Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s most famous work and one of the greatest novels written by an American, was partly based on Melville’s time aboard the whaling ship Acushnet.
Melville sailed out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, aboard the Acushnet in January 1841, and to commemorate the event, the New Bedford Whaling Museum holds a Moby-Dick Marathon every year. This year’s event begins on Friday, January 7.
While there are events all weekend, the centerpiece is the annual cover-to-cover reading of Moby Dick. The non-stop reading, which will be virtual again this year, takes about 25 hours to complete. It will begin at noon, Eastern, on Saturday, January 8.
Museum President and CEO Amanda McMullen says she is confident that participants “will still be drawn in by the drama and excitement of the hunt for the white whale,” a Boston.com article reports.
Hundreds of readers from across the country have recorded themselves reading passages from Moby Dick and then submitted them to the New Bedford Whaling Museum to be compiled. This year’s celebrity reader, who traditionally kicks off the reading with the book’s opening line “Call me Ishmael,” is actor Sam Waterston. Other readers include prominent state and local elected officials.
“Over the years, the Whaling Museum has hosted an outstanding array of celebrities, academics, and public officials for the Moby-Dick Marathon,” McMullen said. “We are thrilled to have the participation of all our readers—200 strong—and know that their passion for Melville and heartfelt commitment to New Bedford will help make the 2022 marathon the most exciting and engaging yet.”
Melville was born in 1819, in New York City. In 1839, when he was 20, Melville took a job as a cabin boy aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.
After that voyage and a year exploring, Melville joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet in January of 1841. He and the rest of the crew sailed out of New Bedford, the whaling capital of the world.
“As he later wrote about his character Ishmael, that ship would be ‘my Yale College and my Harvard,” Mass Moments, a project of Mass Humanities, explains.
After 5 years at sea, Melville returned to Boston and began writing novels. The Whale, later published as Moby Dick, was published in October 1851.
“The allegorical undertones that Melville cultivated throughout the novel picked up on the link between whaling and a mid-19th century emerging American identity,” A PBS American Experience article explains. “The story centers around the narrator Ishmael, a sailor on the whaleship Pequod. The ship captain, Ahab, has lost his leg to Moby Dick on a previous expedition, and he is motivated to the point of derangement by revenge for the whale’s life. Powered by this plot, Melville’s Moby Dick spun the parable of the hunt for the great white whale as an emblem of the human condition and the reckless expansion of the American republic.”
Inspired By Actual Events
Amazingly enough, the story of the great white whale was based on two real-life incidents. The first was that of the Essex, a whaling ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.
Secondly, in 1839, Melville read a story in a magazine that included accounts of a giant, albino sperm whale that had attacked whaling ships trying to hunt it down.
“This whale, killed off the coast of Chile near Mocha Island, was called Mocha Dick,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains.
The Moby-Dick Marathon
The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon officially kicks off on Friday, January 7, with a virtual lecture – tickets are required. The virtual cover-to-cover reading of Moby Dick then begins on Saturday, at noon, Eastern.
As you would expect, however, the museum’s celebration includes many other events. For example, you can also virtually join the Moby-Dick Marathon Trivia or participate in the Virtual Chat with Melville Scholars.
You can find information about all of the events, including how to listen to Moby Dick, here.
If you’d like to learn more about New Bedford, be sure to read “How To Spend A Perfect Weekend In The Historic Seafaring City Of New Bedford, Massachusetts.” Be sure to also visit our History and Culture coverage, including Literary Sites.