On the frigid first weekend in January, crowds gathered inside the large gallery at the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the 22nd annual Moby Dick Marathon. Over a 24-hour period, more than 200 narrators took turns reading excerpts from the novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville.
The marathon celebrates what many consider to be one of the finest works in American literature – and Melville’s connection to New Bedford in creating it.
Melville first showed up in New Bedford, broke and unemployed, in December of 1840.
“He trained to be a surveyor and there were no jobs,” said Robert Wallace, one of the many marathon readers who’s also a Melville scholar. “He went to Illinois, couldn’t find anything there. He taught in Greenbush, New York on the Hudson and they ran out of money and couldn’t pay him at the end of the semester. So he really didn’t have very many options…so pretty much desperation to head out to sea.”
Melville spent about nine days in the city. In late December, he went to the Custom House and signed up for a whaling voyage, and shipped out on January 3rd from Fairhaven aboard the Acushnet. He served aboard the Acushnet for about a year and a half.
“Then he jumped ship in the Marquesas and served on other whaling and naval vessels in the sort of beachcomber way that sailors did at the time…they would ship on, jump off, and then come back by various routes,” said Wyn Kelly, a teacher at MIT and another marathon reader.
Melville returned from sea after four years, living for a time with his family across the river from Albany, New York. There, and later in New York City, he wrote five books before starting work on Moby Dick in 1850.
Many critics dismissed Melville’s novel when it first came out, and there’s an interesting publishing reason for why that may have happened.
“The plates were shipped to England, where authors often had their texts published first,” said Kelly. “And they left out the epilogue in which he explains how he was rescued. So it was an entirely different book from the one that we know now. And the reviewers said ‘This is crazy, this is a book by a dead man. What happened to the narrator?’ So there were negative reviews, and by the time it got back to New York and was printed properly, which was no too long after, it had already gotten these negative reviews. And that kind of jinxed it.”
Melville was understandably disappointed by the lackluster response to Moby Dick, and he moved on to short stories, poetry and other novels. Then, around the 1920s, readers began to take a second look.
“Howard Mumford was an important critic in the 20’s who admired the book. And then Rockwell Kent did the famous book of illustrations in 1930, which had a lot to do with broadening the influence of the work,” said Robert Wallace. “And then by ’44, Matheson’s writing “American Renaissance” and he’s one of the top, great American authors by the early 40’s in the academic world. And that’s when he started having, like, schools of American studies in universities…you know, it had been mostly studying British authors until this period. So a lot of serious readers started digging into it and really seeing what an amazing book it is in so many ways.”
Melville died in 1891. Kelly is certain he never would have dreamed that one day, hundreds of people in New Bedford would brave near-zero temperatures to take turns reading sections of Moby Dick for 24 hours straight.
“One thing he’d really like is the number of different languages and the social diversity, ‘cause that’s what he encountered on whaling ships, and that’s one of the reasons I think the book has endured so much,” Kelly said. “So to see so many people here from, not just this area but from so many different backgrounds – he would have felt right at home.”