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There she snows! A lock-in with Moby Dick

A monument to the whaling industry in New Bedford

A monument to the whaling industry in New Bedford

Published in the Age on February 4, 2017

At midday, the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s President, James Russell, gathered his crew on the quarter-deck. The cobbled streets outside were buried in snow, Connecticut’s transport system had ground to a halt, but like Captain Ahab hunting Moby Dick near the Cape Of Good Hope, he had resolved to sail windward, into the gale. Our oaths to read Herman Melville’s masterpiece were as binding as his.

“Unlike that other ending, we will defeat this white whale of a storm,” Russell declared. “Let us begin the greatest sea story ever told. Watch Officer, give me eight bells.”

Melville’s great-great grandson, Peter Whittemore, read the first chapter. As a child he “sat on the lap that sat on the lap,” and inherited his forebear’s questing spirit. A Harvard drop-out, anti-war activist, inventor and amateur historian, he did not look the type to suffer many damp, drizzly Novembers of the soul.

“Call me Ishmael,” he commenced. The twenty-first annual Moby Dick Marathon was under way. For a day and a night, we would read the finest and most daunting of American novels aloud: all hundred and thirty five chapters of it, peerlessly rich in metaphor.

On the first watch, readers stood in the museum’s great hall, beneath a bust of Jonathan Bourne, who came to New Bedford in 1811 as a grocery boy and died sixty-eight years later as the owner of twenty-eight ships. Profits from whale oil, spermaceti candles and whalebone corsets made this the richest city on earth.

In this capitalist meritocracy, Yankee farm boys, Quakers, escaped slaves, native Americans and south sea islanders shipped together. The crew of the Pequod – Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, Queequeg, Tashtego, Fedallah and Daggoo – were inspired by men Melville had met on his own whaling voyage, aboard the Acushnet.

'Father Mapple' preaches in the Seamen's Bethel

‘Father Mapple’ preaches in the Seamen’s Bethel

Some four score aficionados followed the text, leafing through battered hardback and paperback editions or swiping Kindles and laptops. A few watched from the balcony, as if perched on the mast-head. I sat on the deck of the Lagoda, a half-scale replica of Bourne’s first ship, leaning against the rail on the starboard side.

At half past one, New Bedford’s Mayor, Jon Mitchell, led us out of the museum, through shin-deep drifts to the Seamen’s Bethel. Melville attended services at the chapel when he visited his sister in New Bedford in the 1840s. Above his pew, there is a memorial to Wm. Benchley, who fell from the India on Nov 12, 1844 and drowned, at the age of twenty-one.

Father Mapple was played by the Reverend David Lima, Chaplain of the New Bedford Police Department. “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers,” he affirmed, and as snow accumulated in the window panes, the “howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher.”

Seated in Melville's pew with Peter Whittemore and ship-mate Stephen Phelan, who organised the trip

Seated in Melville’s pew with Peter Whittemore and ship-mate Stephen Phelan, who wrote about the event for the Dublin Review

Moby Dick was largely overlooked in Melville’s lifetime. Published in 1851, it went out of print three decades later having sold a pathetic 3,180 copies in the USA. Over clam chowder donated by local restaurants to sustain the readers, a woman showed me her 1930s first edition, with illustrator Rockwell Kent’s name on the cover, and Melville’s nowhere to be found.

At around seven o’clock, Ahab nailed a doubloon to the mast and declared: “whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys,” but the reading was in Hebrew (other short sections were read in Portuguese, Dutch, French and Mandarin), and the drama of Melville’s great demagogic speech, so uncomfortably resonant in this new authoritarian era, was lost.

It was left to the next reader, Sean Reynolds, a whale of a man returning to New Bedford for his mother’s funeral, to inhabit the Pequod’s monomaniacal skipper, roaring Ahab’s lines as if he too had compressed “all that most maddens and torments, all that stirs up the lees of things… all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain” into a single, all-consuming obsession.

Soon, it was my turn to call myself Ishmael. In chapter forty-five, I recounted the story of the Essex, the Nantucket vessel sunk by an enraged sperm whale in 1820. Later, the blizzard having kept half the scheduled readers away, I volunteered again, and was amused, as a Brit, to get a passage about English whalers who “affect a kind of metropolitan superiority over the American whalers,” despite their incompetence.

With each passing hour, a few more readers deserted. Turns at the lectern grew longer, from five, to ten, to fifteen minutes. Some slipped away to sleep on the Lagoda’s deck; others curled up under exhibit cases. Every time the Pequod met a ship, the question was the same: “Hast thou seen the white whale?”

Dawn broke through the Harbour View Room’s east-facing windows, and as the sun climbed higher, the seats began to fill again, as sleepers returned and regulars arrived a day late, on freshly snow-ploughed roads. Around noon, Ahab’s stand-in raised a gull-like cry: “There she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

View from the 'mast-head'

View from the ‘mast-head’

The chase, three days in Melville’s narrative, lasted little more than an hour and ended with a crash of timber. “Concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.”

The crowd gave a round of applause for the hardy ship-mates who had kept watch through the night, and for Melville, who earned a living as a customs inspector and continued to write, but did not live to see his genius recognised. Outside, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”