Monday, October 27, 2008

In Search of the White Whale!

 Yep, January 3 & 4, 2004. You missed it; I didn't.

Here's an article originally published in a mid-January, 2004, issue of the The Patriot, a Webster, Massachusetts newspaper. ("Oxford" refers to Oxford, Massachusetts, where I lived for over 15 years, during my so-called "formative" period.)

The whale from Pleasure Island's Moby Dick Hunt. I may never know
if my parents brought me there to indulge my youthful fascination for
Moby Dick, or if my obsession began after viewing the beast!

To call the weekend of January 3rd and 4th the culmination of a childhood preoccupation (I hesitate to write “obsession.”) may be phrasing it a bit too strongly, but that’s certainly how it felt to me.

On January 3rd, 1841, the Fairhaven Ship Acushnet sailed out of the New Bedford, Massachusetts harbor. The Acushnet’s crew included a young sailor named Herman Melville, who roughly ten years later published what is arguably the greatest American novel. I say “arguably.” Ken Kesey’s list of the ten best American novels (from The Book of Lists #2) gives Moby-Dick the #1 spot. However, the original Book of Lists includes Moby-Dick as one of “The 15 Most Boring Classics.”

One hundred and sixty-three years later to the day, a good-sized crowd of literary enthusiasts, myself included, gathered in the Lagoda Room of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in order to begin reading this novel aloud, non-stop, in mostly ten-minute increments. This innocent project would end up taking a little over twenty-five hours. Such is and was necessary for a book with a page count exceeding 600, especially considering the labyrinthine writing style common to much of the 19th century’s offerings.

The museum as it looks today!

Readers and spectators alike knew in advance that the reading would take that long, of course. Advance publicity for the event made it plain, which was easy enough for the event’s organizers, as it had been successfully attempted seven times before.

 The museum as it looked when I first visited.

 A postcard I bought when I first visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum
in the mid-1960s. I didn't know it then, but I'd started a tradition!

I don’t recall precisely when and how I first became aware of the epic tome Herman Melville entitled Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. (That hyphen in Moby-Dick, curiously enough, is present only in the title of the book. Every reference to the whale in the text of the novel itself omits it.) It may have become ingrained in my six or seven year old mind when my parents took my older sister and myself to Wakefield, Massachusetts, sometime circa 1962. The trip to Wakefield was to visit a theme park known as Pleasure Island, a relatively short-lived pretender to the Disneyland throne.

However, Pleasure Island’s mascot, as it were, was not a falsetto-voiced, anthropomorphic mouse and his cartoon cohorts. Pleasure Island’s mascot was Moby Dick himself. Well, a replica, anyway. The park even offered the “Moby Dick Hunt,” a leisurely boat ride which was marginally “threatened” by the eventual appearance of a scaled-down, robotic version of the legendary great white whale. Actually, the cut-rate Leviathan in question was a dingy yellow, rather than white, and even at my tender age, I could tell that the mechanical sea creature needed a proper cleaning.

My interest in Moby-Dick, with or without the hyphen, continued nevertheless. As a slightly older child, I was a regular fixture in the children’s room of Oxford’s public library. I suspect that most editions of Moby-Dick are abridged versions, and the copy which I eagerly thumbed through during each visit was, naturally, no exception. Quite a bit of the material in the uncut Moby-Dick would have been lost on a youngster such as myself anyway. But what remained in that thick blue volume was enough to spur my interest onward.

I estimate my age at the time of my first excursion to the New Bedford Whaling Museum as being as young as eight, perhaps as old as ten. And, truth be told, I remember being vaguely disappointed. Perhaps my expectations of a whaling museum had been shaped by other museums which I had seen in cartoons, television programs, and movies. These museums had, among other, less interesting exhibits, many reconstructed skeletons of dinosaurs, very impressive to a pre-adolescent male. But the whaling museum had only one whale skeleton, that of a humpback whale. (They still have it, of course, but it’s somewhat overshadowed nowadays by the larger skeleton of a young blue whale which, like the humpback, is suspended from the ceiling.) Frankly, I only vaguely remember the museum’s other exhibits from that long-ago time.

A recent acquisition. I think this is the edition
I used to read in the Oxford library's Children's Room!

In the largish Lagoda Room, named after the half-scale replica of a typical whaling vessel contained within, the story began. The opening lines of the novel “Call me Ishmael,” and so on, were read by Assistant District Attorney Ray Veary, according to the programs with which we were supplied. These programs listed all the scheduled readers, but there were also several “alternates,” those who would read if a listed reader didn’t show. At least one of these alternates was called upon to read three separate times during the course of the marathon.

Every ten minutes, for the most part, the reader was replaced by yet another reader. The event’s “big guns” were scheduled toward the beginning and end of the marathon. In addition to A.D.A. Veary, the first hour and a half featured appearances by New Bedford’s mayor, Frederick M. Kalisz, Mary K. Bercaw, current president of the Melville Society, and Peter Whittemore, the great-great grandson of Herman Melville himself. Closing readers included Anne Brengle, the NBWM’s executive director, Carl Cruz of the New Bedford Historical Society, and Representative Barney Frank.

After the first ninety minutes or so, we were taken from the museum to the Seamen’s Bethel across the street. There we were treated to a recreation of Father Mapple’s sermon from Moby-Dick. Father Mapple’s dialogue was read by the Rev. Edward Dufresne, while the appropriate surrounding narration was read by A.D.A. Veary, reprising his role as Ishmael.

A comic book adaptation of the 1957 film.

Those who have seen the 1957 film of “Moby Dick,” starring Gregory Peck as the tortured Captain Ahab, and featuring Orson Welles as Father Mapple, will no doubt remember the impressive pulpit of the whaleman’s chapel, shaped like the prow of a ship. A somewhat less imposing version of that podium decorates the Seaman’s Bethel today, and even that is an after-thought. The ship’s-bow pulpit sprang from Melville’s imagination, and the Hollywood film embraced the attendant visual. However, the actual rostrum of the chapel was rather pedestrian. After having seen the film, visitors wondered why, and so, a somewhat more modest version of the movie’s pulpit was constructed. It was originally planned to be temporary, until a better version was built, but the visitors seemed satisfied, and that is the pulpit which stands today.

After the church service segment of the novel had been completed, we all returned to the museum. This time we were seated in the Jacobs Family Gallery. Here is where the two whale skeletons mentioned earlier are displayed, so those of us who stayed for the reading either sat near, or underneath, the remains of these two underwater mammals.

With the exception of an entertaining little skit (which Melville had actually written like a play-within-a-novel) performed in the museum’s theater at roughly 8 p.m. Saturday, the rest of the readings were held in the Jacobs Family Gallery.

 This was purchased a few years ago, when I went to the museum for the second time.
Another visit, another postcard. Thus continues the tradition!

2004’s eighth annual Moby-Dick Marathon turned out to be my third trip to the museum. Roughly five or six years ago, I went there with my godson Evan. I was honestly not prepared to have to defend the concept of “whaling” itself, from an historical perspective. At the time of my initial visit, I was a boy who thought nothing of these old-time sailors getting into their boats for the purpose of chasing and killing the whales needed to provide much of the world with oil for their lamps, as well as the raw material for everything from candles to hoop skirts. All young Evan could conceive was that these whalers were getting into their boats to kill whales. He couldn’t understand the apparent cruelty of the whole whaling experience. I tried to explain the bygone necessity of what we supposedly enlightened souls in these politically-correct, modern times would view as wholesale slaughter. I confess that I couldn’t completely justify the carnage to him, nor even, at that point, to myself.

Other than the 260-page "young readers" version, this 399-page paperback
was the only copy of the novel which I owned before the Marathon.

Those of you who only know of Moby-Dick’s bare-bones plot, i.e., a mad captain, Ahab by name, sacrificing all for the sake of revenging himself upon the whale which took off Ahab’s leg, are missing several facets of the story. The novel contains that story, true, but so much more as well. Melville gives more detail on whales and whaling than most modern readers would find necessary. He admittedly digresses from the main plot on a few occasions. And surprisingly, there is a lot more humor in the novel than one would suspect.

Those who find the book to be “boring” need to take the writing styles of 150 years ago into account, however. Poring through a 600-page volume published in 1851 is not the same as reading a modern Stephen King novel of the same length. Also, if I may make just one comparison, Melville’s work wasn’t even as accessible to the average reader as someone like Charles Dickens, whose writings, recognized as classic by today’s scholars, were originally written and serialized for the common man. For lack of a better way to put it, Dickens was writing the mid-1800s’ version of soap operas! Melville was not.

The museum supplied the late-night attendees with chowder, snacks, and coffee. Plenty of coffee! I lost count of my own caffeine intake after six cups.

While several of the readers and spectators were from New Bedford, participants came from as far away as Wisconsin. The youngest reader was Spencer Ross-Rose, an eight-year-old from Rehoboth. The eldest? Hard to say, although I would guess that a handful of Melville aficionados were in their eighties.

At the 2003 Moby-Dick Marathon, just over 700 people attended during the course of the reading. This year, over 1,000 people attended. The event’s organizers opined that the large increase was due to publicity and the fact that January 3rd and 4th fell on a Saturday and a Sunday this year. Last year, 20 people lasted for the entire 25½ hours. This year, the total who stayed from beginning to end was 25.

I was one of that 25. For my persistence, I received a deluxe, unabridged paperback version of the novel to which a curious collection of budding literati had devoted a weekend. This was a special 150th anniversary edition, published in 2001. When being handed my little trophy, I couldn’t resist asking, “Could I have a different book? I already know how this one ends.”

Third visit, third postcard.

Until receiving my prize at the marathon’s end, the only copy of Moby-Dick which I had owned was a small paperback copy, edited down to roughly 400 pages. Sometime around midnight on the Friday night before my Saturday journey to New Bedford, I held this shortened version in my hand and silently wondered what section I’d be reading. I did some quick mental calculations. I was scheduled to read at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, a little more than halfway through the marathon. Keeping in mind that it was all-too-possible that the 10-minute passage I’d actually be called upon to read might not even be in my abridged version, I opened the book at a point slightly beyond the 200-page mark.

I was immediately plunged into an earlier time. I rode with the crew of the Pequod as they set out to capture and kill a whale. But this section didn’t glorify the slaughter. As I read, it became apparent that the whale they pursued was old, infirm, and terrified. He was blind, and only had one flipper. “For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men,” writes Melville, touching us with his description of how this beseiged beast suffers. “For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died. It was most piteous, that last expiring spout.”

I stood there that night, book in hand, thinking about how much I would like to recite that portion aloud if given the chance. Even as I thought that, I realized that the actual chances of that happening were slim. I’d opened the book at random. Plus, as mentioned earlier, there were over 200 pages of story which didn’t even exist in my paperback copy. I could be called upon to read from something I didn’t even own yet, as such.

Remarkably, however, I was assigned that very section of that very same chapter! I was able to read the tale of the old whale’s pitiful death, injecting a proper amount of emotion into the recitation. I can only hope I did it justice.

Best of all, I somehow feel that, in reading from this particular segment, I was able to successfully bridge the gap from a long-gone lifestyle to a little boy who shook his head in bewilderment and asked, “Why?” And my only answer, then as now, is that we really have no answers.

 My trophy, earned in 25½ hours.

Thanks for your time.

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