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Chasing the White Whale

The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today

David Dowling

Publication Year: 2010

The experimental artist Peter Fischli once observed, “There’s certainly a subversive pleasure in occupying yourself with something for an unreasonable length of time.” In this same spirit, David Dowling takes it upon himself to attend and report on the all-consuming annual Moby-Dick Marathon reading at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

      The twenty-five-hour nonstop reading of Melville’s titanic epic has inspired this fresh look at Moby-Dick in light of its most devoted followers at the moment of their high holy day, January 3, 2009. With some trepidation, Dowling joined the ranks of the Melvillians, among the world’s most obsessive literary aficionados, to participate in the event for its full length, from “Call Me Ishmael” to the destruction of the Pequod. Dowling not only survived to tell his tale, but does so with erudition, humor, and a keen sense for the passions of his fellow whalers.

     The obsession of participants at the marathon reading is startling, providing evidence of Ishmael’s remark that “all men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” Dowling organizes his savvy analysis of the novel from its romantic departure to its sledge-hammering seas, detailing the culture of the top brass to the common crew and scrutinizing the inscrutable in and through Melville’s great novel.


Chasing the White Whale offers a case study of the reading as a barometer of how Melville lives today among his most passionate and enthusiastic disciples, who include waterfront workers, professors, naval officers, tattooed teens, and even a member of Congress. Dowling unearths Moby-Dick’s central role in these lives, and by going within the local culture he explains how the novel could have developed such an ardent following and ubiquitous presence in popular culture within our technology-obsessed, quick-fix contemporary world.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii-viii

My immediate debts for this book are to the late Irwin Marks, who in 1996 first conceived of an all-night reading of Moby-Dick in New Bedford, and President James Russell of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, whose tireless commitment to the annual Moby-Dick Marathon reading made the 2009 event the most successful of all thirteen events, breaking records for attendance and demand for reading spots....

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Introduction: Melville Lives

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pp. 1-15

Do not call me Ishmael. My role in writing this book about the annual Moby-Dick Marathon reading—a nonstop, twenty-five-hour immersion in Melville’s novel—may echo that of Ishmael aboard the Pequod. Like him, I am both a participant and an observer, deeply absorbed in the rituals unfolding and fully wedded to the task of retelling them in all their complexity, mystery, and dynamism....

Part I: Shipping Out

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1. That Everlasting Itch: The Allure of Whaling and Marathon Reading

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pp. 19-42

At the age of 21 in 1841, Herman Melville was wayward, restless, recalcitrant, and generally up to no good. Going whaling for him was something like joining the military today for many high school graduates or college dropouts: a last resort and a chance for redemption, even nobility, from a life of dead ends on shore. Whaling at the time was a true adventure; less than half of all crews returned home with the same ship....

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2. Queequeg’s Ink: The Dilemma of Reading the Inscrutable

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pp. 43-69

Shipping out with Ishmael means hearing two of his voices. One expresses the hard facts, the sober schoolteacher’s testimony of the disaster he witnesses, and the other the fabulous, even sensationalistic “exaggerated yarn of incredible adventures and unbelievable monsters,” as Eyal Peretz explains.1 The duality raises a crisis of interpretation: “If the one has to do with invention, imagination, and even with lying, the other has to do with historical truth” of the sort that forms the prime objective...

Part II: Readers and Crew

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3. Captain and Mates: Honored Readers

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pp. 73-98

In 2009, Scott Lang, Mayor of New Bedford, was among the featured readers at the Moby-Dick Marathon reading. As the ambassador of this historical whaling city, Lang enjoyed a privileged position among the readers that day. If there were ever a “captain” of the marathon reading, the mayor would appear best suited for that role. The event, however, reaches well beyond the civic significance of New Bedford’s whaling past, as Melville’s colossal reputation has brought the reading into the national...

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4. Harpooners and Sailors: The Unsung Readers

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pp. 97-126

The hierarchy of the Acushnet, the vessel with which Melville shipped in 1841, like most antebellum whalers, was built directly into its architecture. The highest ranks enjoyed the luxury of occupying sleeping quarters positioned farthest toward the rear, or aft, of the ship. Unlike in an airplane, the aft of a whaling vessel was far preferable to its bow, because of its nearness to the ship’s fulcrum as it rocked against incoming waves. The most tumultuous position aboard a ship at sea is to the fore, and thus the...

Part III: Twenty-Five Tumultuous Hours

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5. Survival: Enduring the Sledge-Hammering Seas of the Soul

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pp. 129-160

The political culture in the grand theatre of both Moby-Dick and the marathon reading, from the covered seats to the groundlings, from executive power brokers to the unsung grassroots populace, formed the subject of part ii. We now consider the mood of the reading and its readers, tracing in this chapter the turbulent and transcendent moments of the novel and in the final chapter the turbulent and transcendent moments of the 2009 marathon reading....

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6. The Breach: Exulting in the Whale

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pp. 161-188

Moby-Dick is in many ways a series of highs and lows. The previous chapter explored the darkest depths of those lows and methods of surviving them both in the novel and among Melville’s contemporary readership as represented at the marathon reading. Moving from somber situations and contemplative considerations of death, we now turn to the highs, moments in the novel and marathon reading of pure ecstasy...

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Conclusion: Poetry in and beyond Moby-Dick

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pp. 189-212

The sound of the Moby-Dick Marathon reading is a democratic pastiche of voices intoning the prose poetry of Melville’s narrative. Thus far, as a way of uncovering the essence of the marathon reading experience I have highlighted Melville’s more lyrical expressions of the romantic allure of a nonlinear and risk-laden quest, the political hierarchy once at sea, and finally the crushing lows and exultant highs of the novel....


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pp. 213-236


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pp. 237-242

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299407
E-ISBN-10: 1587299402
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587299063
Print-ISBN-10: 1587299062

Page Count: 252
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: paper

OCLC Number: 699513572
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Chasing the White Whale

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Melville, Herman, 1819-1891. Moby Dick.
  • Sea stories, American -- History and criticism.
  • Whaling in literature.
  • Whales in literature.
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