Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has been a movie more than once, and it will be reincarnated soon as a mini-series. Valiant video efforts, each one. But Melville’s Homeric epic occupied what is certainly its home place Sunday, on the deck of the whaleship Charles W. Morgan, now undergoing meticulous reconstruction at the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut.
The occasion was a 24-hour marathon reading of the book by volunteers of varying declamatory skills but honed devotion to the author’s full-blown, densely layered, intensely human story of the Great White Whale and its antagonists. Readers and audience sat and lay about the Morgan’s deck, with here a tryworks, there a pinrail. There was applause after each chapter concluded.
Matthew Stackpole of West Tisbury read the eleventh chapter, the one entitled Nantucket. That distant, oily island is Matthew’s hailing port, by blood, deep and loving as are his ties to Martha’s Vineyard. The leadership of the fundraising part of the Seaport’s restoration of the Morgan falls, as if ordained, to Matthew Pinkham Stackpole.
Matthew, charming, unquenchably voluble, and persuasive, is the man for the job. For instance, he knows, and will tell you, that the Morgan’s keel was laid in January 1841, the same month in which Herman Melville went aboard the whaleship Acushnet at New Bedford, to begin the real life voyage he transformed into the tale of Ahab and his nemesis.
He knows how the black locust trunnels are driven through the resinous yellow pine ceiling into the white oak and live oak frames. He knows what pieces of wood remain from the original Morgan, what were added in the 1980s, and what will be new when the current project is done.
He knows that the keel on which he stood Monday morning, deep in the hold of the work in progress, was the original piece of wood placed by shipwrights in 1841. Matthew was leading a tour of awed visitors on an interior visit to the blubber room, the hold where the oil was stored, the cabins of the officers and idlers, and the forecastle where the hands before the mast lived their dim lives on voyages of three to four years’ duration.
He knows that Morgan’s original shipbuilders took nine months from laying the keel to launching the vessel. And, he knows they did their work without nifty power tools, moving and fastening some of the largest, heaviest, most dense timbers imaginable, each weighing tons and needing to be steam bent and manhandled into place.
He knows the names of all of Morgan’s captains and which one made the most voyages in her (a Vineyarder, as were 16 of her crew) and how long a typical voyage was. He knows why the dressed-up captain in the photograph looks so grim, but not so grim as his wife who got the family to squeeze into its best clothes for the photographer, only to have father and child clambering around the vessel, getting filthy before the shutter snapped.
Matthew knows all this, and much more, about Morgan, her builders, her crews, her record, and her reconstruction team of engineers, riggers, carpenters, and high-tech scientific types who document the before, during, and after. And he tells all with such passion and admiration that his listeners — donors all, one hopes — soon share that passion. All that he knows is in service to Mystic Seaport’s need to raise millions to complete the Morgan’s reconstruction and to take her on a ceremonial 38th voyage, so that her place in our history will not wither.
Now a registered National Historic Landmark — only USS Constitution, launched in 1797, is older — Morgan arrived at Mystic Seaport 100 years after her birth. Throughout her working life, she was financially successful and long-lived. Her career included 37 whaling voyages. She was a part of the country’s 19th century whaling fleet of 2,700 ships that made more than 14,864 voyages.
Matthew says the whaling industry “lit and lubricated the world.” Whaling success also helped finance America’s cross-continent expansion and its mercantile success on a global scale in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Matthew is the great-grandson of Matthew Pinkham, master of the 18th century whaleship Romulus of Nantucket. Matthew was a Nantucketer before he was a Vineyarder. His father Edouard was curator at Mystic between 1953 and 1966, as well as a novelist, newspaperman, and historian of the Quaker whaling industry in America. Morgan was conceived, designed, built, and launched to do a tough job, and she excelled at it. Her spokesman today is no less purpose-built for the tough job that must be done before Morgan’s re-launching and next voyage.