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Learning history beyond the campus bubble

Published: February 8, 2013
Section: Opinions


On Jan. 5, 2013, I woke up early and read Chapter 83 of Moby Dick out loud at 4:10 a.m. to a handful of people gathered in the lobby of the New Bedford Whaling Museum for the 17th annual Moby Dick Marathon.

The Marathon is a 24-hour affair where volunteers from across the globe come to read the 135-chapter novel in the city whose streets Melville himself once walked. As a newcomer, I had the 4:10 a.m. slot, which landed me in the middle of the Pacific with Melville’s Ishmael musing on whether the biblical story of Jonah could be regarded as historically accurate and whether a man could fit inside, much less survive in, the body of a whale for three days.

There I was, reading Melville at a podium under the hanging skeletons of sperm whales while adrenaline and untold amounts of coffee pumped through my veins, and I thought to myself: “Why didn’t I hear about this thing before?”

Afterall, I was an American studies major at Brandeis. I learned all about whaling, read some Melville short stories, read about the history of the Whaleship Essex and how whales really did sometimes slam into boats to the extent that they were pulverized.

But I didn’t know about the Moby Dick Marathon until I started my job in the Whaling City in April 2012, almost a year post-grad.

I also hadn’t known that the Seaman’s Bethel, where a good three chapters take place, was real. I hadn’t known that it still stood on Johnny Cake Hill in New Bedford and that you could still go to the Bethel and read the plaques dedicated to men and boys who were “lost in pursuit of a whale.” I hadn’t even known the city was a national park because of its whaling history.

I didn’t know any of that until I started working in New Bedford last April. And that’s a pity.
New Bedford is located just an hour’s drive from Waltham. Any good American studies major (not to mention history or literature major) knows that in the 1850s, New Bedford was one of the richest cities on earth because of the revenue it gained from hunting whales and selling their oil.

So why don’t any of us visit it?

During my four years at Brandeis, I went on approximately two field trips with class: One with my UWS class into Boston to watch a murder trial that ended up being closed to the public and one with my sculpture class to the Decordova Museum in Lincoln, M.A.

I also went on an American studies trip to Salem, M.A., around Halloween time that was organized by the UDRs. We met up with professors and park rangers and learned all about the Salem Witch Trials and ate good pizza and got some souvenirs.