The world is filled with people who have never read Moby-Dick, or never finished it, or say they have but haven’t, or would sooner be harpooned than even attempt it. There are others, here and there, who know the book well, and love it to bits, and hold it sacred like a kind of bible. The Atlantic seaport of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a haven for that minority, especially in the freezing first weekend of January, when the city’s whaling museum hosts the annual Moby-Dick Marathon.
Over 26 hours or so, Herman Melville’s whole unabridged epic is read aloud by a relay of guest speakers and local volunteers, the narrative baton passing from renowned scholars and civic leaders to cops and fishermen, folk singers and pumpkin farmers. Not to mention visiting Melville aficionados like me.
That’s how I was listed in the 2017 programme, which seems a flattering way of calling me a “fanboy”. Anyone can apply to take part, and most places are randomly assigned in time-slots of about five minutes, though someone special is usually given the opening chapter. This year it was Peter Whittemore, great-great-grandson of the author himself.
“Call me Ishmael,” began Whittemore, his voice adding a certain genetic oomph to that resounding first line, as the marathon got under way in a vast gallery in the museum’s Bourne Building. A reverent crowd listened from the deck of the Lagoda, a half-scale, fully rigged replica of a 19th-century whaling ship, as he went on to recount Ishmael’s arrival here in New Bedford on a stormy midwinter day much like the one outside.
Under blizzard conditions, which prevented some of the 215 listed readers from attending, we were led across the street to the Seaman’s Bethel, an old clapboard church where I sat with Whittemore in the very same pew that his great-great-grandfather once occupied before he sailed out on the whaling voyage that informed his mighty book. There we heard Father Mapple’s thunderous, ominous sermon on Jonah and the Whale, as Reverend David Lima assumed the role played by Orson Welles in the movie version of Moby-Dick.
A friendly, pony-tailed ex-hippy in late middle-age, Whittemore lives modestly in nearby Cohasset, building boats and guitars, and is somewhat bemused to find himself the Melville family ambassador, almost by default. “I didn’t earn it or ask for it,” he said. “I just sat on the lap that sat on the lap.”
The marathon moved back to the museum’s Harbour View Gallery, where I took my turn as reader number 18. “No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world …” I read Ishmael’s words as he throws all prejudice aside to befriend the tattooed pagan Queequeg. I was so moved by the language I nearly choked up, as if speaking at my daughter’s wedding. Plenty of my fellow aficionados seemed to feel the same about the book, with its strange cosmic ruminations and starbursts of poetic, archaic prose. “It sounds so good spoken aloud like this,” said Sean Reynolds, a Chicago hospital clerk. “The ear picks up the full gorgeousness.”
Experienced Arctic traveller Hillary Salmons showed me her vintage first edition, from 1930, with phantasmagoric illustrations by nomadic artist Rockwell Kent. She wouldn’t say how much it cost, “but it was a lot”. Even in New Bedford, though, not everyone is a Moby-Dick freak. According to museum president James Russell, there were “more than a few naysayers” when this event started 22 years ago.
“You mean philistines,” I blurted out, being something of a zealot. “Um, let’s just call them agnostics,” he said. The marathon has since become a popular mini-festival, this year attracting an estimated 1,000 people. Anyone bored by the book could break away to eat clam chowder at the Waterfront Grille, or drink artisanal spiced rum at The Whaler’s Tavern.
The port still makes money from fishing, and scallops in particular, but there has been a general decline since the death of the textile trade some 50 years ago. A century before that, this was the capital of the global whaling industry, where liquid spermaceti wax was harvested from the skulls of the leviathans, for processing into candles and lamp oil. New Bedford was, in Melville’s day, “the city that lit the world”.
That bloody history is well documented at the museum, with its whale-hunting weapons and butchering tools, though the emphasis has lately shifted from past slaughters to present attempts to save these species. Or “from pursuit to preservation”, as Russell put it, quoting the new eco-friendly motto of the place.
Wandering the lower galleries in the dead of night, stepping over the bodies of marathon escapees who had gone to sleep in dark, quiet corners, I encountered the English nature writer Philip Hoare by the model skeleton of a sperm whale. Hoare has swum with these creatures off the Azores, and written wonderfully about them in his own non-fiction book Leviathan, Or The Whale.
“I have never felt so safe in the water,” he said. Their friendliness, explained Hoare, made them easy to kill, the eponymous white whale of Moby-Dick being an apparent exception. Everything would have been fine, of course, if Captain Ahab had just left him alone. But then there would be no story.
As that narrative rolled on towards its doomy conclusion somewhere above our heads, we took a break to contemplate the mysterious specimen before us. “Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech?” asked Melville in Moby-Dick. “No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it.”
• The 22nd annual Moby-Dick Marathon will be held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum from 5–7 January 2018, whalingmuseum.org, and is free to attend (with a recommended $5 donation). The Orchard Street Manor, a Georgian Revival guesthouse built for a 19th-century whaling captain, is an atmospheric place to stay (doubles from $125 a night B&B). British Airways flies to Boston from Heathrow from £370 return, and Peter Pan buses connect direct to New Bedford from $24 one way