My first Moby Dick Marathon. It had been several years since I learned of this event where the book is read aloud from cover to cover each year at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. After conflicts ruled out prior attendance, my wife and I finally resolved to participate this year, the 20th anniversary of the marathon.
And it was worth it, in so many ways.
No, I did not listen to every word, in fact only about four or five hours. But, when the museum handed out certificates to those who did sit through all 25 hours, the line looked to be easily over 50 people.
While not reading, we attended two sessions to chat with Melville scholars who covered a wide ranging array of subjects from the many-layered and evolving interpretations of the novel to their own personal accounts of encountering Melvlle and how their study has shaped their lives. Of interest to those of us at Arrowhead was the discussion on how Melville spent his first year in Pittsfield re-working his book. In his letters, we were told, he anticipated finishing his book about the whale by the fall of 1850, but after meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne and moving to Pittsfield, he spent another year working on the book. One scholar told us that were it not for that year at Arrowhead, we would not have been attending the marathon, for it would have likely been another of the books Melville turned out to help finance the expenses of his growing family. We also spent a fair amount of discussion time on the difficulty of the book, and how students today react to it.
The reading shifted away from the exhibit hall twice. First, we moved across the street to read (and sing) the chapters that took place in the Seamen’s Bethel. Melville includes the words of a hymn in Chapter 7, so we all sang it, and then listened to Father Mapple read his sermon on Jonah.
The second time, we moved to the auditorium to watch a dramatic presentation of Chapter 40, Melville’s play within his novel of life on the deck of the Pequod.
My own ten minutes of reading took place at the civilized time of 7:50 on Sunday morning, almost 20 hours since they started reading. To my surprise there were quite a number of people present. The organizers had written saying this time would put my reading in or about Chapter 104, one on Melville’s description of whale size. The references to Barbary travelers and Egyptian temples caused me to trip over the words, but one quote reminded me of why Melville may have included such details as the size of the whales: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”
Many of the people present seemed to be teachers, but there were also people like Amalia, a Venezuelan who we sat with at lunch and who read her ten minutes in Spanish. Amalia had fallen in love with Melville after coming to the U.S.. She visited Arrowhead this past fall on her quest to know more about the author and the book she had read many times. In fact, others read in French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Dutch, Swedish and too many more to remember. For the first time, five hours in a parallel session was set aside for Portuguese reading. Other readers included Nathaniel Philbrick who kicked off the event and several descendants of Melville. I met many people who go every year.
The hall was packed for the final chapters, and the applause when the Epilogue concluded seemed to never end.
What sticks most in my mind from the weekend was the sense that there’s always something new in Melville. One university teacher said there’s a lot of repetition in academia, and scholars enjoy teaching Melville because each time they read him they discover a new layer, a new way to “enter the book,” whether through the environment, through race or gender, or politics. He seems to reach across the generations and speak to current concerns.