One Square Mile: Walk A Mile In Ishmael's New Bedford

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 1:24 pm

Do you have a favorite book? Maybe it’s a novel you read again and again. But has a work of fiction ever inspired your vacation plans? New Bedford is the destination for devotees of one famous literary leviathan.

Even if you haven't read Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, "Moby Dick," you probably know the story: A man named Ishmael hops aboard a ship with a colorful crew, in search of a white whale.

But before he does, Ishmael stops off in New Bedford. Once the whaling capital of the world, Melville himself stopped in the city before his own whaling voyage, which would inspire his novel.

The city is still dotted with emblems to its whaling past including a major museum, a national park branch, and a brewery.

As nearby waterfront cities like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Portland, Maine cash in on a growing tourism industry, New Bedford officials hope to lure visitors with their famous literary connection.

“When we’re trying to promote and sell New Bedford, as soon as we say ‘Moby Dick,’ you know the light bulb goes on,’ said city tourism director Dagny Ashley, who added that she’s seen a more than 10 percent increase in city visitors in the past few years.

That’s because the book, long a staple on high-school reading lists, has captured the American imagination since the turn of the century. (Though published in during the Civil War, Moby Dick didn’t really take off in the U.S. until the 1920s.)

And Melville’s epic is having a moment.

“'Moby Dick' is definitely part of a new resurgence, there’s such a huge interest in it, it’s just astounding how much interest there is in it,” said Mary Bercaw, a professor of literature at the University of Connecticut.

That’s why hundreds of people come to New Bedford each January to attend the annual "Moby Dick" Marathon, a 24-hour live reading of the novel. Fans gather at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, many following along with their own dog-eared copies. Organizers say the event has ballooned in recent years, with visitors from across the globe and a waitlist of hopeful readers.

Blocks away from the Whaling Museum, you can grab a bite to eat at Whaler’s Tavern or drink a pint at the Moby Dick Brewing Company. All the beers are named for ideas in the book, like the Irish Amber, “Ishmale.” Get it?

New Bedford native Scott Brunelle is brew master, and read the book during high school.

“If you grow up around here you have to read it, usually your sophomore year I believe,” said Brunelle. “Back then I thought it was very long and a little long winded.”

Since the brewery opened, Brunelle reread the book, and says he appreciated it more the second time.

So how has this weighty book about whaling hung on for more than a century?

“I think it’s partly the big fundamental questions that Melville’s asking in the book keep appealing to people, even in a day when people do social media, when things are shorter and simpler, this book is still going,” said Bercaw, the UConn professor.

Dense and pithy, "Moby Dick" invites close reading and heated opinions. Like seemingly everything, the meaning of novel has even been ribbed on by the television show "The Simpsons."

Lydia Peelle came from Nashville for the Moby Dick Marathon, and offered this thesis:

"At its heart it is a book about America,” said Peele. “And the whale ship of course is this beautiful microcosm of the world. There’s men on that whale ship from all corners of the globe, all religions, all faiths, all races, and you know they’re all forced to get along.”

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