Reading Moby Dick – A Whale Tale & More

“…that one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for ever and for aye. Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.” ― Herman Melville, Moby Dick or, the Whale

White whale at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic surely forced me to change the way I was living, as it did for many others, I know. Thinking about every aspect of my life and considering the potential impact of social encounters kept me isolated at home with my husband except for daily walks and necessary bi-weekly trips for grocery shopping. During this time of relative inactivity, we were home all the time. My husband took up reading, for the first time in his life, as documented in this post. I decided to take advantage of the home time to read some of the classics I’d never read.

About a week into teaching remotely when the schools closed in mid-March 2020, I joined a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) for The Divine Comedy. I had long admired William Blake’s illustrations for this classic, yet had never truly read the text. I loved it! As I followed the syllabus and explored the supplemental materials, there were times when I was blown away by the story, ideas, and details, yet there were times when I was struggling to keep up! It was a nice escape just when I needed one. I’m glad I took the course when I did, because after a month of teaching remotely, the screen time started to add up and I would do anything NOT to be in front of a screen.

Dick reading The Red Pony

After Dick finished The Red Pony, and after I finished a couple of books by Bill Bryson, I moved on to reading The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. I had read Of Mice and Men in high school (of course) and had been to Cannery Row in San Francisco a few times, yet I had never read the novel. I’m so glad I read this collection. Gritty and not cheerful, these stories capture the time and place of the 1930s and 1940s, racism included. It is difficult to read novels written in the first half of the twentieth century without feeling injustice with the prejudice and racial inequity. Especially during the summer of 2020.

While I was reading Steinbeck, Dick was reading McMurtry

Although I enjoyed being transported to warm, dry weather on the west coast in most of Steinbeck’s novels, The Moon is Down is the story that launched me completely out of place to a small town in Europe with war at its doorstep. Reading this novel during a highly charged political year in the midst of a pandemic created a deep appreciation for the mayor in the story, who despite the manipulation and suppression tactics the military employed, remained a staunch defender of democracy. When I started reading Steinbeck, I didn’t see that coming!

When summer was over and we headed back to school, once again there wasn’t time to read. I preferred to spend time outside or making something when not teaching remotely, with the planning, assessing, and providing feedback for student work that is vital to the process. When the weather turned cold in mid-November and I could spend less time outdoors, I went though my old books and picked out a 1970’s copy of Moby Dick.

I’ve always been fascinated by whales, a fascination fed by the Whales Tails just outside Burlington, Vermont when delivering or visiting my son when he was in college there:

Reverence by Jim Sardonis 1989

And by a successful whale watch out of Boston with our granddaughters in 2017:

Photo by Alice Gentili
Photo by Julia Gentili

As I began the book, I was immediately cognizant of Melville writing Moby Dick in 1851 because of the style of writing and vocabulary, making me unsure right away of whether I would stick with it to the end.

Then I was struck by the text on page 15 (written in 1851) where Ishmael compares the circumstances of his life to those of an actor, in an imagined play billed as:

Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael”

“Bloody Battle in Affghanistan (Afghanistan)”

Which seemed eerily prescient to another highly contested election – Bush vs. Gore in 2000 and the subsequent political events resulting from the US demands for the extradition of Bin Laden, especially the retaliatory attack on the US in 2001. Needless to say, it was at this point I was committed to reading the book.

Parallels with November, 2020

While I admit that reading this old book was tough with its small printed serif face, I blame the events of November – both the election and the pandemic – for a slow start and lack of focus. Soon after I started the book, we brought my elderly mother home to live with us and between that and teaching, time was short. And then I heard about the annual Moby Dick Marathon reading event at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Taking place virtually (this year) over the weekend of January 8 -10, 2021, the event was the motivation I needed to focus and get the book read!

Click here to go to the taped recordings of the Moby Dick Marathon

Of course in order to read along during the marathon, I had to buy the specific edition – Modern Library 1992 – with illustrations by Rockwell Kent. Oh, those illustrations! So much better with pictures!

Nobody draws water like Rockwell Kent

And so I read. I read a lot during my school holiday break, especially early in the morning. I learned far more than I ever needed to know about the parts and operation of a whaling ship. I’m not proud to admit I was weirdly focused as Melville described the harvest and melting down of blubber to oil. I also admit to looking up a lot of words and geographic locations as perceived in 1851.

There be dragons

Ishmael’s waxing on certain situations by referencing some of the great philosophers was unexpected (in this story about a whale):

And I really, really, enjoyed Kent’s illustrations:

Because I had started reading Moby Dick without illustrations, I was able to imagine the mighty and colorful Queequeg in my own mind, and I was a little surprised at Rockwell Kent’s depiction:

And Kent’s magnificent white whale:

Wow!

Because I read Moby Dick for my own pleasure, and because there are probably a million people who are qualified to discuss the importance of this timeless piece of literature, I’m not even going to attempt to write about that and will stick to the story for its entertainment value. Speaking of entertainment, after I finished the book and enjoyed the Moby Dick Marathon, we watched a few versions of Moby Dick movies, starting with the first, the movie released in 1956 with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. We then moved on to the 1998 mini-series with Patrick Stewart and finished up with the 2009 version with Ethan Hawke and William Hurt. They were all excellent, staying pretty true to the original story. Despite its special effects limitations, the 1956 version was my favorite. I understand there are even more options for versions we can stream. This is an amazing time we live in!

Meanwhile, I ended up in a conversation about Moby Dick on Twitter where someone mentioned a documentary through the arts, Call Me Ishmael on Tubi TV. I loved it. It really got me thinking about how artists in all disciplines are inspired by other artworks to interpret the subject matter in their own creative ways. I really enjoyed this and because of it I also watched a stage show by Laurie Anderson that is mentioned in the documentary.

The final event in my “little Moby Dick obsession” was a visit to New Bedford to the Whaling Museum and National Park, where I hadn’t been since I was a child. A few times in my childhood, my father (who grew up in nearby Somerset) took us to the Whaling Museum and to visit the U.S.S. Massachusetts in Battleship Cove in Fall River. I honestly don’t remember being excited about the visit as our family of ten slowly shuffled through the space.

New Medford Whaling Museum
Whale weathervane

And so it was in late March we took a ride to New Bedford for a visit to the museum, which had recently reopened after being closed during the pandemic. It was a beautiful day to walk the cobblestone streets around the museum that comprise the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park.

And to see the buildings Melville referenced in Moby Dick:

Seamen’s Bethel
Mariners’ Home

It was especially exciting to see the “leviathan” come to life through the whale skeletons inside the museum:

Through the Lagoda half size whaling ship model:

The views from the museum decks and windows:

And all the artifacts on display inside the museum, from scrimshaw to spinning jennies:

Although New Bedford has an art museum, it was closed due to the pandemic, but I was happy to see an exhibit of paintings by local artist Alison Wells at the whaling museum. The exhibit In the Neighborhood is comprised of collages and large scale paintings that reflect the city’s storied past:

Painting by Alison Wells

The street art around the neighborhood also added abundant color and life to the area:

You can’t really go to New Bedford without taking a walk on one of the piers to see the fishing boats with their bright colors and complexity of masts and rigging:

Before leaving the city, we had lunch outdoors at the Black Whale. They make a beautiful lobster roll and Aperol Spritz.

Reading Moby Dick continues to impact me as I go about my life. When I see whales, I smile. And sometimes I see whales that are not really whales.

Just a few weeks ago, Disney Plus released Secrets of the Whales for streaming from National Geographic. This is a wonderful series about community within whale pods that I highly recommend – click on the photo to see the trailer:

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