Tag Archives: Moby Dick Marathon

Right Whales Through the Eyes of Herman Melville

The following post is part of a series of blogs created for the Face-ing Extinction: The North Atlantic Right Whale page on Facebook. Three organizations (WDC, ASRI, NBWM) from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meet monthly to create and update right whale related curriculum, discuss important issues related to the NARW and devise ways to bring awareness to the precarious status of the population of this highly endangered species. The FB page is a result of these meetings.

Because the Whaling Museum hosted the 19th annual Moby-Dick Marathon earlier this month, it was deemed appropriate to weave Eubalaena glacialis and Herman Melville together, something he first did in 1851. However, in 2015, it has been done in a more contemporary form of print media.

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

Two North Atlantic right whales. (nmfs.noaa.gov photo)

When Moby-Dick was published in 1851, confusion still existed as to which whales were Right whales and which were later to be known as Bowhead whales. In Chapter 32, Cetology, Melville attacks the topic of whale taxonomy like a librarian, splitting up the whales based on size. Thus, the known whales were split into three groups: Folio Whales, Octavo Whales and Duodecimo Whales.

Our whale is considered as Chapter 2 of the Folio Whales and is called a Right Whale. “In one respect this is the most venerable of the Leviathans, being the one first regularly hunted by man. It yields the article commonly known as whalebone or baleen; and the oil specially known as “whale oil”, an inferior article in commerce.”

However, it becomes clear immediately that there is confusion as to which whale he is trying to describe, “Among the fishermen, he is indiscriminately designated by all the following titles: The Whale; the Greenland Whale; The Black Whale; The Great Whale; the True Whale; the Right Whale. There is a deal of obscurity concerning the identity of the species thus multitudinously baptized. What then is the whale, which I include in the second species of my Folios? It is the Great Mysticetus of the English naturalists; the Greenland Whale of the English whalemen; the Baliene Ordinaire of the French whalemen; The Growlands Walfish of the Swedes.”

The text that follows makes it clear that rights and bowheads are being conflated, “It is the whale which for more than two centuries past has been hunted by the Dutch and English in the Arctic seas; it is the whale which the American fishermen have long pursued in the Indian ocean, on the Brazil Banks, on the Nor’ West Coast, and various other parts of the world, designated by them Right Whale Cruising Grounds.”

Later in the story in Chapter 58, Brit, however, there is no confusion as to which species they see while sailing north east of the Crozetts (small islands directly south of Madagascar). “On the second day, numbers of Right Whales were seen, who, secure from the attack of a sperm whaler like the Pequod, with open jaws sluggishly swam through the brit, which, adhering to the fringing fibres of that wondrous Venetian blind in their mouths, was in that manner separated from the water that escaped at the lip.”

Two paragraphs later he captures the experience of most people the first time they see any species of right whale in the water, “Seen from the mast-heads, especially when they paused and were stationary for a while, their vast black forms looked more like lifeless masses of rock than anything else….And when recognized at last, their immense magnitude renders it very hard really to believe that such bulky masses of overgrowth can possibly be instinct, on all parts, with the same sort of life that lives in a dog or a horse.”

Melville later dedicates an entire chapter, #75, to describing the head of a right whale. “So, at a broad view, the Right Whale’s head bears a rather inelegant resemblance to a gigantic galliot-toed shoe.”

Luckily the science of cetacean taxonomy has come a long way since the mid -1800s and there’s no confusion as to which whales are Eubalaena glacialis and which are Balaena mysticetus.  We have also long settled the discussion as to whether or not whales are fish. Just before he dives into his book-focused classification of cetaceans, Melville states, “To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail.”

There are many intentionally funny moments in Moby-Dick. This one was not written to be humorous, but has become quite laughable. That being said, Moby-Dick has stood the test of time to become one of the humankind’s classic stories. It has put whales in the consciousness of thousands of people, including those who attend the Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon each January. Perhaps some of you will join us at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2016.

Moby-Dick the Reptile

Our Moby-Dick Marathon may be done for 2013, but the influence of the story and its eternally metaphorical whale continue.  A recently discovered species of unpigmented skink, in the island country of Madagascar, is being nicknamed the Moby Dick mermaid skink. However, nicknames / common names, often change from language to language. For example, what we call cod, the Portuguese call bacalhau, the French call morue and the Norwegians call torsk. What doesn’t change is the scientific name. For the cod, that would be Gadus morhua. This new skink will forever have the white whale’s moniker attached to it no matter what language is used. It has been given the scientific name Sirenoscincus mobydick.  I’d like to thank Brandon Walecka for sending this story from Cosmos magazine to us.

This may be the first scientific name to include Moby-Dick. But, it’s not the first to include something from Herman Melville. There is a recently discovered species of fossil (and fearsome) sperm whale that in 2010 was given the name Livyatan melvillei. If you sound out the genus name, you’ll understand why the name was chosen…and that taxonomists have a sense of humor. Case in point, the scientific name for the blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus. This can translate into muscular winged whale. It can also translate into winged whale mouse.

The Futurity of the Whale, “Moby-Dick Big Read”

Thanks to Dr Philip Hoare for providing this blog post about Moby-Dick Big Read. He is artist-in-residence at the Marine Institute, Plymouth University, UK and author of The Whale (Ecco), winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Posted today, Chapter 30, The Pipe, as read by David Cameron. Download all the chapters or listen online.

This project is a great kick-start for our own Moby Dick Marathon. Mark November 12 on your calendar, it is “Reader Call-In Day”. Send an email to mdmarathon (at) whalingmuseum.org or call (508) 717-6851 to request a reading slot.

Moby-Dick, published in 1851, is acknowledged as the greatest American novel.   A century and a half later, art and science still has to catch up with it.  Herman Melville prophesied an age in which man’s abuse of nature would lead to problems for both human and cetaceans.  That intense sense of contemporary relevance – the delayed-effect impact of the book – prompted Angela Cockayne and I, as curators of the Moby-Dick Big Read for Peninsula Arts, Plymouth University, UK, to create an online rendition of the book.  Above all, we were inspired by the world famous New Bedford Whaling Museum’s marathon reading of the book.

Our readers include Tilda Swinton, Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow, John Waters, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nathaniel Philbrick, Chad Hardbach, Caleb Crain, Andrew Delbanco and Mary Oliver.  But as well as these celebrated names, we invited readings from the general public in the democratic spirit of the project – from schoolchildren to fishermen.  And rather than have a blank web page whilst listening to these chapters, we expanded the project to include images from international contemporary artists such as Anish Kapoor, Mark Wallinger, George Shaw, Dexter Dallwood, Gavin Turk, Zaha Hadid, Susan Hiller, Dorothy Cross and Antony Gormley, many of whom have created new works specifically for the project.

I like to think Herman Melville would have approved of this British exposition of his extraordinary work.  After all, the novel was partly conceived during Melville’s visit to London in 1849.  He stayed in rooms on Craven St, next to  Charing Crossstation – the house is now marked by a blue plaque.  And for reasons of copyright (which did not then exist in the US), his book, entitled The Whale, was also first published in Britain by Richard Bentley, in a deluxe, three-volume edition for the carriage trade.

Craven Street, London

Famously, the book did not fare well on its transition across the Atlantic.  The American first edition never sold out and Melville died in 1891, his genius unacknowledged.  Here too we British may lay claim to reviving Moby-Dick’s reputation.  In the 1920s, writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, W.H.Auden and E.M.Forster acclaimed Moby-Dick as a modernist work before modernism was invented.

How amazed Melville would be to find out far his work has lodged in our modern culture, both high and low.  Moby-Dick remains firmly in the zeitgeist.  Kraken-tattooed and buff science-fiction writer, China Mieville’s latest book, Railsea, riffs on the subject, while director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is working on a movie version of Moby-Dick set in outer space.  And every high street has reminder of Melville’s masterpiece named after Captain Ahab’s first mate – Starbuck.  There, sipping your latte, you may check another, aural reference: pop star Moby, real name Richard Melville Hall, is named after the book written by his great-great uncle, Herman.  Word is that Moby-Dick is Barack Obama’s favourite book; also Morgan Freeman’s; and Woody Allen confesses to being a recent convert.

And the reverberations of Melville’s text continue, not least in the way it raised questions of imperialism, fundamentalism, morality and faith.  When it was published, shortly before the American Civil War, it was a coded comment on the internecine conflict over slavery (most especially via the indirect inspiration of Frederick Douglass, whom Melville may, or may not, have met in New Bedford’s streets).  More recently, it was cited by Edward Said in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when the writer compared the ‘war on terror’ as an impossible pursuit, like the captain’s demonic hunt for the White Whale.  Nor could you ignore its relevance today.  Witness this quote from Chapter One, ‘Loomings’:

Grand contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL

BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.

I’m delighted to join the New Bedford Whaling Museum – global home of the back-story to Melville’s extraordinary work – in bringing Moby-Dick into the digital age.  After all, Melville’s book, with its unedited, digressive and allusive prose, resembles nothing so much as a modern blog.  The famous ‘Extracts’ that precede his main text have the air of a Victorian search engine.  And if he were writing his book today, I don’t think Herman would have ever finished it: he’d be forever googling ‘Whale’.

Moby Dick Marathon Call-In Line

Anyone interested in reading in the Moby Dick Marathon can call in to (508) 997-0046 x151, starting after midnight tonight, as Sunday, November 13 turns into Monday, November 14.   All callers are asked to leave their names, to spell their last names, leave phone number, preferred reading time and two alternate times.

The MDM is less than two months away.  The event begins with a dinner on Friday, January 6 at 5:30. Tickets are available for $25, through our Front Desk, x100. Following the dinner there is a free lecture in our Cook Memorial Theater, at 7:15, by Dr. Timothy Marr. The next morning we invite you to Stump the Scholars at 10:00 am. The reading begins at noon on Saturday, January 7 and continues on through Sunday, January 8 at approximately 1:00 pm.

For specific questions about the Moby Dick Marathon, call x149.