in this same new bedford

January 3, 2005

Chapter 8 of Moby Dick begins "In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman's Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot." In the real 21st century New Bedford (as opposed to the slightly fictionalized 19th century New Bedford) the Seamen's Bethel still stands on Johnny Cake Hill and still functions as a house of worship and a memorial to the New Bedford whalemen and fishermen who have lost their lives at sea. In this same New Bedford, even in the 21st century, lives are lost at sea.

Before the Captain of the Watch made it 8 bells and the first reader uttered "Call me Ishmael" the Executive Director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum reminded us of both the global catastrophe of the tsunami in Asia and the more local tragedy of the loss of the Northern Edge, a New Bedford scallop boat that capsized in stormy weather off Nantucket just before Christmas taking the lives of 5 of the 6 crew members. A memorial service for the Northern Edge crew was held yesterday at the Seamen's Bethel. Even in the 21st century, the sea must be taken seriously. This created a somber atmosphere that gave the start of the marathon even more of a religious/pilgrimage feel than it usually has.

The reading began in the Lagoda Room. The Bristol County DA, dressed as a 19th century seaman, started off with "Call me Ishmael". The mayor of New Bedford and Congressman Barney Frank, both of whom spoke at yesterday's memorial service for the Northen Edge crew, read some of the early chapters full of New Bedford atmosphere. As usual, the mayor mispronounced Leviathan, but was otherwise excellent. As usual, Barney was superb. As usual, the weather was drizzly and gray. At least there wasn't an ice storm, though icing was predicted for later tonight. The reading moved to the Seaman's Bethel for the "Whalemen's Chapel" chapter with the Jonah sermon and then to the Jacobs Family Gallery (the big room near the entrance) for most of the afternoon and evening.

In this same New Beford, the streets on Johnny Cake Hill are still paved with cobblestones, the harbor is still jampacked with fishing boats, cars sport bumperstickers reading "Call Me Ishmael" or "READ", in the newspaper vending boxes along the streets the headlines in the Standard-Times are all about fishing regulations and the Coast Guard investigation into the sinking of the Northern Edge. In this same New Bedford, the Java Jungle is gone. Gone the way of the Java Bean. Don't name your coffeeshop "Java" anything... It, the Java Jungle that is, has been replaced by a place called the Greengrocer, which sells premade soups and sandwiches and coffee from one of those coffee catering companies like Green Mountain or New England Coffee Roasters, I forget which one. The proprietor asked how the reading was going.



Snippets of the marathon scene:

  • someone wearing a t-shirt reading "What would Queequeg do?",
  • a guy carrying a rusty harpoon,
  • a man walking down the stairs with a whale's rib over his shoulder,
  • somebody else emerging from the elevator with a whale vertebrae on a cart
  • a Japanese film crew videotaping one of the Japanese delegation holding the aforementioned rusty harpoon borrowed from the harpoon guy
  • a rabbi reading in Hebrew with rhythms usually reserved for the Torah -- he looked like he'd start davening any minute
  • one of the Japanese delegation reading in English (following the guy who'd read the same chapter in Japanese) sounding out an unfamiliar word -- evidently they teach English using phonics in Japan -- hope that leads to a phonics revival in the USA
  • yes, the faint odor of whale oil from Kobo's bones

So, Kobo's bones are still oozing oil, the sperm whale being rearticulated in the gallery where the panorama used to be is almost all assembled (and doesn't smell of oil), and the gift shop doesn't have the gummy orcas this year. There's special exhibit about John Manjiro and the Japan-New Bedford connection (hence the Japanese delegation to the reading) with some wonderful scrolls depicting Japanese and American whaling boats, whales, the sea, and such. Given my fasicnation with that period (Perry & the Meiji restoration) I wandered away from the reading to take in the exhibit. I think I want to go back and savor it more slowly. There was a lot to absorb. I overheard a little boy arguing with his sister over whether the writing on the scrolls was Chinese or Japanese. I told them they're both right, that the Japanese language is written with Chinese characters. That blew their little minds. Come to think of it, it kind of blows my mind.

Speaking of languages, phonics, and Manjiro, apparently it was Manjiro who pioneered the teaching of English "by ear" in Japan. I found this article in the Daily Yomiuri. I guess I was onto something when I noticed that the Japanese reader was sounding out the unfamiliar English words. Now if only the mayor could learn to pronounce Leviathan.

In this same New Bedford, this same Janet and Nancy, once again discovered that there is always something new to be found in Moby Dick and in New Bedford.


Today's Reading
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Last Year's Reading
2004 Booklist

This Year's Reading
2005 Booklist


Spectators listening from the stern of the Lagoda

Barney Frank reading

A young boy reading with some help from his Dad, framed by Kobo's bones

Rearticulated sperm whale (in progress)


Journal Index



Copyright © 2004, Janet I. Egan