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  • Mystic Seaport Museum's 34th Annual Moby-Dick Marathon
  • Mary K. Bercaw Edwards

Mystic Seaport Museum hosts the longest-running Moby-Dick marathon reading in the world. For 34 years, readers, scholars, and museum visitors have been entranced with Melville's words. Listeners often laugh aloud, then look disconcerted, wondering if they should be laughing at such an important text. (They should.) This year's reading, taking place on the 200th anniversary of Melville's birth, commenced in brilliant sunlight at noon on July 31, 2019, as Bill Steinmayer, dressed as Herman Melville, quoted the entire first chapter, "Loomings," by heart. For 24 hours, readers from around the United States and across the Atlantic read Melville's text aloud aboard the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, built only seven months after and seven miles away from Melville's whaleship, the Acushnet.

The reading was interrupted four times for nautical demonstrations. In the late afternoon of July 31, the Morgan's sails, which had been set throughout the day, were furled. The noisy clanking of the lower topsail chain sheets and the singing of bunting chanteys high aloft as the furled sails were lifted unto the yards served as a maritime accompaniment to Melville's words. The next morning the sails were again set. The crew hauling the line coordinated their work with call-and-response halyard chanteys. For the main upper topsail, staff musician Barry Keenan used a halyard chantey alluded to in Moby-Dick and for the fore upper topsail another work song mentioned in one of Melville's sources, Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. Later, Carson Hill, one of the crew, climbed to the top of the foremast to sight the whale. His ringing cry of "Death and devils! men, it is Moby Dick!" began the whaleboat demonstration. As the boat was lowered from the cranes, Keenan sang the whaling ballad "The Bold Harpooneer," quoted in part at the beginning of chapter 40, "Midnight, Forecastle." Finally, at the end of the demonstration, the whaleboat was raised up the side of the Morgan with the willing help of marathon readers as Keenan sang the short-drag chantey, "Dan, Dan." [End Page 196]

Even the weather seemed eager to honor Melville's bicentennial, with only a few sprinkles during the night. The experience of sitting on the deck of the only wooden whaleship remaining in the world bathed in the warm blackness of a summer's night, seeing the stars through the rigging, and hearing Melville's words for 24 hours was magical. The morning crept in upon participants slumbering around the deck, resembling nothing so much as the "old rigger" in chapter 21, "Going Aboard," who "was thrown at whole length upon two chests, his face downwards and inclosed in his folded arms. The profoundest slumber slept upon him." Others were awake and at work on sailors' crafts.

The marathon ended with Maggie Stack's stirring reading of chapter 135, "The Chase—Third Day," followed by Bill Steinmayer's heartbreaking quotation of the "Epilogue." Afterwards, those who had stayed all night and others who had only come for the ending shared a birthday cake in honor of Melville's 200th birthday.

This year for the first time HarperCollins, the publishing descendant of the firm Harper and Brothers, which brought out the first US edition of Moby-Dick, donated over 40 copies of the book along with a set of tote bags. They sent a sign to be put on display that included the following text:

This is a publishing legend: None of the four Harper brothers was in the office when [Melville] arrived. Just minutes before, Fletcher Harper had departed for the docks, bound for a European literary excursion. Running at breakneck speed, an assistant flagged down Harper's carriage and breathlessly alerted Fletcher of the available manuscript. "Take it at once!" Fletcher instructed, and Melville joined the house of Harper.

Many readers had come with their favorite edition of Moby-Dick clutched in their hands, but others had not, so the HarperCollins books were a welcome addition.

Next year will not be the bicentennial, but it will be the 35th year that Moby-Dick...


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