Sceme4 Magazine | The Steiny Road To Operadom | Karren Lalonde Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier

Literary Marathons

    "But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell" Herman Melville, Moby Dick Chapter 96: The Try-Works

Most folks are familiar with the footraces of modern day sport enthusiasts including the Marine Corps Marathon or those sponsored by cities like Boston and Chicago. The Steiny Road Poet wonders what percent of the American population knows anything about literary marathons. What got Steiny started on this subject was her virtual attendance January 9-10, 2016, of a marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.


The first lit marathon Steiny was aware of was the reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a Modernist novel published by Sylvia Beach in February 1922 in Paris. The first marathon reading of this novel, which takes place entirely on June 16, 1904, happened on June 16, 1924, and the group performing this reading called it a celebration of Bloom’s Day. Leopold Bloom is the protagonist of the novel. The reading takes somewhere between 30 and 35 hours.


Joyce was Gertrude Stein’s thorn in her side. She was furious and driven to tears when she heard Sylvia Beach, who was the owner of Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore and lending library of which Stein was a member, would publish Ulysses. Stein wrote and revised her 900-page-plus novel The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress from 1903 to 1911, but it was not published in its entirety until 1925 (Paris) and then only in a limited run of 500 copies. An abridged edition was published by Hartcourt Brace in 1934, the year of Stein’s American lecture tour. Something Else Press led by Dick Higgins published the full novel in 1966 and the definitive publication with foreword by William Gass appeared from Dalkey Archive Press in 1995.

For 25 years, the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York (1974 to 2000) presented New Year’s eve readings of The Making of Americans and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The Paula Cooper Gallery marathons may have alternated these works across those years. For three years (2012 to 2014), Triple Canopy, a literary magazine with a storefront location spent about 50 hours reading The Making of Americans. Their readings typically started at 5 p.m. Friday and continued nonstop to Sunday around 10 p.m. During those years, such people as Dick Higgins, Charles Bernstein, Erica Baum, and Richard Kostelanetz took part in the reading. Steiny talked to Triple Canopy’s director Peter Russo and he said they have no plans at this time to do any future marathon readings of The Making of Americans.



The marathon reading of Moby Dick of which Steiny partook happened at the New Bedford Whaling Museum (NBWM) in Massachusetts. Steiny saw it unfold in a live streaming broadcast, which began with Nathaniel Philbrick shaping the well-known words “Call me Ishmael.” Philbrick is the author of In the Heart of the Sea, which chronicles the backstory of Moby Dick and which was recently released as a major motion picture. Last month for the Scene4 “Steiny Road to Operadom” column, Steiny reviewed Ron Howard’s 3D rendering. The film focuses on the Nantucket whaling ship named the Essex that was attacked and sunk by an abnormally large whale. That whale served as the model for Melville’s white whale.

By contrast a Moby Dick marathon is much more manageable than one for The Making of Americans because Melville’s epic can be read in 25 hours. For 20 years, the New Bedford Whaling Museum has been sponsoring a Moby Dick marathon. Steiny spoke with a museum representative and she said the community in New Bedford talks about the marathon all year. She has a reader waiting list of 200 people. Over 150 people read this year in the main event. And readers travel from distant locations for the privilege of a ten-minute reading slot. This year marathon attendees included travelers from Texas and California, as well as the Netherlands, Canada, France, and Germany. Readings were performed in many languages besides English, including Hebrew, Mandarin, Japanese, Dutch, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.

While most of the readings took place in the Harbor View Gallery of the Museum, chapters 7 through 9 (“The Chapel,” “The Pulpit,” and “The Sermon”) were performed in the historic Bethel Chapel across the street from the museum and “Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle (Harpooneers and Sailors),” which reads like an opera libretto, was performed with singing and dancing in the Museum’s Cook Memorial Theater.



What does it take to make a successful marathon experience? The New Bedford Whaling Museum invests three months of preparation each year. The entire staff of approximately a dozen people spend the entire weekend working. Invitations to the event are mailed out. Paper programs are created with the list of readers. Refreshments are purchased and served.

Visitors and readers who plan to spend Saturday night in the museum are allowed to bring bedrolls in case they cannot stay awake (this year there were 20 people who attended the entire 25 hours). Those who stay awake are given small gifts for their alert attention. This year copies of Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea were distributed to the hearty souls who sat in chairs all night as well as commemorative pins. The Museum also supplies audience members with a loaner copy of Moby Dick if they didn’t bring their own.


Via Twitter, Steiny was in touch with two readers in the 2016 Moby Dick marathon. One brought a sleeping bag and planned to use it after her 3:40 a.m. reading. The other who came with his wife had a cooler full of drinks, like coca cola to keep himself awake. Steiny confesses that she sacked out on her sofa about 1 a.m. but around 3:40 a.m., peeked in on the marathon, noticing that some of the readers were not exactly reading Melville word for word.

On January 15, 2016, by phone, Steiny reached Chris Sten, a Moby Dick scholar at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Sten was a 2016 marathon reader and has been attending the annual marathons in New Bedford for all but one of the last 14 marathons. He is part of a six-member group from the Moby Dick Society. The MD Society has donated their collection of books to the NBWM, which has an extensive library and a brand new building to house all their books. Sten said this group of six performs special functions at the marathon, including a Stump the Scholars question-and-answer program and several chat programs with Melville scholars.

While Sten attended selected hours of the marathon, he was aware of the level of effort made on both the part of Museum personnel and those in attendance. He said he met a family of four who traveled from their home in California to attend this marathon. James Russell, the president and CEO of the NBWM, told Sten that during the marathon he was skyping with a former NBWM intern based in Iceland and that thousands of people were tuned into the marathon via the live streaming broadcast on the Internet.

Sten also said there are other Moby Dick marathons in the United States, which includes the Mystic Seaport summer marathon held on the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, a whaling vessel like the one Melville sailed on and which he used for inspiration in writing his novel.

As to Steiny’s marathon projects to blog every part of Tender Buttons and show that Gertrude Stein used Moby Dick as a model for Tender Buttons, professor Sten listened with interest. He said foremost Moby Dick is a “notorious language experiment.” He also thought that since Gertrude Stein spent a summer at Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory (1897), she might indeed have had access to a copy of Moby Dick, possibly through the Falmouth Public Library which was founded in 1891. Steiny is checking on that possibility now with a Falmouth librarian who told Steiny excitedly that she was reading The Making of Americans with a reading partner.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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February 2016

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