This article first appeared in The New York Times, 11/10/06
Jodi Hilton for The New York Times
A statue celebrates the era when New Bedford, Mass., was a thriving whaling port. Herman Melville left town on a whaler in 1841.
At noon every Jan. 3, the words “Call me Ishmael” sound through the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Mass. It’s the beginning of the annual marathon reading of “Moby-Dick,” which will go on for 25 hours or so, until the last reader utters “Finis.”
It’s been a long time since a whaling ship sailed out of New Bedford, and even longer since the boomtown days when Herman Melville wrote in “Moby-Dick”: “New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling.”
But to a surprising degree, the whaling past defines New Bedford today. An important reason is Melville’s vivid, enduring picture of it as it was in the 1840’s: a town to which whale oil had provided both mansions — “nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent” — and seedy waterfront places like the dilapidated Spouter-Inn, where even “the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it” and Ishmael met the exotic harpooner, Queequeg.
“Moby-Dick” fever in New Bedford normally reaches its annual high with the marathon reading — on the anniversary of Melville’s own shipping out on a whaling vessel on Jan. 3, 1841. The readers include Melville descendants, local politicians, fishermen and scores of other “Moby-Dick” enthusiasts, and the ritual has become so popular that even in the dead of night, listeners come and go.
This weekend, however, there is another big “Moby-Dick” event — the 50th anniversary of the world premiere, in New Bedford, of the movie “Moby Dick,” John Huston’s Hollywood take on the story. Festivities will include screenings of the film tomorrow at the Zeiterion, the renovated vaudeville theater where it was shown in 1956. Besides bringing Gregory Peck to town (he played Captain Ahab), that premiere woke some in New Bedford to the value of preserving what remained from the days when its whale oil had lighted lamps on many continents. (Huston had rejected it as a filming location; too little of the old town was left.)
Whatever the day or year, a visit to New Bedford is more fun with a little bit of “Moby-Dick” in mind, and the city is happy to help. Quotations from the novel are displayed around town: one on the Whaleman Statue on Pleasant Street — it depicts a harpooner in the bow of a boat — reads: “A dead whale or a stove boat” — in other words, kill the whale or suffer the consequences of a crushed boat.
Since 1996, 13 blocks in the oldest part of the city have made up the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, managed by the National Park Service. The park extends from the wharves, where in the early 19th century a whaling ship might unload 2,000 casks of whale oil, uphill toward whaling-era houses and mansions that were built by prosperous captains and merchants — houses “harpooned and dragged up,” as Melville put it, “from the bottom of the sea.” The one at 100 Madison Street, now a bed-and-breakfast, was owned by Melville’s sister in the 1860s. Another, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, is open for touring. About 100 are within a stroll.
Gone are the dingy Spouter-Inns. Gone, too, are the brothels and gambling dens that caused the New Bedford Port Society, in 1832, to open a bethel, or chapel, for the “moral improvement” of seamen. The Seamen’s Bethel remains, and is worth a visit; names of whaling men and fishermen lost at sea since Melville’s day are on its walls.
Also downtown are strikingly beautiful restored Federalist and Greek Revival buildings, as well as shops, galleries and restaurants, with the occasional dusky bar. Whaling-minded visitors are often in town — scrimshaw collectors, for example, or members of the Descendants of the Whaling Masters or the Melville Society.
The historical park visitor center — a good first stop for getting oriented and picking up walking-tour brochures — is in a former bank. The pillared Customs House, constructed in 1836, is still in operation.
The public library on William Street holds, along with strong collections of whaling, Quaker and abolitionist history, a warrant for Melville’s arrest, issued after he jumped ship in July 1842 in the Marquesas Islands. He and another crewman fled its crotchety captain — an inspiration for the character of Ahab.
Jodi Hilton for The New York Times
A child stands in front of an exhibition at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The heart of the park is the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Huge skeletons of a humpback and a blue whale hang from the ceiling; descriptions of different whales include detailed information on the sperm whale, Moby Dick’s species. Because of the spermaceti in its head, which made for a superior candle wax, and its blubber-derived high-grade oil, the sperm whale was considered a trophy.
Lifelike displays put you into Ishmael’s shoes. You can board the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaling ship. Alongside is an authentic whaling boat, complete with harpoons, tubs of line and a “clumsy cleat” for bracing one’s knee, as Stubb, the second mate, did in “Moby-Dick.”
Other exhibits convey what it was like to live in the cramped forecastle below decks; to stare into a whale jaw that, like Moby Dick’s, was crooked; or the consequences of getting caught in a line and being pulled under by a whale — a fate “which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair.” On display are the few possessions left by one such unfortunate fellow: his stenciling brush, shaving bowl, inkwell and candleholder.
A collection of whaling-related oil paintings ranges from Dutch oils of the 1600s, showing whales stripped of blubber on shore, to 19th-century scenes by great whaling portraitists of the day, including Alfred Bierstadt, William Bradford, Clifford Ashley and Albert Pinkham Ryder, all of whom grew up in the New Bedford area.
At the museum’s research library, three blocks away, ask a librarian to show you some of that collection: rare histories, logbooks and journals; whalers’ charts; a beautiful set of Melville’s first editions; and illustrated books mentioned in “Moby-Dick,” including Frederick Cuvier’s 1836 “Natural History of Whales” (Ishmael dismissed one of Cuvier’s drawings as “not a Sperm Whale, but a squash”).
Don’t leave town before going to the old wharves. The whale ships are gone, but in their stead is a crowd of fishing and scalloping vessels. New Bedford keeps its connection to the sea.
If You Go
THE New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park includes 13 blocks south of Route 6 and extending east to the city’s wharves. Its visitor center (33 William Street, 508-996-4095; www.nps.gov/nebe) is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum (18 Johnny Cake Hill, 508-997-0046; www.whalingmuseum.org), within the historical park, is also open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10. The museum’s research library (791 Purchase Street) is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and the first Saturday and Sunday of each month..
The Seamen’s Bethel (15 Johnny Cake Hill, 508-992-3295) is open on Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m. through April, and more frequently in the summer.
Special events this weekend include showings of the 1956 film “Moby Dick” at the Zeiterion theater (684 Purchase Street; 508-994-2900, www.zeiterion.org) at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $5.50. A full events schedule is at www.whalingmuseum.org.
The 2007 marathon reading of “Moby-Dick” at the Whaling Museum begins at noon Jan. 3 and is free and open to the public. At 6 p.m., the museum serves visitors grog and chowder.
For an inexpensive restaurant meal in New Bedford, try Spicy Lime Thai Cuisine (522 Pleasant Street, 508-992-3330). Café Balena (24 North Water Street, 508-990-0061) is pricier but enjoyable for its Italian dishes and its operatic waiter. Both restaurants are around the corner from the whaling museum.
Copyright © 2006 Ann B. Parson