorous work. Thank you, Mr. Parker.

Not for the squeamish

photo: Wikimedia
The brilliant BBC podcast, Witness, recently posted an interview with a seaman who worked on an industrial whaler in the 1950's/60's—"A personal account of the huge Antarctic industry which left whales on the brink of extinction."

(9 minutes long) Listen or download.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Reserve your Bethel spot & Reader slot!

Registration is open for readers at the Moby-Dick Marathon, the Portuguese Marathon, and the Children's Marathon. You can also enter the drawing for a seat at the historic Seamen’s Bethel, where chapters 7-9 are read/performed.

Don't dally. Registration closes at 5:00 PM EST, November 30.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

MDM23 is official!

The 23rd Moby-Dick Marathon is coming, January 4-6. Details are now on the Whaling Museum site.

Save the date. Plan your transportation. Make room reservations.

2019 being the bicentennial of Melville's birth, we can expect something special.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Unknown Melville manuscript found?

Roger Stritmatter, humanities professor at Coppin State University (Baltimore), believes he may have found the manuscript of "a satiric mock-newspaper" penned by Herman Melville.

Read all about it in the Baltimore Sun.

Hat-tip @MelvilleQuotes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Road Trip - Arrowhead MDM

Arrowhead farmhouse
To celebrate Melville's birthday, the Berkshire County Historical Society organized five days of events at/near Arrowhead farm. The centerpiece of their "Melville Week" was a (second annual) Moby-Dick marathon reading.

Like MDMs in New York and Provincetown, the BHS spread its reading across several days. Such an arrangement attracts local folks, who can sleep in their own beds and return fresh, but discourages out-of-towners from attending more than a couple of days. We made it to the fourth, final day.

Will there be an Arrowhead MDM for Melville's 200th birthday next year? We can hope. One might dream of a reading that takes place inside the actual home, and runs through the night to finish on August 1. (Are there any reports of hauntings at Arrowhead?)

The 2018 reading was held in the barn that houses Arrowhead's ticket office and museum shop.
Peter Bergman, Director of Communications for the BHS, recruited readers as we entered. He explained: read from the "podium copy" until the bell rings, then make a pencil mark where you stopped.

Each person read for ten minutes, after which Peter said something like, "Sarah, thank you so much," and called the next reader. Things proceeded calmly.

Like the Mystic MDM, no microphone was necessary. The group grew to no more than fifteen.

One reader stood out. She was maybe ten years old(?) and had very little problem with the knotty text. All the best to her, and her family!
A better photo, copied from the BHS Facebook page.
At the "Finis," Peter announced that over the four days of the marathon there were 85 different readers, plus 23 folks who simply listened.

Then he took his harpoon and posed for photos.

Mount Greylock on the horizon
(apologies for poor camera)

Thanks to the volunteers and staff of the Berkshire County Historical Society for a well run, "neighborly" MDM.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Road Trip - Mystic Seaport MDM

Edited 10/20/2018 to add note about tick-borne infection.

Ahab Beckons finally made it to the longest-running Moby-Dick Marathon—that organized by the Mystic Seaport Museum. This (2018) was its thirty-third annual outing. Mystic sticks to a July 31 start, ending on August 1 (Melville's birthday), no matter the days of the week. If you're not willing to call in sick, tough toenails.

Side note: New Bedford adhered to a January 3 start (the date of Melville's sailing on the Acushnet) until MDM14 in 2010, if memory serves. It then settled on the first weekend after January 1, greatly increasing attendance.

Practical Matters

  • The entire reading takes place aboard the whaleship Charles W. Morgan. Overnight space is limited. Call a few weeks ahead to reserve. Details on the museum website.
  • There is ample free parking across the street from the Seaport; well signed.
  • You'll need to purchase admission to the Seaport area. Online tickets receive a 10% discount.
  • There is Wi-Fi in the Seaport area; spotty, as you'd guess. The entrance desk will give you the password.
  • Food and drink are not allowed on the Morgan. Water bottles were permitted. Some folks left their bag of provisions at the foot of the gangway, then left the ship to make a picnic. There is also a pub and sandwich shop on the grounds.
  • Experienced marathoners brought folding chairs. Recommended.
  • There is not a lot of shade or rain cover on deck; mosquitoes could be a problem; it can be chilly and damp at night. Be prepared.
  • The deck is not lit. Bring a lantern/flashlight/headlamp to read & maneuver.
  • Lots of folks slept on deck; bring a pad, pillow, and sleeping bag. Some slept below, where it was warm, stuffy, and brightly lit. Earplugs and a sleep mask are the ticket.
  • Organizers maintained a sign-up sheet by chapter number. Each reader delivered an entire chapter. (Yes, even The Town Ho's Story!) If you have a favorite chapter, talk to the staff early.
  • Check with the entrance desk if you want to leave the Seaport. There should be no problem getting back in.
  • The Seaport area is closed from 6 P.M. until 9 A.M. The marathon staff will tell you how to get out/in after hours.
  • Don't mess with the ropes (sheets, halyards, and stays) or belaying pins!
 Photo: Gilles Renault

"Post-Mortemising" the Mystic MDM

Noon: Board the Morgan from the port side, and try to find a spot in the shade of the "spare boat rack." (What's the correct term?)

The Morgan has a tiny cabin (built for a captain's seasick wife) in the center of the deck, just before the mizzen-mast. Readers stand aft of the mainmast and address the audience sitting on either side of that cabin.

"Mr. Melville" recites the Loomings chapter from memory(!); something of a tradition, I gather. Sorry I didn't get his name, or thank him for his fine performance.

There is no podium, no microphone. Almost all readers are clearly audible; some painfully so. Every reader gets a round of applause when finished.

The ship remains open to museum visitors. Tourists filter through the reading and stare at us as if we're some weird exhibit.

3:30 P.M. A group of staff members boards and goes about reefing the sails for the night. Fascinating, exacting, tough physical work. The reading continues as we try to stay out of their way.

6 P.M. The museum closes, leaving fewer than twenty of us marathoners to carry on through the night. The sounds of the tourists and the working harbor are replaced by the chirps of crickets and the whine of the I-95.

As darkness gathers, we feel like a group of friends sitting around a campfire or in someone's living room.

5 A.M. BYOL - Bring your own light!
6 A.M. The dawn brings showers. Deck-sleepers are driven under the "boat rack" or below deck.

7 A.M. Staff prepares for another day. An anachronistic truck rolls down the quayside to collect the previous day's trash. Local sportsfolk shoot along the river in their sculls.

9:30 A.M. Veteran sailor and Melville scholar, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards directs staff members as they set the Morgan's sails for the day. She announces that a whale will be sighted soon...

11:25 A.M. "The Chase — Third Day"
Ahab howls. Mr. Melville waits to read "Epilogue."

11:30 A.M. A watch in the crow's nest calls "There she blows!" Mary K. and staff demonstrate the lowering of a whaleboat (a non-trivial task).
11:45 A.M. All ashore to celebrate Melville's 199th birthday with cake!
Nearly all the readers at Mystic seemed to be very conversant with the text. Their delivery was smooth and confident. This might be a by-product of the marathon falling mid-week when "youngsters" are less able to attend. There were never more than about thirty attendees, so lots of folks read multiple times. (When the marathon falls on a weekend, is the ship overcrowded?)

All-told, this was a cozy MDM, without the technology and "stage management" of the New Bedford MDM. Nor did Mystic have the ancillary events we love in New Bedford: "Stump the Scholars" and "Scholar Chats." Still, an MDM set on an authentic whaleship in a pretty harbor on a beautiful summer evening is not something to miss.

Tick-borne infection

The south coast of Connecticut is prime country for Lyme disease. Did I pick up a tick on the Morgan (perhaps carried aboard by a mouse), or while strolling the grounds of the Seaport, or while hiking in western CT the week before?
The day after the Mystic MDM, I began to feel a cold coming on. Within another day or two, this developed into all the symptoms of the flu, minus the congestion. "Flu" in summer leads one to suspect Lyme disease. My doctor put me on doxycycline and took blood. Test results came back quickly. Diagnosis: anaplasmosis—which merited a third week of doxycycline. Now, nearly three months later, crisis seems to have been averted, but I lack the stamina to backpack in the mountains (as I've done every summer for years). Full recovery is expected, but it's slow in coming.
If I were to return for another Mystic MDM, I would bring my own chair, sleep in that chair, treat socks & shoes with permethrin, and avoid walking through the grass.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Let a hundred flowers blossom

Other MDMs in 2018

Edited 7/24/18 to include the San Francisco and Sag Harbor events.

For those who may be hesitant to venture to New Bedford in January, here are a few alternatives to note.

July 31-August 1: The 33rd(!) annual Moby-Dick Marathon at the Mystic Seaport Museum
This reading takes place aboard the whaleship Charles W. Morgan. Attendance is limited; call to reserve space if staying overnight.

August 2-5: The second annual Moby-Dick reading at Arrowhead Farm
This reading runs from 10am-5pm for three days, followed on day 4 by a hike up Monument Mountain before returning to Arrowhead to read the concluding chapters.

October 13-14: At the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, promises a "uniquely San Franciscan" MDM. Last done here in 2015. Details at Commemorates Melville's brief visit to San Fran in 1860.

Canio's Bookshop in Sag Harbor organized an annual MDM for many years, starting in 1983. The event went dormant for a decade or so, then resurfaced in 2015 and 2017. Will it return in 2019 for Melville's 200th birth year?

The November New York City MDM was bi-annual for a while, but appears to be in hibernation.

The Provincetown Public Library had its 3rd annual MDM in April, but I didn't get the memo. Maybe next year.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Today in History

Stumbled on this little document while browsing Harvard Library's fantastic Mirador Viewer: a receipt for $10 paid to Samuel Bartoll on May 25, 1804, for "painting the [Marblehead] Custom house boat including oars, mast, etc.

Using some white-pages search websites, there was no "Bartoll" or "Bartol" currently listed in Marblehead, Salem, or Lynn.

This could be him—born 12/24/1786 in Marblehead, thus 17 years old when this job was done; more likely it was his father, "Samuel Bartol Drummer 1776 W 6 Painter," 39 years old at that time.

Let's stop now before going farther down the geneological rabbit-hole. A road-trip to Marblehead's cemeteries would be interesting.

Marblehead Harbor Master
Using blogmate Lemuel's favorite conversion tool, Measuring Worth, the current value of that $10 paid to Samuel in 1804 ranges from $195 to $364,000(!). From my ignorance of things economic, it looks like the "labor value" applies, "using the unskilled wage"—$2,730 in 2017 dollars.

Given the scale of the Marblehead Harbor Master's current boat, that doesn't sound unreasonable.

FYI: Here is Harvard's fascinating cache of "customs documents, correspondence, and United States Treasury Department circulars sent to the Marblehead Custom House, dated from 1789 to 1878."

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Latest News from the Feejees - 10

50,000,000 Shades of Grey fans can't be wrong...

Edited 10/23/2018 to add final votes.
MDM regulars will recognize Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, making the case for Moby-Dick as the "best-loved book" in The Great American Read on PBS. An experienced sailor, Melville scholar, and a pillar of MDMs at the Whaling Museum and Mystic Seaport, Ms. Bercaw Edwards knows whereof she speaks.

The 2-hour broadcast can be streamed on the program's home page. Skip to time 56:00 to hear why M-D is that fabled "great American novel."

It would be petty to gripe that this whole "list & vote" thing is a meaningless popularity contest skewed by the whims of ill-informed adolescents and political/religious zealots, so let's ignore that. No "Top x" list can satisfy everyone. (Where the dickens is Joyce's Ulysses?) Still, taken for what it is, this list might point you to a good read, and might point some wanderer to Moby-Dick.
10/23/18 - This just in: Moby-Dick ranked as #46 (higher than I would have predicted).
To Kill a Mockingbird was voted #1.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Beckett's 112th

Samuel Beckett, born on this day in 1906.

Ahab in Ch. 135; The Chase.—Third Day
Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that. And yet, I've sometimes thought my brain was very calm—frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turned to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it's like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere, between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava.

It’s for the whole there seems to be no spell. Perhaps there is no whole, before you’re dead. [...] I hear from here the howl resolving all, even if it is not mine. Meanwhile there’s no use knowing you are gone, you are not, you are writhing yet, the hair is growing, the nails are growing, the entrails emptying, all the morticians are dead.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Noted on Hershel Parker's blog: The French Ministry of Education has added The Confidence-Man to the agrégation examination for English; specifically the Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition, Hershel Parker and Mark Niemeyer, eds.

This Wikipedia entry explains the agrégation (I think).

Read these three posts for what this might mean to the world of Melville studies. Years ago, I read somewhere that the reason we study Prufrock is that it's what our profs were required to study. Could it be that in five years, The Confidence-Man will be more familiar to French readers than to (North) American readers?

H.M. on the Crew List

Here's an example of one source of information for the Whaling History database mentioned in previous posts (here and here): crew lists.

On February 28, 1803, Congress passed "An Act supplementary to the 'act concerning Consuls and Vice-Consuls, and for the further protection of American Seamen.'" This stipulated that any vessel bound on a foreign voyage must deliver a crew list "to the collector of the customs." (Read the text of the Act for a glimpse into the complexities of maritime law!)

The original crew list for Melville's voyage on the Acushnet, as filed in New Bedford by Captain Valentine Pearse on Dec. 31, 1840, is in the National Archives in Boston.

A photo of that document is online; click the image to see it full-size. Our man is sixth from the bottom, with his data:
Place of Birth
New York

Place of Residence

Of What Country Citizen
United States


5 feet, 7 1/2 inches



New Bedford Customs House
Side note: Here's an entertaining letter sent to President Thomas Jefferson a few months after this law was enacted. Calvin Chaddock complains that the customs collector of New Bedford, Edward Pope, is a "Sworn enemy to the present administration of the federal Government" because he claimed that crew lists (a.k.a. rôles d'équipage) were "totally unnecessary" ("besides a number of other pieces of misconduct..."). Also, since Chaddock is "on good terms as Neighbours, tho opposite in politics" with Pope, please "make use of my name no farther than necessary."
Plus ça change.

Marathoners will recognize the Customs House, across William Street from Freestone's.

Hat-tip to Slate.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Searchable 'Whaling History,' part 2

Following up on the last post. More fun with data...

While you're looking at Melville's details in the Crew List (Rank: Greenhand; Lay: 1-175), make a note of the VesselID, AS0819, which unambiguously identifies his ship. (There is second vessel Acushnet in the database.)

Now return to American Whaling Voyages > Voyages. (Wait for it to load.) Enter VesselID: AS0819.

You'll see the voyages of "Melville's" Acushnet, listed chronologically. Click each line to display the details of each voyage. Melville was on its maiden voyage, under Valentine Pease. It was rigged as a ship, and had a tonnage of 359. (Was that gross or net tonnage?)

Striking (pun intended) is the note: Vessel End  Stove by a whale, 1847; lost Aug 16, 1851.

Captain Pease's voyage ended "1845 May." Clicking the second voyage in the list we see the Acushnet sailing from Fairhaven about two months later, on "1845 Jul-16," under William B. Rogers. Rogers returned in "1848 Jun" with a notably smaller haul of sperm oil, whale oil, and whalebone. Captain Rogers' birthdate is listed, so we know that he was nearly 31 years old when he set out on this voyage. It was during this voyage that the Acushnet was "stove by a whale," but it must have been repaired because the voyage end was "1848 Jun."

The third and final voyage of this Acushnet began, again after about two months in port, on "1848 Aug-30," with Destination "N Pacific." It was "lost Aug 16, 1851." Note the Master ID, AM0569, of its captain at the time, "Bradley, Thomas C." Return to Voyages and enter that code for Master ID—this is Bradley's only whaling voyage in the database. Loading the Crew List, we find twenty-six men (Bradley is listed twice), captain included, aged 17 to 35 years. Their Rank and Lay are not given, except for Bradley who is listed with Rank "Master."

Searching the full crew lists data for some of the less common names on this voyage (Schimerhorn; Hutchinson, Henry; Donley, Frank; Durice; Duren), shows the Acushnet as their only whaling voyage. Did the Acushnet meet a sudden, tragic end?

Well, no. According to Alaska Shipwrecks: 1750 - 2010, the Acushnet "went ashore in a fog and sank in 10 fathoms [60 feet] of water at Saint Lawrence Island." Less than 20% of her cargo of 1300 barrels of whale oil was salvaged. One assumes that if 250 barrels of oil were saved, at least some of the crew made it to safety as well. Still, we can look at St. Lawrence Island and count our blessings.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Searchable 'Whaling History' !

The Whaling Museum's eNews e-mail (March 19, 2018) contained a significant announcement:

World's Most Comprehensive Whaling History Database Released

The New Bedford Whaling Museum and Mystic Seaport joined forces create the public website

You can read the Press Release for the story behind the database. Basically, it makes searchable info from "logbooks, journals, ship registers, newspapers, business papers, and custom house records" of "American" whaling voyages from the 1700's to the 1920's.

Dive in! Of course, we immediately go to American Whaling Voyages > Crew Lists, and enter Last name: Melville.

There's our man on the Acushnet, registered with the New Bedford Customs house, departing January 3, 1841. Click that line and his info appears below (Rank: Greenhand; Lay: 1-175).

Click the VoyageID and you'll get all the data (it could take a minute to load). The Acushnet returned in May, 1845 with 850 barrels of sperm oil, 1350 barrels of whale oil, and 13500 pounds of whalebone.

Click the link for Logbook data to view a map of this voyage.

Apparently the logbook for this voyage is incomplete. Click View logbook data to see the info behind the map. There is an entry for June 23, 1842, when the Acushnet reached the Marquesas Islands (dates from Hershel Parker, Herman Melville, A Biography, vol. 1). The next entry is July 11, two days after Melville and his friend Toby slipped away from their mates.

On August 9, Melville shipped on the Lucy Ann, a whaleship out of Australia, thus not in this database.

The next water-leg of Melville's adventure was on the Charles and Henry, out of Nantucket in December, 1840. This voyage is in the database (wait for it to load), but with no logbook data, so no map. Melville was discharged on May 2, 1843 on the island of Maui. On August 17, in Honolulu harbor, he boarded the USS United States (definitely not a whaler; not in the database).

Finally, on October 3, 1844, the United States returned to Charlestown Navy Yard, although Melville was not discharged until October 14.

This is just one brief "trip" through this database, and does not even touch on the other resources available on the site. You can even download the data to slice/dice/extend on your computer, and contribute your results to the site. Look under Projects for examples.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Industrial Backdrop to Moby-Dick

The try pots on the Charles W. Morgan

[B]lubber is blubber you know; tho' you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree[.] -- Melville to Richard H. Dana Jr., May 1, 1850

Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber? -- review of The Whale in John Bull (London), October 25, 1851 (quoted in 2 Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, 134 [2002])

*  *  *

To appreciate what Melville was doing in Moby-Dick, and to understand how the book might have struck most readers when it first appeared, it's important, I think, to keep in mind that Melville was writing about a then-thriving industry.  The age of sail, of course, was still very much alive, just as the "age of air travel" is today.  To the extent that whaling, before Moby-Dick, had anything of a romantic aura, it revolved mostly around the exotic locales that whalers visited, not the work that whalemen actually did. 

The work of whalemen was bloody, dirty, smelly, and in many ways repulsive, and whalemen themselves were generally coarse and uneducated.  In addition to being sailors and whale killers, they were butchers and processors of animal products.  The forecastle, where most of the men lived at sea, was dark, cramped, often ill-ventilated and malodorous, and bug-infested.  (In the whaling memoir Nimrod of the Sea [1874], pg. 284, William M. Davis recalls how, after a meal, "each fellow slips his plate into the netting over his berth, and the cockroaches see to it that his crockery is clean for next meal.")

I've often wondered what industry of today is viewed by modern readers in much the same way that 1850s book-buyers might have viewed whaling.  What work is ongoing, dangerous, and physical -- even in its most up-to-date form -- and, while not really new, still somewhat unfamiliar and intriguing to moderns?

I think a good candidate is offshore oil drilling in the North Sea.

Consider:  Oil drilling has been practiced for about 150 years.  In 1850, offshore whaling had been practiced for about 180 years (since the early eighteenth century).  Deep-sea oil drilling began in the mid-twentieth century, about 70 years ago.  Whaling in the south Pacific began in 1791, about 60 years before Moby-Dick.  And both jobs are hard and dangerous -- a good idea of the dangers involved in North Sea oil drilling can be obtained by watching the episode in the National Geographic series "Seconds from Disaster" on the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, which took 167 lives.

Imagine the genius required to write not just a good novel, but a masterpiece for the ages, about oil men working on a drilling platform in the North Sea.

(The points about the history of whaling are based on Chapter 2 of In Pursuit of Leviathan [1997].)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Melville and the Iron Duke

Wellington (detail), painted soon after Waterloo

The Duke of Wellington, who led the allied forces to victory over Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, famously declared to his troops at the decisive moment, "Up, Guards, and at 'em!"  While historians have long doubted he actually said that (Wellington himself couldn't remember what he may have said), the command attributed to him seems to have been as familiar to nineteenth-century English speakers as "a date which will live in infamy" is to us today. 

A quick search on Google Books has turned up a pre-Moby-Dick reference to the saying in a New York periodical:  The June 1846 issue of The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art reprinted from Punch a humorous exchange of letters in which one Adolphus Carns tried to have the Duke settle a bet over whether he had said, "Up, Guards, and at 'em," or "Guards, up, and at 'em!"   Wellington declined to decide the dispute.

What does all this have to do with Melville?  Scholars have shown how Melville's writing in Moby-Dick echoes Shakespeare frequently and, less often, other authors he was reading at the time.  And something that sounds a lot like an echo of Wellington comes from the mouth of the Tahitian Sailor in "Midnight, Forecastle" (Ch. 40): "The blast! the blast! Up, spine, and meet it!"

Incidentally, in what might be called the battle-of-Waterloo section of Part I of Finnegans Wake, Joyce plays with the command attributed to Wellington (amid references to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and who knows what else):  "This is the seeboy, madrashattaras, upjump and pumpim, cry to the Willingdone."

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Amazing Internet

In 1935, George Bernard Shaw remarked that thanks to the radio, he could hear more good music in a week than he could have heard "in ten years, if at all," back in the 1880s when he was writing music criticism in London.  Shaw's startling demonstration of the cultural impact of technology often recurs when I think about everything the Internet makes available today.

As recently as twenty years ago, you would have had to turn to the best university libraries if you wanted to consult the enormous mass of printed material you can now read, wherever you are (just about), with a few keyboard taps.  Earlier this week, while rereading the selection in the Norton Critical Edition 2nd from a 1992 paper by Geoffrey Sanborn, I wanted to take a look at the 1823 review essay by Sir Francis Palgrave, "Superstition and Knowledge," that Sanborn shows was one of the minor tributaries feeding into Melville's mind as he toiled over Moby-Dick.  After two or three minutes of searching, I found the very thing, starting at page 245 of this collection of Palgrave's writings.  Not only was it fast; I could save it as a searchable PDF for future reference.  And no scrounging for coins to feed into a smelly library copying machine.

I well remember how excited I was, in the early 1990s, to learn that the nearest state university library had a full set of Robert Southey's The Doctor, which is often mentioned as a possible inspiration (in form) for Moby-Dick.  But now Southey's work is at my fingertips, at any time and from time to time.

And just take a look at this, courtesy of Harvard and Mr. Google.  O brave new world, that has such resources in 't!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ahab, the Old Man

Herman Melville, around age 66

"God, God is against thee, old man; forbear!"

A persistent criticism of director John Huston's 1956 Moby Dick is that Gregory Peck was too young to play Captain Ahab.  Born in 1916, Peck was about 40 when the film was released -- more than ten years younger than Leo Genn, the actor who played Starbuck.  As some pointed out, it would have made more sense if Peck and Genn had switched roles.  Genn, however, while an accomplished British film actor with a splendid voice, had no star power.

A few remarks by Ahab in Chapter 132 ("The Symphony") enable the reader to pinpoint his age at the end of the novel's action as 58.  Ahab there tells Starbuck that he struck his first whale 40 years earlier, as "a boy-harpooneer of eighteen!"  But Ahab's all-around agedness is noted throughout the novel.  He is, among other things, a "scornful old man," "the queerest old man," a "monomaniac old man," an "ungodly old man," an "insane old man," a "wondrous old man," a "frantic old man," a "crazed old man."

(Others aboard the Pequod described as "old men" are the blacksmith, the cook, and most intriguingly, Fedallah (in Ch. 48).)

To Melville, who (mirabile dictu) was in his very early 30s while writing Moby-Dick, 58 must have seemed quite old.  To me, who hit 58 recently, it doesn't seem old at all.  Granted, I'm a landsman, "pent up in lath and plaster," not running around a ship on a peg leg and throwing lances at sperm whales.  Moreover, 58 was indeed old for a whaling captain.  The authors of In Pursuit of Leviathan gathered age data for 275 whaling voyages out of New Bedford between 1842 and 1858.  The oldest recorded man on any of those voyages was 62, and only 12 men were over 50.  (See the tables on pp. 94-96.)  As the authors point out (p. 90), "on 50 percent of the voyages for which we have [New Bedford] Port Society lists, the oldest man aboard was thirty-five or younger."  (Emphasis added.)

The significance of Ahab's being an old man has been much discussed.  From a purely practical standpoint, it helps make more believable that Ahab could bend the entire crew to his will, notwithstanding repeated bad omens and his occasionally dotty behavior.  The reader has to be willing to accept that even the intrepid whale-hunter Starbuck could not withstand the "spiritual terrors" that menaced him "from the concentrating brow" of the "enraged and mighty man."  (Ch. 26.)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Moby-Dick: The World's First Imperial-Gothic Novel?

Illustration from H. Rider Haggard's The Ivory Child (1916).

Today it's no great revelation that Melville uses a number of typically Gothic elements in Moby-Dick.  There's even a Yahoo! Answers answer on the subject.  Back in 1949, Newton Arvin -- a far greater authority than any of us anonymous Internet wayfarers -- wrote a highly readable article on Melville's Gothic touches, "Melville and the Gothic Novel" (New England Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, 33-48 [available at JSTOR with free registration]). As Arvin observed, Melville's imagination was "profoundly Romantic, in one of the largest senses of the word, ... and to say so is to say, especially for an English or American writer, that the Gothic or Radcliffean was almost certain to be a minor ingredient in its complex totality."

Consider, for instance, the (usually female) protagonist who slowly begins to realize, with ever increasing dread, that she has become caught in the power of a man both tyrannical and malevolent.  For post-Moby-Dick examples, think of Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White (1859) or Maud Ruthyn in Uncle Silas (1864) or Jonathan Harker in the first four chapters of Dracula (1897).  In Moby-Dick, Ishmael's misgivings about the voyage and about Captain Ahab in particular slowly accumulate as he considers the "wicked king" who bore Ahab's name, the dark hints from Elijah, and other red flags.  By the time Ishmael's fears are confirmed in "The Quarter-Deck" (Ch. 36), he has effectively no escape from Ahab's grasp.

(Critics have noted the overall passivity of Jonathan Harker -- a male narrator filling the Gothic role of the young maidenly heroine around whom older, stronger figures are spinning their webs.  In one of Dracula's most memorable scenes, Harker lies supine at the mercy of three predatory females, fearing and desiring their kisses/bites.  Interestingly, the passivity of the mild-mannered Ishmael, another male narrator in the role of the Gothic heroine, becomes explicit in his relations with Queequeg. Awaking in bed with the thoroughly masculine Queequeg's arm around him, Ishmael acquiesces in the embrace, and later he figuratively becomes Queequeg's wife.  And in both narrators, their passivity is abetted by the vulnerability of their positions as employees -- Harker the young solicitor who wants to please a rich client, Ishmael the lowly greenhand put upon by mates and captain.)

While Moby-Dick carried forward much of the Gothic machinery developed in the previous century by Ann Radcliffe and others, it also paved the way for what is sometimes termed Imperial Gothic.  Imperial Gothic is a sub-genre that flourished around the end of the nineteenth century.  It is best exemplified by the lost-world fantasy-adventures of Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, in which intrepid explorers venture beyond the farthest reaches of the English Empire, into such as-yet-unexplored regions as central Africa, and there confront "the Other" in the form of prehistoric peoples, dinosaurs, giant crabs, witches, and supernaturally vicious elephants and apes.

A modern example of the Imperial Gothic form that will be more familiar than Conan Doyle's and Rider Haggard's ripping late-Victorian yarns is the 1933 film King Kong.  Following the standard structure, the film uses the trip to a distant, uncharted location to instill in the audience Gothic terror -- i.e., the fear of the unknown, of an evil that is sensed but cannot (yet) be fully articulated.  From the start, we are given hints that the protagonists are on their way toward something horrifying: movie director Carl Denham, famous for wildlife films made at great personal risk, is outfitting for his greatest undertaking yet; he's been having trouble finding any actress willing to appear in the film; the ship he's chartered is loaded with enough explosives and ammunition to blow up New York harbor; the island he's headed for is not shown on any map, its only inhabited portion cut off from the rest by a gigantic wall built centuries ago by a people far more civilized than the current natives -- evidently to "keep something out."

Melville did much the same thing 80 years earlier.  The United States at the time did not have an empire strictly speaking, but whalemen were the pioneers of its commercial empire in the Pacific, as Ishmael explains in "The Advocate" (Ch. 24).  The Pequod travels to the farthest ocean wastes to encounter Moby-Dick, the unnatural, the monster, the Gothic horror.  Like the scriptwriters for King Kong, Melville builds up in his audience a fear of the approaching unknown.  The monstrous painting in the entry of the Spouter-Inn, the cenotaphs in the Seamen's Bethel, the backstory of Ahab's disfigurement and ensuing delirium, the spirit-spout, all the sidebars about the great size and strength of the sperm whale and the dangers involved in hunting it -- these are just a handful of ways in which Melville creates dread in the reader as the Pequod sails farther from the safe world of civilized America and closer to the deadly clash with Moby-Dick.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Sunday: Frederick Douglass Community Read-A-Thon

The 18th Annual Frederick Douglass Community Read-A-Thon is Sunday, Feb. 11.

This is a great event—a marathon-style reading of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It is particularly significant this year, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Douglass.

Simply put: you will not regret attending. Check our reports from the 2014 and 2012 Read-A-Thons.

For details, see the New Bedford Historical Society site.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Whaleman's Lay

Who ain't a slave?  Tell me that.

When Ishmael describes (in Chapter XVI) how he came to choose the Pequod for his and Queequeg's voyage, he explains that whalemen were customarily compensated by means of an oddly denominated profit-sharing scheme:
I was already aware that in the whaling business they paid no wages; but all hands, including the captain, received certain shares of the profits called lays, and that these lays were proportioned to the degree of importance pertaining to the respective duties of the ship’s company. I was also aware that being a green hand at whaling, my own lay would not be very large; but considering that I was used to the sea, could steer a ship, splice a rope, and all that, I made no doubt that from all I had heard I should be offered at least the 275th lay—that is, the 275th part of the clear net proceeds of the voyage, whatever that might eventually amount to. And though the 275th lay was what they call a rather long lay, yet it was better than nothing; and if we had a lucky voyage, might pretty nearly pay for the clothing I would wear out on it, not to speak of my three years’ beef and board, for which I would not have to pay one stiver.
Ishmael doesn't tell us a whole lot more about how lays worked; there was no need to for purposes of the story.  But fortunately for the curious, the system is very well explicated in a scholarly, highly detailed study of the nineteenth-century whaling industry, In Pursuit of Leviathan, by Lance E. Davis, Robert E. Gallman, and Karin Gleiter, published in 1997 by the University of Chicago as part of the National Bureau of Economic Research Series on Long-Term Factors in Economic Development.

First, to clear up one misconception, the lays were not sequentially numbered from the largest share to the smallest.  In other words, the system didn't involve person A getting a 10th, B getting an 11th, C getting a 12th, and so on, until every last investor and sailor was accounted for.  For one thing, such a system would never work mathematically -- you would exceed 100% by the time you got to the 26th share.

Instead, the numbers of the lays jumped.  For example, in the November 1843 voyage of the Abigail of New Bedford, the "shortest" lay (i.e., the largest share in compensation) was, unsurprisingly, the captain's, at 16 -- meaning one sixteenth (or 0.0625) of the profits, assuming there were any.   The first mate's lay was 29, the second mate's 50, the third mate's 72.  The cooper -- typically, one of the most important artisans on a whale ship -- got the 55th lay.  Each of the harpooneers (a/k/a "boatsteerers") got the 95th lay.  All the remaining lays were well above 100.  Added up, the lays totaled about three tenths, which left about seven tenths for the "owners," who could probably be more accurately referred to as partners.

According to In Pursuit, a 70-30 split of the profits between the owners/partners, on one hand, and the captain and crew, on the other, was typical.  In addition, looking at data from over a thousand whaling voyages out of New Bedford, the authors of In Pursuit found that the distribution of lays followed a pattern: captains tended to get lays in the mid-teens, first mates in the 20s, second mates in the 30s or 40s, third mates in the 50s or 60s, etc.  

One thing the data make clear is that Melville is having a bit of fun in Ishmael's long-lay episode.  Ishmael says that he hoped to get 275.  Captain Bildad offered him 777, and Captain Peleg, after remonstrating with Bildad, then settled on 300.  As he does so often in Moby-Dick, Melville is here exaggerating Ishmael's socio-economic insignificance.  Even Ishmael's aspirational lay of 275 was absurdly long -- no one in the In Pursuit data had a longer lay than 202,with unskilled seamen (or "greenhands") usually in the 175-190 range.  

How much a whaleman's lay actually turned out to be worth depended, of course, on how successful the voyage was.  The incentives built into the lay system were meant to encourage the men to work their hardest to fill the hold with oil.  If the voyage was truly disastrous (spoiler alert: like the Pequod's), the whalemen never returned at all.  An "average" voyage in the 1830s apparently brought back oil and baleen worth about $21,000 (in 1830s dollars) (see page 120 of In Pursuit).  After subtracting about $6,000 for expenses, you were left with about $15,000 to be divided among the owners/partners and crew.  Let's say that, realistically, someone in Ishmael's shoes would have had the 175th lay, which is what Melville in fact was assigned when he sailed aboard the Acushnet.  One 175th of $15,000 is $85.71.  If we plug that into the invaluable Purchasing Power calculator at Measuring Worth, we get $2,280 in today's dollars based on changes in the consumer price index.  If the voyage lasted exactly three years, that works out to $63 per month, plus "three years’ beef and board," for which Ishmael "would not have to pay one stiver."

Ishmael spoke the truth when he observed that "this was a poor way to accumulate a princely fortune ... a very poor way indeed."  But, he goes on with philosophic equanimity, he is "quite content if the world is ready to board and lodge [him], while [he is] putting up at this grim sign of the Thunder Cloud.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Moby-Dick Written in the Style of White-Jacket

White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of War is, needless to say, Melville's fifth book and the one that immediately preceded Moby-Dick.  Some critic somewhere (Newton Arvin perhaps?) characterized White-Jacket as not fiction, but journalism.  Whoever said that, it's a fair characterization -- the book is, at least on its surface, a straightforward account of Melville's experiences serving on the USS United States in 1843-44, lightly dramatized and padded out with stories he'd picked up from other sailors and with some editorializing about the U.S. Navy (including his celebrated condemnation of flogging).

Only a year after White-Jacket's appearance (in 1850), Melville gave the world Moby-Dick.  I'm sure no one interested in the New Bedford MDM has to be told that the two books are as different as night and day. Or maybe distant thunder vs. lightning just outside your window would be a truer contrast.

It is widely believed, I think, that Moby-Dick started out as another White-Jacket, this time set on a whaler and with a bit more excitement to improve sales.  But along the way -- as happened with Mardi (1849) and Pierre (1852) -- something in Melville took over, and the work was transformed.

Yet what if Melville had been able to stick to the White-Jacket formula?  What would a "journalistic" Moby-Dick be like?  You can get a rough idea by reading Nimrod of the Sea; or, The American Whaleman.  Published in 1874 and now readily available on the Internet, Nimrod is a memoir by William M. Davis (1815-91) of his voyage on the whaler Chelsea in 1834-38.   It is based on a journal Davis kept intermittently during the voyage, but (as he explains) he fleshes that out with "the experiences and adventures of others, such as I have been enabled to pick up in the form of yarns on board the Chelsea," incorporating "the experiences of a quarter of a century."

Nimrod describes countless details of the work that whale hunting and processing involved (many of which will be familiar to Moby-Dick fans) and aspects of the whaleman's life in the Pacific that Moby-Dick doesn't touch (such as stopping at the Galapagos Islands for tortoises that would later be killed for fresh meat at sea, and dealing with the "land sharks" who inhabited barely civilized ports on the west coast of South America).  And Davis recounts the conclusion of the hunt, the demolition of the try-works (when its bricks were joyously thrown overboard), and the return home -- topics that Moby-Dick doesn't get into, for obvious reasons.

While Davis doesn't mention Moby-Dick or Melville anywhere in his memoir, he has a few passages so reminiscent of the earlier work that it's hard to imagine he hadn't read it.  One example is the semi-erotic "spermaceti bath," when Davis and his mates use their bodies to process the material from the "case" in the sperm whale's head:
With our hands blistered yesterday by the oar, and all on fire to-day by the harsh friction of the handspike, it was luxurious to wade deep in the try-pots filled with this odorous unguent, in order to squeeze and strain out the fibres, which, if allowed to remain, would char with the heat, and darken the oil. No king of earth, even Solomon in all his glory, could command such a bath. I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs, as I stroked the precious ointment from the skin.
Another example is the cautious, halting way in which the mates go to dine with the captain:
The steward comes up the companion-way, and touching his greasy Scotch cap, announces, "Captain B----, dinner is on." "All right;" and the captain takes a turn by the binnacle, if we are running a course, and peeps at the compass. Then in the companion-way, on his way down he stops, takes a long look at the sails, and, as it were, a last farewell of the light of heaven. "Mr. F----, dinner is on." "Ay, ay, sir," says the mate, as he strolls to weather-deck. Now Mr. F---- takes a shorter peep at the compass, and, pausing in the companion, he, too, takes his upward survey. The two other mates go through precisely the same performance, only according to their respective ranks they take yet shorter peeps at the compass and glance heavenward. They then arrive simultaneously at the table, to find the captain and Mr. F---- leisurely in their second plateful. Now, the misery of the arrangement is in this: the officers must come up in reversed order -- third, second, first mate, and lastly the captain. A third mate has thus only about seven and a half moments to dispose of his grub. The old man last of all appears on deck, picking his satisfied teeth in the most tantalizing manner, and the four boat-steerers next make a dash for the table, and make clean sweep of the remnants.
Don't those descriptions sound familiar! 

Unlike Moby-Dick, Nimrod doesn't involve a white whale or a stove ship (although Davis does provide a yarn about the sinking of the Nantucket whaler Union after being rammed by a whale).  Also unlike Moby-Dick, Nimrod does include illustrations -- quite a few, and quite detailed.  If some of them look familiar, it's probably because you've seen them in the commentary at the end of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (with appropriate credit, of course).

(For the details on William Davis, thanks to Honore Forster's annotated bibliography on 19th-century whaling in the Pacific, The South Sea Whaler, published in 1985 by the Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, Mass., and Edward J. Lefkowicz, Inc., Fairhaven, Mass.)

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Very Early Posthumous Assessment of Melville

William Gilmore Simms

Every Melville fan has a basic idea of the arc of his career and the critical reception of his work. It goes something like this: Melville achieved early fame with his first book, Typee (1846), after which he entered upon a slow, steady, life-long decline into obscurity. By the time of his death, he was barely a footnote even in the minds of professional critics. His greatest work, Moby-Dick, was little appreciated when it was published and for some 70 years thereafter. But then, in the late 1910s, Moby-Dick was rediscovered and finally began to be recognized as the masterwork it is. The low point of Melville's literary standing can easily be exaggerated, however. This struck me recently when I was reading an old biography of the South Carolina novelist, poet, playwright, controversialist, and mad Secessionist William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870). The biography, by William P. Trent (an English professor at Columbia), was published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1892 -- the year after Melville's death. In a work of that vintage, I never expected to come across a reference to Melville. But there it was, in Trent's closing evaluation of Simms's output. Trent asks (at pg. 329) whether Edgar Allan Poe was right "when he ranked Simms above the herd of American romancers, just after [James Fenimore] Cooper and [Charles] Brockden Brown." In Trent's opinion, Poe was right:
With regard to romancers like Dr. [Robert Montgomery] Bird, [John Pendleton] Kennedy, and [James K.] Paulding, to say nothing of writers like Miss [Catherine] Sedgwick or Dr. [William Starbuck] Mayo or Melville, Poe would appear to have stated Simms's position correctly. Both with regard to quantity as well as quality of work [Simms] is their superior. His style at its best is not inferior to theirs, and with none of them is it safe to make much question of style. He was more frequently slipshod than they, but that is all that can be said in their favor. In imaginative vigor, in power of description, in the faculty of giving movement to his stories, he leaves them behind. He strikes one as being a born writer, a professional; their works read like those of amateurs.
When I first read this passage, I thought Trent couldn't possibly mean our Melville. Who spared a thought for Melville in 1892? But the book's index confirms that, yes, he means Herman Melville. And I'll take Melville's amateurism over Simms's professionalism any day.