The Hunt for Moby Dick Moves Online


If these were normal times, Ger Tysk, a sailor, would be getting her tall ship ready for an expedition along the coast of New England.

Instead, Ms. Tysk, 38, is hunkered down in her apartment in New Bedford, Mass., and taking people on a different sort of voyage. She used her digital camera to film herself reading a chapter from “Moby-Dick,” the 1851 classic by Herman Melville, as part of an online Story Hour Series for the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

“Moby-Dick” is her favorite book. “Reading it not just as a novel but as a history text was what fascinated me,” she said.

Ms. Tysk is one of 46 volunteers who were chosen to read for the series, a virtual version of the museum’s annual “Moby-Dick” Marathon, in which speakers take turns reading the novel aloud in front of an audience. It takes about 25 hours.

“We get so many reader inquiries each year for the in-person marathon that we thought that this would be a nice way to include some of those people who haven’t been able to read in the past,” said Tina Malott, a spokeswoman for the museum.

Ms. Tysk has participated in the marathon before. In 2015, she took a graveyard shift — 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday — and presented her reading to a sleepy crowd beneath a pod of whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling of the museum.

This time, she read her piece — Chapter 121, in which two shipmates joke about the danger of their mission — from an armchair in her living room, with a stuffed whale at her elbow and a framed print of a tall ship behind her.

The series began streaming online April 16, with one hour of readings every evening at 5 p.m., and it will end on May 11. So far, it has been a replay of footage from last year’s marathon. But beginning on Saturday, the people who were randomly selected to read from home will have their debut on the museum’s YouTube channel, a platform that might have been hard to imagine in Melville’s time.

In the 19th century, the whaling industry made New Bedford one of the richest cities on earth. It was a draw for migrants: Many came from Portugal, the West Indies and Cape Verde, an African archipelago then governed by Portugal.

Still today, depictions of whales and tall ships are everywhere in the city. It’s not uncommon to see harpoons as décor in restaurants. The athletic teams at New Bedford High School are known as the Whalers.

(Full disclosure: This reporter was an N.B.H.S. Whaler once, but I have not read “Moby-Dick” in its entirety. One of my great-great-grandfathers was a whaler who came to New Bedford from the West Indies. Another migrated from Cape Verde and was working as a ship’s cook when he died in a 1934 collision off the coast of Nantucket.)

New Bedford is the setting for the opening scenes of “Moby-Dick,” but the fictional journey of the tall ship Pequod begins in Nantucket. It ends in the sea.

The novel follows a narrator — “Call me Ishmael,” he begins — across oceans with an eclectic crew led by the dictatorial Captain Ahab, who is on an obsessive quest to kill a white whale named Moby Dick.

After hundreds of pages of adventures and lengthy tangents, the crew finds Moby Dick in the Pacific. The whale defies its harpooners and rams into the Pequod, sinking it. A rope catches Ahab by the neck and drags him overboard. As the Pequod sinks, everyone is pulled under except Ishmael, who clings to an empty coffin until he is rescued.

To some, “Moby-Dick” is kind of a slog. During his lifetime, Melville was unable to sell out his first print edition, a clunker at more than 600 pages. But it has become an American classic, and last month, the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s call for volunteers attracted contributors from across the United States.

Tom Loftus, 65, a reader who is isolating with his family in Westport, Conn., worried about his delivery and practiced his reading several times. “I was beyond nervous,” he said. “I was a wreck!”

At one point, he stood up to take a breather and stepped on his glasses, breaking them. “It’s been a comedy,” he said.

“Finally I just said, ‘You know what? I’m going to read this thing like I’m reading the bedtime stories I used to read to the kids,’” he said. It worked. He used an iPad to film his rendition of Chapter 102 (Ishmael reveals how he knows so much about whale skeletons).

Another volunteer, Candice Kelsey, 49, a teacher in Los Angeles, has spent years introducing “Moby-Dick” to high school students. “I just absolutely love the story,” she said. “It’s hilarious and also so meaningful.” She used her smartphone to film her performance of Chapter 110 (a harpooner named Queequeg falls ill and comes so close to death that a coffin is made for him — then he decides to survive).

“I think the reason it’s so popular is because it talks about all these sort of eternal questions,” said Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, a Melville scholar and associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. “What is truth? Is there justice? Why are we here? Is it noble to go after a goal, or is it just completely insane?”

The character of Ahab — who is sometimes invoked as an avatar of American greed and imperialism — raises important questions about leadership during a crisis, she added.

“He does not care about his boat, his people. He only cares about that ambition,” she said. “The whole idea of monomania feels relevant right now.”

Ms. Kelsey has been thinking about how “Moby-Dick” is especially relevant during a crisis. “When we have these restrictions, how do we bind together as a community of diverse people — migrants altogether on one ship, or in this country, or on this globe — and try to reach for rebirth rather than destruction?” she said.

And Ms. Tysk, the sailor, said social distancing was, in some ways, similar to the feeling of being out on the water, with only her crew.

“I’m used to being isolated for weeks at time,” she said. “Now that people are at home and quarantined, they are kind of experiencing a similar effect to what I felt when I was isolated at sea.”



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