white whale

January 3, 2004

Woke up in Massachusetts again. Went to New Bedford. Walking down the cobblestoned street with my Modern Library edition of Moby Dick under my arm I wondered what the difference is between a tourist and a pilgrim. A couple of tourists passed me on their way into an art gallery and smiled when they saw the book. I guess I'm part of the typical New Bedford scenery -- earnest reader clutching the great American novel.

The reading started in the Lagoda Room as usual, and there weren't enough chairs set up for both readers and spectators so I ended up sitting on a box onboard the Lagoda curled up against a wall of the forward cabin. Nancy joined me a bit later (she took the bus from Providence whereas I drove down from the edge of the universe) and we found seats as some people got up to move around. We listened and followed along happily until the Seamen's Bethel chapter.

When the reading moved to the Bethel, we took our traditional lunch break and headed to Java Jungle. They told us the Moby Dick readers cleaned them out of food before noon and the grill was shut down because they close at 2:00 on weekends. Java Jungle ran out of food! We walked down the block to Java Bean, which I used to confuse with Java Jungle. Java Bean went out of business! The space is available for lease.

We wandered around and ended up at the Catwalk Bar and Grille. It's one of those bare brick places that's supposed to make you feel all sophisticated and urbane even though you are in New Bedford. Our waitress kept confusing our orders and then the cook got confused and cooked what we hadn't ordered but eventually we got lunch. The onion rings were good. I think the place would feel more sophistcated and urbane at night and under the influence of alcohol. To me it just felt dark and cavernous.

As we walked back to the Whaling Museum we passed a small storefront that advertised itself as the Hetty Green Museum. There's a Hetty Green museum!?! We couldn't pass by without a quick look. Three families of tourists from New Jersey (Green was from Morristown) had just settled in to watch the orientation video and the docent enthusiastically asked us to join them. The video was staticky and concentrated mostly on Hetty's son and not on how she managed her immense fortune by extreme frugality, but the docent's enthusiasm and the responsiveness to questions more than made up for it. It was a fun diversion and really did fit in with our mission as it put Captain Bildad's Quaker frugality in a real life context. Besides, it added to the general weirdness quotient for the day. Plus we had much fun imagining an alternative universe in which Hetty Green owned the Pequod and fired Ahab for wasting her precious capital assets on personal revenge.


The reading had moved to the big room underneath KOBO's bones after the sermon, so we found seats easily. Yes, KOBO's bones still smell of whale oil but less so than in previous years. If you look closely at the skeleton you can see spots where the oil is still oozing out. Every once in awhile from certain spots in the museum you can still get a whiff of how the entire city of New Beford smelled when it was the city that lit the world. They're reassembling the skeleton of a sperm whale that washed ashore dead on Nantucket upstairs in the room where the panorama used to be displayed. I'm not sure how they'll fit that skeleton in here with KOBO. Maybe they'll have to build another addition.

So, under the skeleton of the late KOBO, we listened as Ishmael and Queequeg ate chowder at The Try Pots, signed on with the Pequod, and set sail. People actually laughed at Peleg and Bildad calling Queequeg Quohog. This indicates the presence of locals in with the academics in the audience. Actually the audience seemed much more tuned in to Melville's sense of humor this time because there were may more laughs during the Cetology chapter, where Ishmael classfies whales according to book sizes, than usual. I think it helped that the people reading that chapter were actually familiar with whale biology.

In the refreshment room over chowder we met a woman who had written her thesis on the chapter where Ishmael describes walking through a whale skeleton in the Bower in the Aracides chapter. She didn't think she'd be able to stay awake 'til that chapter because it would be in the wee hours of the morning. It was fun to talk to her, clearly an Ishmael reader rather than an Ahab reader (academics make that distinction/debate all the time). Somehow we got on the subject of American literature in general and Nancy chimed in with how I read far more American lit that she does even though she's the one with the advanced degree in it. Before I knew it, my thoughts about A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers having themes -- in particular the criticism of religion -- and rambling organization in common with Moby Dick were tumbling out of my mouth. Whoa. I rarely dare to speak of literature with academics but it was fun. The woman we were talking with understood exactly where I was coming from. Not that anyone in their right mind or wrong mind either would organize a marathon reading of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers -- but think of it, you could do it on a boat floating downriver... hmm, what exactly is in this chowder, clam or cod?

We listened to the many readers until Nancy started to fall asleep. Then we decided to go to Providence to sleep and then come back in the morning for the chase scene.

Today's Reading
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Last Year's Reading
2003 Book List


Journal Index



Copyright © 2004, Janet I. Egan