Entry begun on plane from Atlanta, Sunday, January 4, 2015, 7:45 pm
I am flying back from the 19th Annual Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. This was one of the best. As a founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project hosted by the Whaling Museum, I have attended the Marathon nearly every year since our affiliation began in 2001. As our affiliation has grown, so has the Marathon and our involvement in it, providing our team of Melville scholars a wonderful opportunity to feel the pulse of the author we love far beyond our classrooms or publications.
The annual Marathon in New Bedford begins on the Saturday nearest January 3, the date on which Herman Melville sailed for the South Seas on the whale ship Acushnet in 1841. To read the entire text of Moby-Dick out loud takes twenty-five hours right through the night, from noon on Saturday to 1 pm on Sunday. We members of the MSCP do not get to attend the whole Marathon because we come every January to meet with the Whaling Museum staff to plan our activities for the coming year and carry out projects currently underway. This year our meeting with the Museum staff focused on the massive construction project by which the Whaling Museum is expanding its main building in order to transfer its Research Library and our Melville Society Archive from their current building three blocks away. The Library and Archive will enter the renovated building as part of a new Educational Center and Research Library that will also create new gallery space. We were delighted to hear from James Russell, the museum President who has overseen five years of exceptional growth, that one of the galleries in the expanded museum will be designated the Herman Melville Room, making the nature of our affiliation more visible to the general public as well as to scholars using our Archive. Construction has already begun and James currently expects to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Educational and Research Center on August 1, the date on which Herman Melville was born in 1819.
For the last five years the Marathon weekend has begun on Friday evening with a buffet dinner under the whale skeletons in the Jacobs Family Gallery followed by a lecture in the adjacent Theater. This year the dinner attracted more than 50 people and the lecture more than 150, a stark contrast with last year–when the blizzard of 2014 closed the streets of New Bedford, cancelled our dinner and lecture, and converted our annual meeting with the Museum staff to a conference call. This year’s Friday night speaker was Phillip Hoare, the British author who has not only written a book about his personal search for Moby-Dick, but created a film as well. One of the highlights of the film, as well as the talk he gave in advance of showing it, was his personal encounter with a pod of sperm whales filmed underwater near the Azore islands. Sperm whales do not encounter humans very often because they live so much of their lives in the deepest oceans of the world, but Hoare found them to be amazingly peaceful and graceful in every way, seeming to welcome him into their world to the extent that they were aware of his presence, certainly an odd looking creature in wet suit, mask, and fins.
The next morning Phillip returned to the Theater as a guest contestant in our annual “Stump the Scholar” quiz show, moderated with great panache by the Museum’s marine historian Mike Dyer. The contestants usually consist of the six members of our Melville Society Cultural Project, divided in to groups of three who compete in fielding questions from audience members, many of whom are returnees who have spent the intervening year thinking up questions they hope are unanswerable. This year two of our members could not make the trip, so Phillip joined Wyn Kelley and me on the “Cod” team, balanced by guest contestant Bradley King, who joined Chris Sten and Mary K. Bercaw Edwards on the “Clams.” Brad is this year’s Bezanson Fellow in residence for two weeks of research in our Archive. The questions were tough enough this year that Dyer awarded coveted pins to three audience members who “stumped” the panel. The contest was tied going into the final question, to which Mary K. gave such a brilliant answer that the Clams were declared the winner.
Brad King is a post-doc scholar from the University of Texas at Austin who is already well into a study of the major scholars who were responsible for the Melville revival that began to be institutionalized in the mid-twentieth century. We have unique materials for his project in our Archive, relating not only to the founding members of the Melville Society but also to some of the critics and artists who were active as Cold War public intellectuals. Every time we met with Brad over the weekend, he had more gems from our collection to share, often material we have not yet had an opportunity to study in depth ourselves. We love it when our Archive fellows (many of whom have been from overseas) can schedule the residency while we are in town for the Marathon. In Brad’s case we also had the pleasure of meeting his partner Sara, a Spencerian scholar who also partnered with us in the Marathon Reading. In whatever free time our MSCP group had on Friday and Saturday, we were over at the Archive preparing our collection for the upcoming move—as well as packing a shipment of books for the University library of Jaime Campomar, last year’s Archive fellow from Argentina.
On Saturday at 11:30 our MSCP members provided the prelude to the Marathon itself by reading from the “Extracts” section of Moby-Dick in front of the half-scale model of the whale ship Lagoda before Phillip Hoare officially began the Marathon with “Call me Ishmael” at noon. Later in the afternoon our MSCP team, augmented by Brad and Sara, read from the “Knights and Squires” and “Ahab” chapters. We also had two “Chat with the Scholar” sessions with Marathon participants. On Saturday afternoon Wyn and I chatted with about a dozen companions while Mary K. and Chris worked in the Archive. On Sunday morning the four of us, plus Brad, were chatting with at least twenty companions when it was time to leave for the airport. These are wonderful opportunities to share our interest in Moby-Dick with members of the general public, and to learn what interests them in the book.
Every year there are new phrases from the novel that speak to us in new ways, even if heard in short snatches while walking from one meeting to another. This year a young woman read from “The Advocate” chapter in Russian as we were waiting our turn. On Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Branco, who returned this year to read from the novel in Braile. He was kind enough to give me a private reading of the “Bosom Friend” chapter as his hands scanned the open page. Throughout the day the ramp above the Jacobs Family Gallery was occupied by young participants camping out with sleeping bags that would help them through the night.
I enjoyed the opportunity to return for one last look at the exhibition The Art of Seeing Whales in the museum’s Center Street Gallery. The exhibition combines paintings and objects from the Whaling Museum’s historical collection with 20th– and 21st-century Moby-Dick art from the Elizabeth Schultz Collection and the Melville Society Archive. I had curated this show with the help of the Museum’s curator-in-chief Christina Connett and maritime historian Mike Dyer, and back in July we had an excellent audience for the gallery talk that opened the show while the whale ship Charles W. Morgan was in town. Quite a few people were looking at the exhibition during the Marathon weekend, but it was also enjoyable when the room was almost empty to give the whole installation another good look and see which parts had held up best over time. I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to put together a show with such rich and diverse materials. (I devote several entries to the conception, installation, and opening of this show in my blog Sailing with Charles W. Morgan in June 2014 at mobyart.wordpress.com.)
I hated to leave the Marathon Reading before we got to the Third Day of the Chase, but I had to catch a plane from Boston, and Wyn kindly drove me to the airport on her way home to Cambridge. We were accompanied by Mika Sakuma, one of the organizers of the upcoming International Melville Conference in Tokyo in June. Mika had just flown in from Tokyo to do some research at the Houghton Library at Harvard, and she had taken a bus to New Bedford from Logan Airport to experience the Marathon. It was wonderful to be with her at the Whaling Museum—and also to get her advice about travel in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan. Japanese scholars have been a major presence at every International Conference beginning with the first one in Volos, Greece, in 1997, and it is wonderful that they will be able to host one at home after all of that international travel themselves.
I was scheduled to fly from Boston to Cincinnati via Detroit, but when the departure time from Logan Airport to Detroit was delayed, I lost any chanceof making my Cincinnati connection. The only way to get home from Boston was through Atlanta. We had bumpy air both to and from Atlanta, but we did arrive at the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky airport at 8 30 pm, only two hours later than my scheduled arrival through Detroit. It’s funny how aggravating travel glitches sometimes turn out well. My seatmate from Logan to Atlanta was a young man from Boston working in IT who was flying to Atlanta for a three-week training session. He works for Apple and has been selected for training at the “genius” level. The has done this without a traditional college degree. He grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Melville wrote Moby-Dick, but without having visited Melville’s house at Arrowhead. He had planned to be a carpenter and never expected to go to college. After working for several years on a ground crew for Jet Blue, he had taken an associate’s degree in audio technology, after which he managed a restaurant for a few years. One of his favorite customers ran an Apple store, and one day he asked her what it would take to get started there. She hired him in at the entry level and now he has already worked himself up to ‘genius” status.
Melville, of course, did not go to college. For him, as for Ishmael, “the whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” I imagine Herman would have enjoyed speaking with this young adventurer from Pittsfield as much as I did.