A tale of Melville, scallop fishing and death

I spent last week in the old whaling town of New Bedford, Mass., where my husband, a Melville honcho, gave a paper at an appropriately soulful and obsessive Melville event--a 24-hour, nonstop reading of Moby-Dick in the city's whaling museum. Ed was there in his capacity as president of the Melville Society, a small but vigorous group of scholars. (With his election, I, of course, became first lady, and I bought a new outfit for the occasion. Inexplicably, there was no dais.)

Close to 150 people took their turns reading, keeping the words flowing from "Call me Ishmael" at the crack of noon, Jan. 3--the date of Herman's 1841 departure from New Bedford on the whale-ship Acushnet--all through the night and on to the sinking of the doomed ship Pequod at 12:20 p.m. the next day. Among the readers were the mayor, Rep. Barney Frank, a great-great grandson of Melville, high school kids, local fans and pilgrims from far away. The big hall was often packed, and 18 people stayed the entire time, following along in their personal copies of the novel under the vast, suspended skeletons of a blue whale and a humpback. (Upstairs, a sperm whale skeleton was being assembled in the middle of an exhibition room.) We, I hasten to say, were not among the heroic 18. We had dreams to dream and chowder to eat.

The whole quasi-religious ritual was nuts and wonderful. The elderly timers, who ran the exquisitely organized reading with dignity and obvious enjoyment, wore matching navy blue blazers and hats emblazoned with their ranks; sections of the text were read in Japanese, French and German; we all paraded across the street to the Seaman's Bethel to hear Father Mapple's sermon in the very chapel where Ishmael heard it, but it was delivered from a fiberglass pulpit built at the demand of tourists to match the one in the ridiculous Gregory Peck movie. (Another nice touch was a plaque on the front of the chapel that begins, "Here, Herman Melville, seaman extraordinary ..." Melville only went whaling once, and he jumped ship in the South Pacific after 18 months; his desertion papers are on display in the museum. You cut the local saint a lot of slack.)

In every way, the ninth annual Moby-Dick Marathon was a success, although it was haunted throughout by the Jan. 2 memorial service in the Seaman's Bethel for five New Bedford scallop fisherman lost at sea in a storm on Dec. 20. The sinking of the Northern Edge off Nantucket was the worst loss of life in the New England fishery since the Andrea Gail of Gloucester, Mass., went down with all six hands in 1991. (The wreck of the Andrea Gail is the subject of Sebastian Junger's best seller, The Perfect Storm.) The loss of two local fishermen just before Christmas in 2003 made it all the worse. Even for a tough, fatalistic town like New Bedford, there have been too many dads, husbands, sons and boyfriends missing at Christmastime lately. Fishing is a dangerous trade anywhere; in the North Atlantic in winter, the risks are horrendous. The walls of the Seaman's Bethel are covered with marble cenotaphs, memorials for men lost at sea. Two hundred-sixty fishermen's names have gone up since 1925.

There was a lot of anger in New Bedford. Federal fishing regulations had kept some scallop beds closed all summer and into the fall to protect nursery grounds for cod and other fish. Officials only opened them in November, when the weather was turning treacherous--not to mention miserable beyond belief. One set of rules imposed penalties on boats that came into port for any reason before their time in the restricted waters was up. Those rules have already been changed: Ted Kennedy called for reform at the memorial service, and he, Rep. Frank and New Bedford mayor, Frederick Kalisz raised so much hell that word came down from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration two days after the service that those particular regulations had been suspended. Too late, naturally, for five men and their families.

But maritime fishing at any time, under any rules, is fantastically hard, rough, dangerous work. The New Bedford Standard-Times quoted Mayor Kalisz as saying that he'd recently attended a fancy official dinner in Boston at which Atlantic bay scallops had been served, and that, looking around at all the people eating, he could only think that they had no clue that men died to put seafood on their plates.

Oddly enough, Ed's paper was on the epitaphic tradition and Moby-Dick--about how the most vital of all American novels speaks for and about its dead. We had a lovely time in New Bedford last week, eating fresh scallops in the valley of the shadow of death.