Moby Dick Marathon at Mystic Seaport
Moby Dick Marathon at Mystic Seaport
Call me crazy.
Some days ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and something of particular interest to me happening on shore, I thought I would drive south a little and see a waterfront part of the world.
The something? A 24-hour marathon reading of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”
The part of the world? Mystic, Connecticut.
The Mystic Seaport Museum hosts an annual marathon reading of “Moby Dick” to celebrate Melville’s birthday, Aug. 1. This year, the marathon returned to the decks of the museum’s 19th-century whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, for the first time since COVID.
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My close friend Emma works at the museum and, knowing I have a love of whales and “Moby Dick,” told me about this year’s marathon. I don’t think she expected me to eagerly say yes, but I did. What is more New England than spending a full 24 hours on an antique whaling ship reading one of the most important pieces of literature to come from the region?
What is the Charles W. Morgan in Mystic, CT
Built in 1841, the Morgan was an active whaling vessel until 1921, embarking on 37 voyages throughout its life as a commercial vessel. Whaling trips were not quick affairs; most of the Morgan’s excursions lasted at least three years.
The nearly 107-foot ship, America’s oldest commercial ship still floating, has called the museum home since 1941 and was designated a national historic landmark in 1966.
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Over the course of this journey aboard the Morgan I’d see all of the ship, from the try-pots on the deck to the captain’s and crew quarters below to the hold, below further, where casks of whale oil had made their way to American ports for sale.
What better place to honor and bring to life Melville’s timeless tale than on a whaleship similar to his imagined Pequod?
‘Call me Ishmael’: What to know about the beginning of Moby Dick
I missed the first few lines of the reading, thanks to an unexpectedly necessary shopping for a copy of the book, so I sadly missed the iconic opening line: “Call me Ishmael”. But, I mean, everyone who has at least tried to read “Moby Dick” knows those lines, so I wasn’t worried.
Sitting down on one of the ship’s wooden benches, which I’d quickly become very familiar with, I found my place in chapter one: Loomings, and settled in.
If you haven’t been indoctrinated in Melville, let me explain one important thing: “Moby Dick” is complex and many sentences are very, very long. Don’t be fooled by the three-word opener, just down the page is one at 87 words. Don’t be fooled by either; lots of sentences measure in the hundreds of words.
This makes “Moby Dick” a challenging and satisfying book to read, especially so when doing it out loud, and even more so in front of strangers. I learned this quickly, as, ever a joiner, I signed up to read chapter six: The Street, after checking to make sure it contained no blatantly dirty jokes and wasn’t overly long.
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We got to chapter six an hour and 15 minutes into the reading, so I had ample opportunity to prepare myself mentally and also to be intimidated by some of the other participants, who read, nay, performed their chapters with expertise and mastery I could only hope to pale in comparison to.
Luckily most of the other readers, like me, could not pass themselves off as voice-over artists, so I didn’t feel like a philistine when I stumbled over words like “Erromangoans” and “Brighggians”.
I wrote a note in my reporter’s pad less than three hours from the start, wondering: “What was I thinking?!”
To be fair, by that time we were only on chapter 13, Wheelbarrow, out of a total of 135, and the narrator, Ishmael, hadn’t even gotten to Nantucket, from where he would set out on his voyage.
In chapter 13, the narrator describes leaving New Bedford harbor for Nantucket and the busy scenes unfolding on the wharves he passes, a mix of ships happily, peacefully at rest and those busily, anxiously preparing for a new journey.
I’d committed to this, I thought to myself, and although the prospect of going home to a comfortable bed was wildly appealing, I could, and would, see this through.
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The real journey begins
A little after 4 pm, I read aloud again, chapter 22: Merry Christmas, which details the final preparations by the crew of the Pequod before casting off for their long journey, when command transfers fully to Captain Ahab.
It was around this time too that the museum started quieting around us. By 6 pm, the gates had closed and it was just us and the museum staff.
We took a short break to get our overnight supplies from our parked cars: for me a sleeping bag, a lightweight hoodie, bug spray and a massive bag of gummy bears, before spreading out on deck and settling in for the evening.
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As the sun set, the Mystic sky turned a deep cotton candy pink that nearly synchronized with chapter 38: Dusk, before nature’s lights turned off around us and the book really got going, the hunt for the vindictive white whale beginning in earnest with chapter 41 : Moby Dick.
The museum staff had placed small electric lanterns on the deck to illuminate the proceedings, and a number of us had brought flashlights and headlamps of our own.
The only thing in front of me? The text.
The only thing to do? Stay engrossed.
As the hour and minute hands ticked closer to their vertical match, I laid out on the deck, first using my rolled up sleeping bag as a pillow, then unfurling the sleeping bag and laying atop it, the only sight above me the masts and rigging of the ancient ship.
I put down my book and turned off my headlamp and just listened to the story unfold, complex sentences, dirty jokes, clever wordplay and all.
This was, I thought to myself, pretty cool.
Sleeping on a whaling ship
At some point I must have fallen asleep, because in the early morning hours I was woken up, not by the rain which had apparently been falling on me, lightly at first, for a couple hours, but by my compatriots in this literary journey, who let me know the reading was moving below deck to the blubber room, so as to stay dry.
The room, directly below where we’d been reading all day and night, was used to cut up large sheets of blubber, lowered down from the deck, into smaller chunks that could then be processed by the try-works above into precious oil.
When we settled into the low-ceilinged room, choosing our locations purposefully so as to avoid dripping water from above, I realized that I was one of just two people who hadn’t headed home in the rain, intending to return in the light of day.
The finish line
A dozen or so readers returned after the 8 am break to grab some coffee and put our gear back in our cars, some new, some the same who had ducked out during the rain overnight.
I found myself getting progressively more excited as we got closer to the end, partly because the finish line was in sight but mostly because the plot, too, reaches its crescendo right at the end with a three-chapter, three-day chase of the titular white whale – I won’t spoil the ending, if you don’t know it already, go read the book!
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As quickly as the epilogue concluded, so did our journey end. After we sang “Happy Birthday” to Melville and enjoyed some cake, I, like Ishmael, headed home to find a way to tell my story. (Fun fact: the original British copies of ‘Moby Dick” did not include the epilogue, which detailed how Ishmael, the narrator, came to be in a position to share the story he’d just told over 135 chapters, which was a point of contention for early reviewers.)
24 hours of ‘Moby Dick’: What it meant to me
Between starting on a Sunday, the stunning length of the endeavor, the methodical, communal reading of a dense, old text and the literal and figurative sermons included in Melville’s tome, it felt like an American literature equivalent of going to church. Even the smell of the wooden ship reminded me of incense – and growing up Catholic I definitely nodded off in church once or twice.
Completing the Moby Dick marathon was surprisingly satisfying, not least because I wasn’t sure I had the willpower to see it through. Reading Melville is one thing, but hearing it aloud and reading it aloud truly brings so much of the text to life, from the different dialects of the multi-cultural crew to the tongue-in-cheek humor that translates even today to the pure mastery. and majesty of this great American novel.
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Again, you can grasp this while you read it alone, but immersing yourself in it like we did in Mystic really makes you take a step back in awe at Melville’s towering, timeless achievement.