For years and years, literary types in the village of Sag Harbor have stood in front of a crowd and, tag-team fashion, presented a marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It makes perfect sense that Sag Harbor would be the location to do that. During the first half of the 19th century, Sag Harbor was one of the four great whaling ports in America. The others were Nantucket and New Bedford in Massachusetts and Lahaina, Maui.
As the chasing and harpooning of whales was a difficult task, those who chose this occupation had great ships built they could sail, sometimes to halfway around the world, to find whales to harpoon. In the 1840s, as many as 100 whaling ships called Sag Harbor home. During those years Sag Harbor was filled with sailors from all over the world—from Polynesia, Fiji, Madagascar, Ireland and India—all coming here after signing on as mates aboard these ships, each speaking one of a dozen foreign languages. There were bars, whorehouses, warehouses, dry goods stores and sail makers, ironworkers, merchants and food stores. Ship owners built some of the great mansions of Sag Harbor during the era, often with catwalks on the roof where women could look out with spyglasses to see the ships bearing their husbands home.
Melville mentions Sag Harbor in several chapters of Moby-Dick. One summer, James Fenimore Cooper stayed on the second floor of the American Hotel where he wrote one of his Leatherstocking Tales about this place.
The whole industry came crashing down in 1848 when only a few of the whaling ships came back with barrels of whale oil. The whale herd had been decimated and whales were now hard to find. In addition, kerosene was replacing whale oil as a fuel you could burn to illuminate your home. The following year, in 1849, the stunning news that gold had been discovered in California a year earlier spurred practically the entire whaling fleet in Sag Harbor to pull anchor and rush off to San Francisco. After that, the town went though a long economic decline. The whalers never came back.
Moby-Dick, published in 1851, was all about the whaling heyday. It may be one of the great works of American fiction, but not many people will tell you it is fun to read. It is very long. Its sentences and paragraphs go on and on, and for pages and pages it wanders off onto obscure tangents such as a discussion on the kinds of plankton that whales eat or the kinds of knots that sailors tie or different kinds of harpoons. The plot seems to stop entirely for much of the book. But then the plot returns with short explosions of action as Captain Ahab passionately lectures to his crew about his obsession with the Great White Whale and the time it bit off his leg below the knee and how he will be getting his revenge. On board his ship, the Pequod, there are three teams of harpooners and three small whaleboats that will fight to harpoon the whale into submission. Eventually, toward the end of the book, the narrator of the story, a mate we know as Ishmael, the only survivor, tells of the final encounter between the Great White Whale and Captain Ahab, still aboard his ship, who is cursing the whale as it approaches. The whale has already had its way by smashing each of the small whaleboats one at a time and killing everybody, now to focus on Captain Ahab and do the same.
It has been said that Melville took a year and a half to write Moby-Dick. It’s especially long to read aloud. This year’s Moby-Dick Marathon took place on June 9, 10 and 11. A week earlier, I decided to be involved in this reading in some way for the first time. I would write about it. Why, in all these years, had I not done this? Well, given the book’s length, I would just attend the last day of it, cheering the readers on in the small, dark Canio’s Books store on Main Street, where books, new and used, are stacked floor to ceiling and where I had been told the marathon would begin and end.
So on the last day, June 11, I called Canio’s. It was about 3 p.m.
“Are you concluding Moby-Dick today?” I asked. My plan was to listen to the last half-hour of it. On the phone, I could hear somebody droning on and on in the background.
The person on the phone at Canio’s spoke in a whisper. “We’re just about to wind it up. Where are you?”
“I’m in East Hampton. If I drive there now will I hear any of it?”
“Don’t know,” I was told. “Just hurry.”
I hopped in the car and raced over. Out in front of the bookstore, a small portable tent had been set up with food and bottles of wine and soda. A crowd was just inside, standing and listening intently. I slipped inside, and there, on a platform at one side, I saw Canio Pavone, reading slowly. He was winding things up.
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf, a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
With that, he stopped. Great applause, hugs, handshakes and congratulations followed. And then someone handed me a program. In this program, I saw what I had missed. More than 100 readers, each reading for about 10 minutes, had slowly plowed along for almost 30 continuous hours—with breaks for sleep on Friday night and Saturday night—at various locations throughout the village. Friday morning they were at Canio’s, midday they were at the Old Whaler’s Church, late in the afternoon they were back at Canio’s. Saturday morning they were at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and Saturday afternoon at the John Jermain Memorial Library. Sunday morning they were at the Eastville Community Historical Society, and in the afternoon, back at Canio’s, ending almost exactly at the appointed time of 4 p.m.
The names of everyone who read were in the program, indicating the time they read. Some of them I knew. Here are some of them: Canio Pavone, founder of Canio’s; Alan Furst, the celebrated author of great World War II stories; Kathryn Menu, the editor of The Sag Harbor Express; Dava Sobel, the Pulitzer Prize nominee for literature (who will give the keynote address at Dan’s Papers $10,000 Literary Prize for Nonfiction award ceremony in late August); Tom Clavin, another prominent author; Fred Thiele, our State Assemblyman; Bonnie Grice from WPPB; and Joe Shaw, from the Press News Group. Folk singer Jim Turner read. So did architect Bill Chaleff, book critic Joan Baum and Jonas Hagen, who years ago in high school was best friends with my son Adam. Reading on Friday evening, were editors at Dan’s Papers—Brian Cudzilo and Stacy Dermont—and also several members of the Schiavoni family.
About 30 sponsors of this project were listed in this program, among them Pulitzer Prize-winner Jules Feiffer, whose new play The Man in the Ceiling was being performed at Bay Street Theater.
Anyway, as we all filed out for the party on the sidewalk under the tent, I thought it appropriate—having heard the last hundred words of this 200,000 word book—to pretend to be exhausted and happy it was over. I congratulated everybody. I took deep breaths. I ate crackers and cheese. I drank wine. I wiped my brow. I also asked one of the two owners of Canio’s if I could read the next time around.
“Sure,” she said.
I mean, what the hell.