The experimental artist Peter Fischli once observed, “There’s certainly a subversive pleasure in occupying yourself with something for an unreasonable length of time.” In this same spirit, David Dowling takes it upon himself to attend and report on the all-consuming annual Moby-Dick Marathon reading at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The twenty-five-hour nonstop reading of Melville’s titanic epic has inspired this fresh look at Moby-Dick in light of its most devoted followers at the moment of their high holy day, January 3, 2009. With some trepidation, Dowling joined the ranks of the Melvillians, among the world’s most obsessive literary aficionados, to participate in the event for its full length, from “Call Me Ishmael” to the destruction of the Pequod. Dowling not only survived to tell his tale, but does so with erudition, humor, and a keen sense for the passions of his fellow whalers.
The obsession of participants at the marathon reading is startling, providing evidence of Ishmael’s remark that “all men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” Dowling organizes his savvy analysis of the novel from its romantic departure to its sledge-hammering seas, detailing the ship's culture from the top brass to the common crew and scrutinizing the inscrutable in and through Melville’s great novel.
Chasing the White Whale offers a case study of the reading as a barometer of how Melville lives today among his most passionate and enthusiastic disciples, who include waterfront workers, professors, naval officers, tattooed teens, and even a member of Congress. Dowling unearths Moby-Dick’s central role in these lives, and by going within the local culture he explains how the novel could have developed such an ardent following and ubiquitous presence in popular culture within our technology-obsessed, quick-fix contemporary world.
“David Dowling’s book, a thoughtful blend of reportage, cultural observation, and literary reflection, engages at length with Melville’s Moby-Dick and some of its most dedicated fans: the eager hordes who descend on New Bedford, Massachusetts, each January for the Moby-Dick Marathon. . . . Dowling opens up the connections between Melville’s quest and those of his readers as he ranges widely through the text. This book makes Moby-Dick accessible to all by demonstrating its continuing and increasing relevance in twenty-first-century global culture.”—Wyn Kelley, associate editor, Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, and author, An Introduction to Herman Melville, Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York, and A Companion to Herman Melville
“David Dowling’s Chasing the White Whale shares many qualities with the creature named in its title. It is a book that dives down into Moby-Dick’s inscrutable depths and there conducts its rigorous thinking in and of an essential text. What enables Dowling’s academic scrutiny to achieve such richness is his willingness to breach the surface of scholarly limit and jump full-bodied into the midst of the devoted general readers who travel to New Bedford to attend, for 25 hours, to the novel they love. Dowling is no embedded journalist, no mere objective observer; he is a participant, a marathoner, subject to whimsy and weariness, to inspiration and exhaustion. And like Ishmael, Dowling imbues his critical thinking with human warmth, his reasoning with humor, giving us a book not only composed within Melville’s own true method of ‘careful disorder,’ but also one that manages to show how this nineteenth-century masterpiece has its hawsers fastened firmly to our own, how its ‘old’ issues—politics, environment, economics, race relations, class structure, and culture—are our ‘new’ issues.”—Dan Beachy-Quick, author, A Whaler’s Dictionary