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Chasing the White Whale

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

When I was at university there was a professor, Dr. Curtsinger, who was obsessed with Moby Dick. I never took any classes with him, but I remember the bumper sticker on his car that said "Call me Ishmael" and everyone talking about how much he loved the novel. I had not read it, and I didn't really want to…a huge book about a whale and a bunch of guys? No thanks.

Then a few years later (after studying Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg for a year, teaching in China, and gaining some important life experience) I returned to the University of Dallas to do my masters in literature, with a focus on Dostoevsky. I studied Dickens (who inspired Dostoevsky), Faulkner (who was inspired by Dostoevsky), and Russian novel. As I was working on my Master's thesis on Dostoevsky's masterpiece The Brothers Karamozov, someone suggested I go talk to Dr. Curtsinger. I made an appointment with him to discuss Dostoevsky, and within five minutes he was talking about Moby Dick. I became intrigued. I took a great American literature class and finally read it. I loved it. In fact, I ended up choosing it as one of my three focus novels for my master's, and I re-read it numerous times.

I finished my master's, moved around, got married, had four kids, and didn't think much about Moby Dick for about 17 years. Then last summer I decided I needed to re-read some of my favorite novels - all of Dostoevsky's, of course; David Copperfield; Kristen Lavransdatter; Moby Dick. All of these were so much richer through the lense of greater life experience, so much more significant and soul-shaking.

My reunion with Moby Dick on was enhanced by the fact that we were driving up the East Coast. On our way up to Boston we were listening to the novel on audiobook , which inspired a last minute detour through New Bedford. We visited the Whaling Museum and the Seamen's Bethel, and we also got to the Mystic Seaport Museum to see the last surviving wooden whaling ship.

Finally, 17 years after falling in love with the novel, I had made my first Moby Dick pilgrimage. It was wonderful, but incomplete.So this year I planned out a more thorough pilgrimage, and I wanted to share it with any fellow Moby Dick fans who might be interested…

If "Go A'Whaling You Must", Here's How to Do It in Three Days

In anticipation of your journey, purchase an Associate membership (for $150) to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. With this membership you will get reciprocal entry into all the museums that belong to the North American Reciprocal Museum Program as well as the Council of American Maritime Museums, covering your entry to all the museums on this pilgrimage and so many other excellent museums across the country.

Day One:

Mystic Seaport Museum

Mystic, Connecticut

I suggest beginning here because, although not directly related to Moby Dick, this amazing museum is an entire whaling village, complete with working shipyard (currently building a replica of the Mayflower) and the last surviving wooden whaling ship, the Charles Morgan.

They also have a couple other tall ships you can board with demonstrations of and opportunities for participating in hoisting the sails, raising the anchor, and hauling whaling boats out of the water The streets are lined with shops where you can learn things from how casks were made for holding the whale oil to which shanties were sung and why. You can sit at the Spouter Tavern near the docks, drink your Dark and Stormy, and feel you have been transported back to the 1850's. There is so much to do and learn here for all ages, and you can easily spend the entire day and still not take full advantage of all it has to offer. We were there from 9am to 5pm and could have spent another full day there.

The book shop there is also excellent...I picked up Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick and look forward to reading it one of these days.

If you drive north just an hour and 20 minutes from Mystic, you will arrive in New Bedford, the port town where we first meet Ishmael at the beginning of Moby Dick. I highly recommend booking a room for two nights at the New Bedford Harbor Hotel on Union Street - a beautiful, clean, affordable, family-friendly place to stay that is right near the harbor and the museum. It includes free parking and a great breakfast.

Day Two:

The New Bedford Whaling Museum

New Bedford, Massachusetts

This museum is fabulous, containing multiple whale skeletons, a life-size model of a Blue Whale heart that you can crawl inside, loads of harpoons and whaling implements, an amazing collection of scrimshaw and whalebone work, and a fabulous art gallery with Japanese whaling prints. There is a children’s discovery area as well, and the museum hands out some wonderful activity books for the children to do as they explore the museum.

Kids can climb aboard the world’s largest model ship, built to half the size of a real ship, and into actual size whaling boats.

I particularly like the skeleton of the sperm whale, imagining how huge it was when it was clothed in flesh, and reading about whaling mythology.

I would allow at least a morning here; we were there from 9 am til about noon, and we did not see everything.

Stop into the shop on your way out &

pick up a Moby Dick sweatshirt.

The Seamen’s Bethel & Mariner’s Home

New Bedford, Massachusetts

Just a little way up Johnny Cake Hill from the museum is the Seamen’s Bethel, where Ishmael listens to Father Mapple’s ominously prophetic sermon and where Melville himself attended services before shipping out on his own whaling voyage on the Acushnet in 1841. Watch a film about whaling, sit in Melville’s pew, and read the cenotaphs of sailors lost at sea. The pulpit, built to look like the prow of a ship, was not actually there in Melville’s day, but was added after an influx of pilgrims came looking for it following the 1956 Moby Dick movie.

Next door you can walk through a historic mariner’s home, which also houses whaling and Moby Dick-themed art.

For meals, drinks and coffee in New Bedford, we enjoyed the Moby Dick Brewery, the Whaler’s Tavern, and Tia Maria’s European Cafe.

Day Three:

Nantucket Whaling Museum

Nantucket Island, Massachusetts

After a very negative experience with the Steamship Authority (the slower, cheaper ferry), we bought tickets on the Seastreak (the faster, more expensive ferry) for this trip. I will say that it is absolutely worth it to pay more and save yourself the hours wasted and extreme frustration. If you really can’t, you can drive over an hour to Hyannis and take the slow boat, but if at all possible, take the Seastreak, which leaves from New Bedford. (If you are staying at the New Bedford Harbor Hotel, just walk down Union Street and you will dead-end into the ferry dock.)

When Ishmael and Queequeg leave New Bedford, they go to Nantucket, from which they will embark on their tragic voyage. This little island was the center of the booming whaling industry; whaling was in the blood of these “Quakers with a vengeance.” The people of the island are proud of their heritage and the whaling museum was a delight to visit. It has whaling boats and harpoons, too, a lovely art gallery, some informative films and the last surviving relic of the Essex, the ship whose story inspired Moby Dick (you can read an account of the tragedy in The Heart of the Sea). Do try to catch the dramatic telling of the heartbreaking story of the Essex, as told by a knowledgeable museum employee - it was my favorite part of our visit.

The Jared Coffin House

Nantucket Island, Massachusetts

This hotel, once known as the Ocean House Hotel, was where Melville stayed on his one visit to the island. He came to meet Captain Pollard, who had survived the wreck of the Essex. You could stay here yourself, or just come for lunch on the lovely outdoor patio.

That wraps up this year’s Moby Dick pilgrimage. I would love to make it back to the New Bedford Whaling museum for their annual marathon read-aloud of the novel the first weekend of January, or the one hosted by Mystic Seaport Museum in July. I would also like to visit Arrowhead, Melville’s home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on a future pilgrimage. While driving from place to place, if you have just listened to Moby Dick (as we had), I recommend Typee, Melville’s account of his capture by cannibals on a Polynesian island and the book that made him famous during his lifetime. Queequeg was certainly born out of this experience. There are some bits I skipped over with the kids, so I would recommend you read it in advance if you are listening to it with the whole family.

Please let me know if you go on this pilgrimage - I would love to hear about your experience!

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