- All Astir
This issue of Leviathan arrives in June, so it may be hard to remember back to the cold and snow of January. The six members of the Melville Society Cultural Project (MSCP) headed to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in January for the Whaling Museum's annual Moby-Dick Marathon. Winter Storm Helena headed to New Bedford at the same time—and dumped 15.5 inches of snow on the city. The blizzard was bad enough that the municipal authorities shut down the city's streets. It was a wild, cold, snowy marathon, which made all of us shudder at the thought that Melville headed offshore on a whaleship at the same time of year (January 3, 1841). We had to walk the streets in a blizzard, but we did not have to put out to sea in those conditions. Most nineteenth-century whaleships departed New England in the winter months, especially December and January, in order to reach the southern tip of South America when the winds were most favorable for rounding Cape Horn. The ships were headed towards warmer climes, but the first few days offshore must have been difficult. Imagine being required to climb aloft in a wintry snowstorm.
Despite the snow, 250 people were in attendance for the Marathon. They came from as far away as the Netherlands, England, Ireland, Canada, and Florida. James Russell, President and CEO of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, wrote of the 2017 Marathon:
What made this year exceptional? It was the whiteout that froze most of us in place. The intimidating tome [Moby-Dick] is a rite of passage at the best of times. This was the worst. What it became was an exercise in dogged determination, grit, and tenacity. The marathoners braved the storm, faced tremendous odds, and thus the event mirrored the book. The readers, like Ahab, pursued their goal with abandon. It was a testament to the attractive power of great literature, for great art transcends. This expressive act made people do extraordinary things. As in the lines of Hollywood's Jurassic Park, "life will ﬁnd a way," so too will art. In particular, high anxiety preceded the abbreviated Moby-Dick reading in Portuguese. Unlike the 25-hour slog of the full edition, outlasting any storm nature could hurl at us, the reading in Portuguese was scheduled during the very worst of it. Yet readers forged ahead, prompting the Portuguese Consul to quote Oliver Wendell Homes: "We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it—but sail we must, not drift, not lie at anchor." The solidarity of readers, plowing through ponderous texts, united in common cause, was inspiring. [End Page 90]
Not all Melvilleans may agree with Russell's characterization of the reading of Moby-Dick as a "slog"—for me, personally, it is an utter joy—but all will appreciate the extraordinariness of 250 people gathering together in the midst of a blizzard to read Melville's work.
The annual lecture the night before the Marathon was entitled "Melville and Religion: Insights from the Melville Society." Michael P. Dyer, Senior Maritime Historian at the Whaling Museum, served as Moderator. Robert K. Wallace, Northern Kentucky University, spoke on "Melville, Douglass, and Black Churches"; Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, University of Connecticut, on "Queequeg, South Seas, and Missionaries"; Jennifer Baker, New York University, on "Melville and American Transcendentalism"; Christopher Sten, George Washington University, on "Melville and the Occult in Moby-Dick: Black Arts and Spiritualism"; Wyn Kelley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on "Religions of the Whale"; and Timothy Marr, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on "Moby-Dick as Wicked Book." The talks were well-illustrated, especially with images from the Elizabeth Schultz Collection and the Melville Society Archive. They were also complemented by the opening of "Oceanic Harvest: New Moby-Dick Art at the New Bedford Whaling Museum," curated by Wallace, which featured pieces by artists Robert Del Tredici and Kathleen Piercefield, both of whom were in attendance. See <https://www.whalingmuseum.org/explore/exhibitions/oceanic-harvest-new-moby-dick-art/>.
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