Journal of a Sabbatical

January 3, 2001

that allegorical marine mammal again

Today's Reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville


2001 Book List
Plum Island Bird List

Entries about past Moby Dick Marathons:  

January 4, 1997  - the first one

January 5, 1997

January 3, 1998

January 3, 1999

January 5, 1999

January 6, 1999 - scroll down for pictures of the blue whale's vertebrae waiting to be reassembled

January 3, 2000 - feeling sorry for myself for not being able to go to the Moby Dick Marathon

KOBO the Blue Whale

This is the fifth year of the New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby Dick Marathon. I look forward to the marathon. It's kind of the final holiday in the season and is way more fun for me than New Year's Eve (actually I don't even celebrate New Year's Eve). The Moby Dick marathon is my New Year celebration. I'm particularly excited this year because the blue whale skeleton is finally assembled and on display. I wonder if the bones still smell of whale oil?

new bedford harborBecause it's in the middle of the week this year - it's always the 3rd and 4th of January to commemorate the date Melville left New Bedford aboard the Acushnet on the voyage that inspired him - Nancy and I had to converge on New Bedford from our separate directions amidst our other lives. Nancy took the bus from Providence. I drove from North Andover and got stuck in a huge traffic jam on 128 with no apparent cause. We both missed the opening "Call me Ishmael" but didn't miss much of the early chapters. It's not like I've never heard the words "Call me Ishmael" before. Being there is the thing whether I catch every word or not.

The Lagoda Room is set up a little differently this year, with the readers' podiums set up on the stairs facing toward the stern of the Lagoda (before the podiums were at the stern of the Lagoda facing the stairs) and chairs set up on both sides of the Lagoda. (The Lagoda is a ship for those who wonder.) The seats are nearly full. This seems to be be a bigger audience than previous years. New Bedford is celebrating 150 years of Moby Dick this year - so say banners hung on every telephone pole and street light in the downtown - so maybe that accounts for the larger audience.

When I read yesterday's entry to Nancy, she suggested I apply for a job as phonics czar in Dubya's administration. We chatted about this over lunch at the Java Jungle,which I remember getting coffee at the first time we came to New Bedford but I remember it being in a different place (did they move?). [It's not the same place. My memory is fading. The first place was called the Java Bean not the Java Jungle.]

During the reading I amused myself by noticing which readers obviously learned phonics and which learned "whole language" or "see and say". It's easy to spot. When faced with an unfamiliar word, a phonics person will try to sound it out, which makes for some interesting pronunciations but you can grok where they got it. A whole language person will visually compare it to images of words he or she knows. This results in bizarre word substitutions. Take for example the word leviathan, with which no one seems to be familiar this year. It comes out something like leveethiahn (kinda rhymes with Raytheon) from people who make an attempt to sound it out but don't quite get it (not that sounding it out correctly would get you the correct pronunciation in this case anyway). It comes out "levitation" from the whole language people because that's the word they know that looks the most like it. Of course, nowadays nobody has ever heard the word leviathan anyway. It's a word that people only know from the Bible and Moby Dick. Nancy asked me if there are new Bible translations in use that call it something else and maybe Moby Dick is the only place that uses "leviathan". Who knows? Anyway, there were other words for which I noticed a difference of approach or attack or whatever by people who were clearly phonics trained vs. people who were clearly whole language trained. Maybe next time I'll write them all down and do some kind of social anthropology study of word attack.

Today is the best weather we've ever had for the New Bedford trip. The weather was nothing like that described in the Seamen's Bethel chapter so we decided to skip the trek across the street to the Seamen's Bethel for the sermon and took a walk along the New Bedford waterfront instead. To get over there we had to cross the highway on a pedestrian bridge that was long and icy. I guess they don't sand the pedestrian bridge - can't get those huge sanding trucks up there I guess :-) Nancy is afraid of pedestrian bridges so it was kind of a tough crossing, but we did it without slipping on the ice or anything else untoward.

A great black back gull posed for us on the rusting rail of a fishing boat. This got me into a photography kind of mood, which I haven't been for awhile, so I got really into the shapes and colors and juxtapositions of boats in the harbor. It felt good to be near the water on a relatively mild day (it was cold but not windy). We noticed the Neptune statue for the first time. How long has it been there? It's great. Basically Neptune (at least I think it's Neptune) is on top of a huge column composed of fish and crabs and shellfish and coral and all manner of sea creatures. Starfish and sea urchins. Horseshoe crabs. A swordfish. A dolphin. Giant clams. Whelk. Scallops. Everything except Leviathan himself. I guess to do a whale in the same scale as the rest of the sea creatures would have taken up the entire ferry pier. No photograph I could take would quite capture it.

Where there's fishing boats there's blue tarps so I was even more inspired than usual. Someday I may actually get serious about the Blue Tarp Project (which no one seems to believe I'm really doing but it's way further along than my novel, which everyone seems to believe I'm doing). These greasy, grimy tarps are a long way from the artfully arranged haystack toppers in Hokkaido but they speak volumes nonetheless. Shoot me before I get any further with romanticizing blue tarps. (The T just popped off my keyboard. This must be a sign.)

The light was good and there was plenty to see (including this wonderful door handle) so we stayed out for about an hour before going back to the reading. I'm sure Melville would have gone for a walk in this weather too.

Back in the Lagoda room, the reading continued with people reading in Spanish and Portuguese. A woman from the Gay Head tribe on Martha's Vineyard read, as did a guy from the Azores, and a disabled woman who read from a large print edition. Truly diverse as always.

I always find new insights and associations each new time I approach the book.

This is the first time the description of the sanguinary Quakers in the Nantucket chapter made me think of Richard Nixon. Melville's depiction of the tough Quaker whale men put Nixon in a whole different context for me.

And the reference to the Pequod being named for a tribe that's as extinct as the Medes got me too. I leaned over to Nancy and said "but they have a casino, they can't be extinct". There's been a bit of controversy in these parts about whether the Mashuntucket Pequots really are a tribe ever since the Foxwoods casino opened. They have what people tell me is an excellent museum of Pequot history though - funded by the casino.

And then there's the weird association my mind made between Queequeg's purplish skin and the color of the inside of the rim of a quahog shell. The pun on his name - Peleg calls him Quohog - gathers a whole new richness when associated with the purple color. Melville probably didn't intend that, but he may have known that the more purple in the quahog shell the more valuable it was for making wampum (wampum was beads made of quahog shells used as a kind of currency among the Wampanoags). And every year Nancy and I both wonder how the Quohog pun translates in other languages. In fact I wonder if even English speaking readers recognize it as a pun if they're not raised on the New England sea coast. Would a reader in New Mexico or North Dakota recognize the word quahog/quohog? Melville is a very funny guy.

When evening started to fall Nancy and I went up to the observation deck to watch the dusk settle in over the waterfront and the cobblestone streets. We could almost imagine being in the 19th century with the smell of whale oil lamps wafting out over the city as night fell. Well, except for all the parked cars in the narrow streets and the traffic whizzing by on the highway and the Christmas lights... and the smell of whale oil is coming from the blue whale skeleton in the lobby. I guess that answers my question of whether the bones still smell.

We'd agreed ahead of time not to stay late into the night because Nancy only took today off from work thus has to go in tomorrow and I have a long drive ahead of me, especially if I drive Nancy home. I wanted to hear the Cetology chapter, the one where Melville classifies whales according to book sizes, so we agreed that anytime after that we could leave. They got to that chapter around 7:00 PM and it was as funny as I remembered it. People don't laugh enough at Moby Dick, even the Moby Dick fans who attend the reading. People treat "great literature" with such solemnity! It's a rousing good story with lots and lots of good jokes. I wish people would enjoy it more!


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Copyright © 2001, Janet I. Egan