Joseph Mallord William Turner, "Whalers" (circa 1845) (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It’s been an annual tradition since 1997: at the beginning of every January, the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts hosts a 25-hour and three-day-long reading marathon of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick (1851). Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has gone online, inviting Melville enthusiasts from around the globe to participate, and they came in the thousands.

The 2022 Moby-Dick Marathon will commence on January 7 and conclude on January 9. This week, the museum announced a star guest: actor Sam Waterston, most famous for his starring role as Jack McCoy on the television series Law & Order, will kick off the event with a reading of the novel’s opening chapter as Ishmael. Waterston happens to be an avid Melville fan; he previously read the part of Ishmael in a 2001 celebration of the 150th anniversary of Moby-Dick in western Massachusetts. Some local elected officials — including US Senator Ed Markey and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell — have hopped on the Melville ship as well, and will also be reading from the novel. They will be joining hundreds of other readers who were selected through a draw in November.

YouTube video

This year’s read-a-thon is special for another reason. It will coincide with the anniversary of Melville’s 1841 departure from the Port of New Bedford and Fairhaven aboard the whaleship Acushnet, the famed voyage that would become the inspiration for the author’s iconic work. 

The event will also be held in conjunction with artist Christopher Volpe’s exhibition Loomings at the Whaling Museum. Taking its title from the first chapter of Moby-Dick, the exhibition draws parallels between the over-extraction of fossil fuels during the industrial age and Melville’s apocalyptic vision of the American quest. It does so through a series of haunting marine-themed paintings made with liquefied coal tar, a byproduct of the refinement of petroleum and the successor of whale oil, which was used to fuel ships and trains before the discovery of petroleum in 1856. Each work’s title quotes or alludes to Moby-Dick.

Christopher Volpe, “T’Gallant Sails” (2016), oil and tar on canvas, 36 x 48 inch (courtesy the artist and the New Bedford Whaling Museum)

In addition to the online reading, the museum will offer several related activities including conversations with scholars from the Melville Society Cultural Project (MSCP), a Melville-inspired trivia game, and more. After January 9, the reading will be played non-stop at the Whaling Museum’s theater, until next year’s Moby-Dick fest.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...