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 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.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Tonight's All Things Considered on Boston-area station WGBH had a short piece about the New Bedford MDM (length: 3:24). Wyn Kelley and Robert Wallace, from the annual Stump the Scholars, are quoted.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Virtual Stump the Scholars


A couple of years ago, I came up with what I thought would be a great question for the annual Stump the Scholars session at the MDM. Because that question never was used (and probably is too long to ever be used), I'll post it here for anyone who might care to take a shot at it:

This question relates to an image employed by Melville to capture the appearance of sunlight.

In their critical edition of On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by the Roman poet Lucretius, the classical scholars William Ellery Leonard (who was himself a poet) and Stanley Barney Smith compared an image used by Lucretius to similar images in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, a poem by A. E. Housman, and Moby-Dick. I will provide below a translation of what Lucretius wrote and then the comparable lines from Kipling and Housman, and my question will be, What metaphor did Melville use in Moby-Dick to describe something similar?

First, this is Lucretius:

Neither the spokes of the sun nor the shining spears of day
can dispel the fearful shadows from our soul,
but only the face and law of Nature.

The image that Leonard and Smith focused on is "the shining spears of day." They compared it to these lines by Kipling:

Far to Southward they wheel and glance,
The million molten spears of morn

And they also compared it to these lines by Housman:

And where the light in lances
Across the mead was laid

The question is: What metaphor did Melville use that is comparable to "the shining spears of day," "the million molten spears of morn," and "the light in lances"? Extra credit if you know what chapter it's in.

One hint: It's not "harpoons." That would be way too easy. But it is an edged weapon.

Another hint: He uses the same metaphor once to describe the spouts of a herd of sperm whales.

Friday, January 12, 2018

MDM22 "post-mortemising"

It's the most fun I've ever had without laughing.
                                                        - Alvy Singer
This year's MDM felt self-possessed—calm and assured, like a virtuoso taking the stage after twenty-one rehearsals. It was great to be back, to take refuge from the tempestuous political/cultural world "outside."
Message to He Shan-Jun, owner of Japanese ship Dan He Wan,
translates roughly to Have Compassion for All Mankind.
Plaque, ca. 1880. NBWM, 00.169.26
Credit for the apparent effortlessness of the proceedings goes to the museum staff and volunteers. Most were familiar from past years, though I know only a few by name. Sarah Rose, VP of Education & Programs, seemed to be everywhere at all hours. Michael Lapides, Dir. of Digital Initiatives, got very little sleep due to a video-streaming gizmo that apparently was not designed to run non-stop for twenty-five hours.

The MDM attendees also deserve credit. They are respectful toward the text and toward each other, and they are interesting folks. High-school teacher Dallas, came from St. Paul, Minnesota (to gather motivation for his students?). British artist Caroline Hack spent most of a week in the museum, gleaning grist for her creative mill. Dutch couple Tjitske and Tonnie returned for their eighth consecutive MDM. Ed Camara read for his twenty-first time, the record!

The number of attendees is always weather-dependent. The ice-sheeted roads and sidewalks of New Bedford seemed to keep the numbers "manageable." A few of us all-nighters were stymied by the new ban on backpacks. (My guess is that backpack wearers underestimate their rearward dimension, and collide with exhibits behind them; hence the ban.) The all-night snack & coffee stand was moved to the outer room at the back of the Harbor View Gallery, claiming what used to be a sleeping area. Most sleepers crashed in the brightly lit area behind the podia.

A quick recap of the 2018 Moby-Dick Marathon

Note that the museum's Facebook page has photos, video clips, and links to media coverage of MDM22; Twitter hashtags for the event are #mdm22 and #MDM2018; video of the reading is archived here.

Saturday morning started with Stump the Scholars of course!
Emcee Michael Dyer (Curator of Maritime History) gave another in his series of imaginative, witty introductions to two teams from the Melville Society:
  • Fast Fish—Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (Mystic Seaport, Univ. of Connecticut), Jennifer Baker (N.Y.U.), Tim Marr (Univ. of North Carolina)
  • Loose Fish—Robert Wallace (Univ. of Kentucky), Wyn Kelley (M.I.T), Chris Sten (George Washington U.)
This "competition" is always a great demonstration of these scholars' detailed knowledge of Melville's works (e.g. How long does it take Stubb to behead a whale?), as well as their broad understanding of the historical context and critical analyses of his works. Some of the questions generated as much discussion among audience members as among the panelists.

How fortunate we are to have these scholars, the entire Melville Society Cultural Project committee, on-hand for the MDM weekend year after year! What would the MDM be like without them!?

One memorable question stumped everyone: What rock-and-roll legend owned a first-edition Moby-Dick?
Answer: Jim Morrison. His copy still may be for sale online, for $39,900 (plus $10 shipping).
. . .

11:30 AM - "Stump" concluded, we are in the Lagoda Room for the opening six chapters.
5:00 PM - Seamen's Bethel and Lagoda Room sit vacant.
The Maratona em Português has ended. The full reading continues in the Harbor View Gallery.
5:30 PM - While the reading continues, chowder and beer (nice!) are served in the Jacobs Family Gallery.
Midnight - Chapter 58.
In the Harbor View Gallery, the crowd thins.
Midnight - The Lagoda Room is quiet, but too chilly to nap there.
2 AM - Chapter 73.
In the heart of the Graveyard Shift—readers stand a good chance of getting a second turn at the podium.
9 AM - Chapter 112.
The crowd swells.
9:25 AM - Tjitske reads in Dutch.
11 AM - The Chat with Melville Scholars adjourns.
Both Saturday's and Sunday's "Chats" were lively and well attended.
12:44 PM - Michael Dyer leaves the podium after reading the Epilogue.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Get Ready (again)!

If you're planning your first Moby-Dick Marathon, you'll find some practical advice in this post from 2011 and in the "Essentials" section at the right of this page.

For stay-at-homes, a live video stream will commence at 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, January 6.

Follow #MDM22 on Twitter.

Salute to James Russell

James Russell, who served as the President and CEO of the NBWM for nine years, has left to head the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
On his watch, both Stump the Scholars and Chat with Melville Scholars (my two favorite parts of any MDM) were added to the marathon.
My abiding memory of Mr. Russell comes from MDM20. At about 6 A.M. that Sunday he slipped into the back of the gallery, and quietly set about gathering abandoned coffee cups and water bottles, the night's jetsam. His dedication to the museum, the MDM, and us marathoners was that real.
Thanks for some great MDMs and good voyage to you, Mr. Russell!