This weekend, The Rosenbach and the Independence Seaport Museum are undertaking a Great White Whale of a reading challenge.
In celebration of the 199th birthday of the iconic American author Herman Melville, Philadelphians young and old will gather at the Independence Seaport Museum on Friday night to read aloud, from start to finish, Melville’s most infamous 19th-century novel Moby-Dick. Once someone utters “Call me Ishmael…”, the book’s iconic opening words, participants will read all 134 chapters of the book through to Saturday evening over the course of 24 hours.
The rendition of the search for the Great White Whale will feature a chorus of voices from around the city. Anyone, regardless of their background, is allowed to sign-up to read a portion of the book. For Edward Pettit, the Family Manager of Public Programs at The Rosenbach, the move not only makes the event participatory but also lifts the novel out of its patriarchal background.
“This is a novel in which Melville is making a serious attempt to plumb the depths of our souls,” Pettit said. “I wanted to make sure that we were not going to recreate this old male world that’s in the novel.”
The Rosenbach holds one of the most extensive collections of Melville’s work in the world, according to Pettit. The museum possesses original editions of Melville’s novels, letters he sent to friends and family, and even the original copy of Moby-Dick that belonged to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author to whom Melville dedicated the book.
This is not the first time that a museum has undertaken such a literary marathon. In fact, the readathon has become somewhat of a cult ritual at aquatic museums across the country. In early January, the New Bedford Whaling Museum completed its 22nd rendition of the search for the great white whale. The Mystic Seaport Museum’s Moby-Dick marathon finished its 33rd reading at the end of July, making it “the longest-running marathon read in the country,” according to the museum website.
This Friday, literary marathoners—or “read-athoners”—will move to locations throughout the museum as they read the book. Portions of the reading will take place on the Schooner Diligence, the Seaport Museum’s reconstruction of a schooner that defended American merchant ships during the Quasi-War with France at the end of the 18th century. On Saturday morning, weather permitting, participants will read the novel on the outdoor deck of the museum overlooking the Delaware River. There is also a VIP party before the reading begins, and a chowder tasting available on Saturday.
The reading will also feature a cast of local actors from theaters across the city to perform renditions of the book’s most iconic scenes. Loretta Vasile, artistic director of The Mechanical Theater, will read the opening chapter of the novel as Ishmael. Charles McMahon, artistic director of the Lantern Theater Company, will deliver Father Mapple’s sermon in chapter nine of the novel on Friday night. Other local talents include Mal Whyte, Grover Silcox, Tom Teti, and members of the Arden Theatre.
John Brady, the President and CEO of the Independent Seaport Museum, plans on reading a portion of the novel, too. In fact, in the spirit of the event, Brady plans on pulling up to the event in a whaleboat owned by the museum that will be manned by some of the local actors performing.
“I’d like to see us read Moby-Dick annually,” Brady said. “It’s such a great story, and such a great piece of American literature and history, that, you know, why not?”
Friday, October 19, 7:30 pm – Saturday, October 20, 8 pm, $20 for basic adult ticket to attend, to read contact Ed Pettit, Independence Seaport Museum, 211 South Columbus Boulevard.