Over the recent holiday break, my husband, Gerry, and I toured the New Bedford Whaling Museum on the south coast of Massachusetts. We’ve developed an appreciation for New Bedford, a city that has been undergoing a cultural Renaissance in recent years - much like that of Providence, RI, and Worcester, MA. New Bedford claims to have had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world during its whaling-capital heyday in the 19th Century.>> New Bedford now boasts some of the best community theater in the country. A visit to its cobblestone streets and views of its long wharves along the Acushnet River should be on anyone’s list of New England trips.
We discovered at the Whaling Museum that New Bedford and Nantucket were important hubs of sperm whale hunting. 20% of the entire whaling force in the world sailed from New Bedford and over ten thousand men manned the ships leaving from New Bedford.
Going to sea on a whaling ship was a romantic thought for young men in the 18th and 19th centuries. Life along compatriots seeking adventure on the ocean and among native young women in South Sea islands of paradise had an allure that many of us today can’t imagine.
Celebrated American author, Herman Melville, was one of those young men. After spending a few years at sea on merchant vessels, 21-year-old Melville signed up on the whaling ship, the Acushnet, leaving from Fairhaven in New Bedford harbor. Eighteen months into the journey, he abandoned the vessel before the expedition was completed. He had reason to jump ship – the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific offered tropical temperatures and a hospitable welcome. Melville stayed for several months and wrote about it in his first very successful books, Typee, and Omoo. They were fictional accounts based on his adventures. On the islands, Melville listened to the legends, tales and lore from the whalers he encountered. He studied everything about the whaling trade – the ships, the islands, the oceans, and most importantly, the whale.
Both Typee and Omoo put Melville on the map as a writer and both were the origins of his most well-known novel, Moby Dick. The Whale was published in England in October 1850. It was released as Moby Dick a month later in America.
Melville was never successful with other writing; he actually never really knew the achievement of his American classic, one of the most studied books in the world. His book had only sold just over 3,700 copies by the time of his death in 1891.
I added ‘reading Moby Dick’ to my bucket list this year, especially after visiting the whaling museum. Two essential DVDs are available in the Minuteman Library Network. One is the “Melville Legacy – Moby Dick” which is part of the Masters in American Literature Series. The other, Herman Melville: Moby Dick” was produced by Films for the Humanities & Sciences. Both are wonderful introductions to the Melville, but also include motivating suggestions for how to read the book. Many of the scholars who appear in the DVDs have read the book many, many times but they make clear that the most important thing to do is to take the book in chunks, digesting this whale of a tale one bite at a time. (They even suggest leaving out chapters during the first read and returning to read them another time.)
A perfect way to achieve this is to read a simpler version of Moby Dick available at our library. With the help of the whaling museum, several scholars published an abridged (original writing but with chapters removed), illustrated and annotated edition edited by Tamia A. Burt and others in 2002. Another excellent way to take a bite is to read Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, One Drawing for Every Page (2011). Graphic novels illustrate the story, too, and there are several adult and children’s versions available at our library and in the others in Minuteman and our digital catalogs.
Many authors have written about the importance of reading Moby Dick. Joyce Carol Oates includes an essay, “Moby Dick – An American Book of Wonders” in one of her collections: Woman Writer, Occasions and Opportunities. Author and adventurer, Tim Severin, traveled to the Marquesas Archipelago and other islands in the South Pacific to research his book, In Search of Moby Dick (1999). He hunted not only for the Great Whale but for the facts and fiction he could absorb from the islanders he encountered there.
Author, Philip Hoare, was also inspired by Moby Dick. In The Whale, In Search of the Giants of the Sea (2010), Hoare recounts his visits to whaling towns and cities around the world, spending time, of course, in Nantucket and New Bedford. It is interesting to note, the Melville never visited Nantucket, yet, he described it in minute detail. Hoare compares and contrasts the town of the 18th and 19th centuries (one that you could smell as you sailed into port) with the Nantucket of today. Like Melville, Hoare also includes many descriptions of the biology of the sperm whale and the ocean that it lives in.
Perhaps the best book for inspiration was written by Nathaniel Philbrick: Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011). Philbrick has read Moby Dick at least a dozen times and he claims that Melville’s tome is the greatest American novel ever written. In this short book, Philbrick’s passion for Moby Dick is convincing.
Each year during the first days of the month of January, people gather from all over New England and beyond to participate in a marathon reading of Moby Dick. The 19th annual reading occurred just weeks ago. Besides the twenty-five hours of non-stop reading, the weekend also includes lectures, dinners, and other events at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature has called the marathon reading “the closest approach the United States has had to a national prose epic”. There is no doubt that reading some version of Moby Dick, America’s prose, should be on every American’s bucket list.
(Of note: Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestseller, In the Heart of the Sea, recounting the fatal voyage of a real whaleship, the Essex, will be released as a feature film on March 13, 2015. The book has also been adapted for middle-school readers and is titled Revenge of the Whale.)