Entry begun Friday, January 13, 9:30 pm
At this time last Friday, we were saying good-bye to friends and colleagues at the Whaling Museum and walking a few blocks down to the Fairfield Inn, on the waterfront, for a good night’s sleep. The one difficulty of having three days of meetings during the Marathon weekend in New Bedford is that our Culture Project team does not see as much as we would like of the Marathon itself. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, we met for breakfast at 7:30 to choose our annual Bezanson Archive Scholar, select our art acquisition for 2017, determine priorities for our work in the Archive, monitor the inventory of our merchandise in the Museum Shop, plan for and process our official meetings with Museum staff, prepare for our Friday and Saturday panel presentations, prepare for our Saturday and Sunday Chats with the Scholars, and decide who will fill the reading times that had been set for us at the Marathon. Although much of this weekend’s activity must be scheduled carefully in advance, even more seems to happen on the fly, just as a ship that leaves a safe harbor in the morning with an accurate knowledge of the tide tables can never be sure of the nature of the weather, the strength of the currents, or what kind of friend or stranger might be waiting around the next cape.
We had heard on Friday night that a snowstorm was expected the next day, perhaps strong enough to cause the authorities to shut down the city streets—as had happened a few years before. From this point of view, we were very happy to be staying within walking distance of the Museum. Our first scheduled event on Saturday was our annual Stump the Scholars quiz show at 10 in the morning, two hours before the start of the Marathon itself. The walk up Union Street through a light coating of snow was fresh and enjoyable. We even went an extra block up Union Street so we could pass by the Seaman’s Bethel on the crest of Johnny Cake Hill before passing the Mariner’s House and turning in to the entrance of the Museum.
After checking out the new long-sleeve t-shirt we were selling in the Museum Shop, featuring the drawing of Queequeg by Matt Kish we had commissioned a few years ago, we entered the Museum Theater to choose sides for this year’s Stump the Scholars. As always, our six-member Cultural Project team had split into two teams of three who would compete in fielding questions from the audience in the Theater. As always, Michael Dyer was the emcee, convening the event with a high-octane riff, introducing the members of the competing teams, calling upon the sequence of audience members who had submitted questions in advance, and awarding the points for each answer that would determine this year’s winner.
This year, the team of three nearest Mike at the podium were the Loose Fish: Mary K Bercaw Edwards from the University of Connecticut, Jennifer Baker from New York University, and myself from Northern Kentucky University. At the other end of the table were the Fast Fish: Chris Sten from George Washington University, Wyn Kelley from MIT, and Tim Marr form the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The audience for this event always includes a number of regulars who have spent the whole year trying to think of questions about Melville or Moby-Dick that would stump us. We always get some great questions from newcomers too. I thought the most brilliant answer this year was the one Wyn Kelley gave to the man who asked us to name the newest invention that appears in the pages of Moby-Dick. Neither team was able to name the invention the questioner he had in mind—the telegraphic cable recently laid across the Atlantic. So he won one of the Stump the Scholar pins Mike had affixed to the front of the table for anyone who stumped us. But Wyn won a number of bonus points in the contest between the two teams by suggesting that Captain Ahab is in essence inventing the concept of a robot when he orders the Carpenter to create for him “a complete man after a desirable pattern” who would be “fifty feet high in his socks,” with a “chest modeled on the Thames Tunnel,” but with “no heart at all, brass forehead, and about a quarter acre of fine brains.”
The most brilliant question came from the man in the vest four rows up and three seats from the right in the above photo. The question itself was quite impossible to answer: “In which passage in the whole novel does Melville anticipate the political phenomenon of Donald Trump?” Speaking for the Loose Fish, I prefaced my response by saying the answer would depend on what you thought of Trump himself. Someone who deeply admires him, for example, might choose the passage in which Stubb harvests a fistful of precious “ambergris” from the bowels of a sick whale. On the other hand, a reader who considers Trump a dangerous demagogue, might cite the passage in “Surmises” in which Ahab shrewdly calculates that “to accomplish his object [he] must use tools; and of all tools in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order,” and must therefore must be continually manipulated. That was a decent guess, but it was not the passage the pin-winning questioner had in mind. He was thinking of the passage in “The Specksynder” in which Ishmael reflects on that “certain sultanism” in Ahab’s “brain” which becomes “incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship. For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available superiority over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry or base. This it is, that for ever keeps God’s true princes of the Empire from the world’s hustings; and leaves the highest honors that his air can give, to those men who became famous more through their infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert, than though their undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass.” One wonders what the sculpture of the eagle looming high above us as the questioner read this passage would think about our current political juncture.
The audience always lingers after Mike Dyer declares the winner of the Stump the Scholars contest, as quite a community has built up over the years. We scholars have to leave by about 11:15, though, as we have for the last few years been reading out the eighty consecutive passages in the “Extracts” section of Moby-Dick in the Lagoda Room before the Marathon proper begins with “Call me Ishmael” at noon. Robert Del Tredici had been at the Stump the Scholar event (his first). When it was over, he had asked if he could borrow my backpack. I found out why when he returned it a little later with a beautiful white whale painted in its leather medallion.
Our reading of “Extracts” and the reading of the opening chapters of the novel takes place just beyond the stern of the Lagoda, the half-scale model of an actual whale ship housed in the Bourne Building of the Whaling Museum. Reading the “Extracts” in advance of the opening chapters is an innovation introduced by James Russell in the annual marathon, and we Melville scholars love it. Until you read—or hear—these passages out loud, you do not realize all of the ways in which they anticipate important moments in the action and imagery of the novel itself. “Extracts” has always been a much overlooked element of the novel, and it is interesting that we began reading it as a prologue to the New Bedford Marathon only a few years before Matt Kish began his project of illustrating each of the eighty Extracts for last year’s exhibition in Cincinnati.
We wanted to stay in the Lagoda Room to hear Peter Whittemore launch this year’s Marathon with “Call me Ishmael,” but we all had meetings in the early afternoon which required that we find a place to have lunch during the opening chapters in the Lagoda Room as well during the chapters in the chapel to be read across the street in the Seaman’s Bethel. Fortunately, Robert Del Tredici heard and saw the chapters we missed a got some fine photos while we were having lunch. His photo here of Father Mapple preaching from the prow of the Bethel is iconic. Equally striking in a different tonality is his photograph of Peter Gansevoort Whittemore, Melville’s great-great-grandson, with skeleton of a sperm whale. Here we see the kind of pedigree few can claim.
Less weighty is the photo I took of two fellow customers as our Cultural Project team left Tia Maria’s Café, across from the Museum on Water Street, after lunch. This cozy couple were each wearing what has until now been our most popular t-shirt at the Museum. They were more than willing to bare the words on their matching chests: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Back at the Whaling Museum I was happy to see our newest t-shirt on one of the clerks in the store. She was equally happy to let us see Kish’s classy, tactile Queequeg on her chest.
My 2 o’clock appointment was in the Reading Room of the Whaling Museum Research Library. I had invited three Moby-Dick artists to meet me there to see artwork relating to Melville from the flat file of our Melville Society Archive. Mark Proknick, chief librarian of the Museum’s Research Library, oversees our Melville Soceity Archive when we are out of town. The night before I had pulled a number of items from the flat file so he could bring up them into the Reading Room on Saturday. These included 44 prints from Melville’s own collection of art, artist books by Tony de los Reyes and Claire Illouz, and several dozen original Moby-Dick drawings by Thanasis Christodoulou. This is not the extent of the art in our Archive. Works by Kathleen Piercefield, Aileen Callahan, Vanessa Hodgkinson, and Peter Martin that have been framed for exhibition are now kept for us in the storage area of the Museum itself. Robert Del Tredici and Kathleen Piercefield were two of the three artists who would now be meeting me in the Reading Room. The third was Duston Spear, an artist from New York State who is herself in the midst of a major Moby-Dick project. At our meeting at the hotel on Saturday morning, our Culture Project team decided to commission Duston as our Archive Artist in 2017. So now we would have three Archive Artists in the Reading Room at the same time.
Duston Spear was the first to arrive. I had met her for the first time at the dinner the night before, and was glad to hear more about the artistic residency she was hoping to make at the Whaling Museum later this year. Our Cultural Project team had been impressed with her plans and had decided at our morning meeting to commission from her some new Moby-Dick work on paper that we could add to our flat file later this year. Duston has recently been wrestling with the concept of “The Whiteness of the Whale,” and she had never seen Claire Illouz’s artist book The Whiteness. We have one of only twenty-five copies in the world in the Melville Society Archive, so before the other artists arrived Duston and I examined that book very carefully. Duston understood immediately the brilliance with which Illouz had decided to print the words she reproduced from Melville’s “Whiteness” chapter in embossing without ink as a way of optically replicating the conceptual challenge of reading the text. Duston also admired the variety of printmaking techniques Illouz used in creating the engraved visual images in this book. Later, I was delighted to see the photograph Robert Del Tredici had taken of Duston after joining us in the Reading Room.
Kathleen Piercefield was intimately acquainted with the copy of Illouz’s The Whiteness we have in the Steely Archive at Northern Kentucky University, but she had never had a chance to examine any of the 400-plus prints and engravings from Melville’s own collection of art that have surfaced since I discovered the first large bunch at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the mid-1980s. Kathleen’s own printmaking practice features intaglio and aquatint engraving as well as the monotype and collagraph techniques she has been employing recently, and she was delighted to see the 44 prints from Melville’s collection that the book collector William Reese had donated to the Melville Society Archive after rescuing them from the wastebasket of an estate sale in Pittsfield in the 1990s. In addition to taking the group photograph seen below, Del Tredici took an individual photo of one of the few American prints in Melville’s collection as currently known—the apocalyptic Death Struggle by W. G. Jackman after C. Deas published in New York in 1846.
I was surprised and delighted to find that we spent the largest amount of time in the Reading Room carefully examining, and appreciatively discussing, the dozens of original Moby-Dick drawings that Thanasis Christodoulou of Volos, Greece, had donated to the Melville Society Archive several years ago. Thanasis is a lawyer in Volos who was the first person to translate Moby-Dick into the Greek language. He was also the co-host of the First International Melville Society Conference, held in Volos in 1997. By then he had already begun to create small, evocative, meditative drawings inspired by Moby-Dick. He has not stopped yet, and the ones he has donated to our Archive are powerful conceptually as well as visually. He donated many of them in two versions—a large box of original drawings supplemented by a printed book in which in which each reproduction is accompanied by the text that inspired it in both Greek and English. We all had our favorites as we sifted slowly through these riches, wishing only we had time to see them all.
While Kathleen and Bob were together, I want to make sure we had time to get over to the Oceanic Harvest exhibition so I could get a photo of each artist with his or her artwork. On the way, Bob saw an image of Frederick Douglass in a Whaling Museum display and, knowing my deep admiration for Douglass, asked me to stop for the photograph you see here. Once we got to our own exhibition, I invited Bob to stand wherever he wished along his own sequence of prints. He stood at the heart of the Ahab trio, supplanting the Torn Body and Gashed Soul with his own questing face, with Coffin Tap and Strike the Sun on either side.
I would have liked to get a photo of Kathleen Piercefield near her larger-than-life Queequeg outside the entrance to this exhibition, but Jerry Beck’s Queequeg’s Coffin had been parked in front of it in the Harbor View Gallery before the Marathon Reading got under way. The lighting at the far end of our little exhibition was not ideal on this frigid, cloudy afternoon, but it was enough to catch a decent photo of Kathleen in front of The Affidavit. In the case immediately behind Kathleen, the copy of Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures open to image of Queequeg had changed its position from the photo I had taken the day before.
Duston Spear had come with us to the Oceanic Harvest gallery and the surprise arrival of Ricardo Pitts Wiley turned our cozy little artist gam into something more than I could have planned or imagined. Before meeting Duston in person, I had told her about Ricardo because she will be teaching an art course involving Moby-Dick to inmates in a prison for women in New York later this year, whereas Ricardo had begun his script for the play that became Moby-Dick: Then and Now when working with inmates in a prison for males in Rhode Island. And this was not all. The one trip that Kathleen Piercefield had previously made from northern Kentucky to the East Coast had been to see Ricardo’s production of Moby-Dick: Then and Now at his Mixed Magic Theater in Pawtucket. At the premiere of that production, she had exhibited several of her earliest Moby-Dick prints (including Queequeg in his own proper person, The Women of New Bedford, and From the Headwaters of the Eternities) with other works that had been created by students in my class in Moby-Dick and the Arts at Northern Kentucky University. Kathleen was as happy to be reunited with Ricardo as Duston was to meet him for the first time.
Nor was that all. As soon Ricardo had reconnected with Kathleen from the Pawtucket premiere of his play, and been introduced to Duston as an artist keenly interested in Moby-Dick in relation to prisons, he recognized Robert Del Tredici as the other Moby-Dick artist who had attended the premiere of his Pawtucket play. Ricardo had used one of Bob’s drawings in the announcement for the play and Bob had sold a number of his Moby-Dick prints at the Mixed Magic premiere. This must be how it occasionally felt for 19th-century whalers when, after months, or even years, on the open seas without encountering sailors or ships they previously knew, they suddenly come across several former acquaintances in an impromptu gam such as we had in the Oceanic Harvest exhibition (Duston being the only one of the five who had not met up years before in Pawtucket). I hope Ricardo will be able to visit Duston’s class this spring at the Bedford Correctional Facility for Women Prison for Women in Bedford Hills, New York. If so, some of the energy from that encounter may make its way into the artist’s book that Duston is currently contemplating as one possible result from her residency at the Whaling Museum later in the year.
Our Cultural Project team had hoped to take our guest artists—now suddenly augmented by Ricardo—out to dinner at Brick, a wood-fire pizza restaurant a few blocks up Union Street. We would have had to leave for the restaurant by 5:30 because Tim and I were scheduled to read in the Marathon at 7:20. Because we had been in the Museum most of the day (apart from our short walk to Tia Maria’s for lunch) we did not know how strong the blizzard had become until we found out that Brick and all the other restaurants we knew in the city had been closed for the evening. Tim and I were grateful the Whaling Museum was serving small cups of chowder as long as they lasted during the time we had planned to go out for dinner. The worsening weather had thrown a wrench into the schedule for the Marathoners who were planning to read, since many were unable to leave their homes and none could park on the city streets. Our 7:20 reading was to have followed immediately after the performance of the “Midnight—Forecastle” chapter by the Culture Park Theater Company in New Bedford, but most of their actors were unable to make it. The schedule was running nearly an hour behind by the time Tim and I got to read shortly after eight, but we had the pleasure, as we were waiting, of hearing all parts of “Midnight—Forecastle” read by one extremely eloquent, articulate actor.
I love “Moby Dick,” the chapter that immediately follows “Midnight—Forecastle,” but it’s a tough one to read in a Marathon. There is no dialogue—only one long paragraph after another. The sentences themselves are very long, some of them running ten to twelve lines and filled with semi-colons, commas, and dashes. It was all I could do keep my place and read at an even pace—there was no room for the special emphasis I like to bring to a text when I know I am going to read it in advance. That was one reason I was happy to turn the mike over to Tim. The other is that he is a born reader, and is able to persuasively dramatize whatever he reads at first sight. By the time Tim got to the passage in which Moby Dick “reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field,” I could enjoy my perfect view of Piercefield’s Queequeg standing serenely at the other end of the room (with his lower legs, however, still blocked by Jerry Beck’s Coffin).
By the time our turn came to read, Tim and I had heard that several of our Melville Society colleagues had found their way to the one business still serving food that evening, a pub we had not previously visited. By then, however, we were exhausted from our long day. So was our colleague Jennifer Baker. So after Tim and I did our readings the three of us walked along Water Street and down Union Street to our hotel. This cold, bitter walk gave us a new appreciation for Ishmael’s description of the “very dark and dismal night” during which he had looked a place to stay upon arriving in New Bedford on a Saturday in December. The streets were “bitingly cold and cheerless” as he walked through “blocks of blackness,” with “only here and there a candle.” As we walked those streets, the snow was still blowing sideways, as you can see from the photo below. I was identifiable in my dark coat primarily by the white whale Del Tredici hand drawn earlier in the day on the back of my backpack. Fortunately, we already had a hotel to go to. I slept very hard that night. I was surprised, and impressed, the next morning when Tim told us he had walked back up to the Museum at 3 am to read in the midnight shift of the Marathon. We heard later on Sunday that the official snowfall on Saturday, measured just before midnight, was 15.5 inches.
The next morning, when I heard about the impromptu gam that had taken place at the one pub that had stayed open the night before, I wished we had turned up, rather than down, Union Street on the way home. Not only did Chris, Wyn, and Mary K find something good to eat and drink. They ended up at a table with Bob Del Tredici (who had stopped before taking a bus to his hotel in the town of Dartmouth) and Ricardo Pitts Wiley (who had some time to kill before he was to read in the Marathon shortly before midnight). The talk was apparently as good as the craft beer, and I would especially have liked to hear Bob and Ricardo discoursing on the dangers of our nuclear age, about which each has thought very deeply. One of the photos Bob sent me after I got home showed how the blizzard had turned the whitened face of a bus into the equivalent of Ishmael’s description of the White Whale in the novel: “They say he has no face.”
Fortunately, the monster storm had entirely passed by Sunday morning, leaving only its residue of ice and snow. Tim and I had worried about making our late afternoon flights from Boston’s Logan airport after the Marathon ended at 1 pm, but the totally clear skies in the morning seemed to promise that Wyn could drive us from New Bedford to the airport with time to spare. After our breakfast business meeting to process everything had happened the day before, we walked up to the Whaling Museum to meet with two of its officers, Sarah Budlong and Sarah Rose, about an NEH Seminar for high school teachers were are hoping to co-sponsor in the summer 2018. After the 9 am meeting, Wyn and I would leave at 9:30 to conduct the day’s “Chat with the Scholars” while Mary K and Wyn worked in the Archive and Tim and Jennifer went over more details of the proposed grant with the two Sarahs.
“Chat with the Scholars” is another tradition that began after James Russell arrived as President of the Whaling Museum. Since we six Melville Society scholars are here for the entire Marathon weekend, he thought people who came to read might enjoy having an informal conversation with scholars who have devoted much of their lives to the novel. Like the “Stump the Scholars” quiz show, this event has been very popular from the beginning, and we have been having two sessions each year. I missed the Saturday session while meeting with the artists in the Reading Room, but I greatly enjoyed the “Chat” that Wyn and I had with those who came on Sunday. Much of the discussion this morning was about Ahab and, more precisely, how much sympathy it is proper to feel for him when he is so heedless of other people’s lives and feelings. Jeff Markham from New Trier High School near Chicago, who had read in the Marathon at 2:20 in the morning, introduced this question. We were all grateful to him for doing so, as it led to a very good discussion and even to a certain amount of soul-searching. This discussion paralleled the dynamics by which many visual and performing artists, female as well as male, have recently been exploring the inner life of Ahab with a new intensity.
Wyn Kelly and Chris Sten were scheduled to read at the very end of the Marathon, just before we all had to leave for our respective highways and airports, so at 11 in the morning we returned to Tia Maria’s for our last business lunch. We have come to love this little Portuguese restaurant and we have not begun to exhaust its menu choices. After lunch, several of us had last-minute details to attend to, so by the time Chris confirmed his presence at the reader’s desk, Wyn was already reading from one of the “Chase” chapters that ends novel. The room was absolutely full and attentive, and in spite of all of the challenges to the schedule yesterday, the Marathon was now running a few minutes ahead. Wyn and Chris read very clearly and movingly, as always, as did James Russell when he read the “Epilogue” and officially brought the 2017 Marathon to an end.
Jennifer Baker and I had found the entire Harbor View Gallery full when we arrived to hear the last chapters of the Marathon Reading, so we listened from inside the Oceanic Harvest exhibition space. When I took the photo below that concludes this blog entry, I was happy that Wyn was clearly visible as she read from the far end of the Harbor View Gallery—while Queequeg seemed to be listening from here in our cozy exhibition space. I had been aware that Monica Namyar’s bust of Queequeg was looking out toward the harbor of New Bedford as this year’s Marathon was ending, but I was not aware that my Melville colleague Jennifer Baker was doing the same until I uploaded the photos from my iPhone. Quite naturally, presumably without forethought, she was enacting the outer posture and inner vision of those “watergazers” who on the first page of the novel are “posted like silent sentinels” around the shoreline of New York City, to which Jennifer would be returning this evening, “fixed in ocean reveries.”