Thar She Blows

Thar She Blows

Yes, There Are Parties For Herman Melville

zolabooks.com_profile_wordWhat happens when you crowd 70 bona fide Herman Melville fanatics into the basement of WORD – an indie bookstore in a hip part of Brooklyn – on a Friday night and serve them free Harpoon beer?

You get what looks like a cabin full of shanty-singin’ drunken sailors.

And that’s not too far from what Thar She Blows entailed. The second annual Moby-Dick event took the form of an energetic variety show and featured everything a devoted reader or ship captain could possibly enjoy: brew, clam chowder, book discussions, sea stories, whale tales, a preview of a Moby-Dick card game, and plenty of shanties.

The night’s dozen speakers included Lincoln Michel, editor at Gigantic Magazine, and Mary Pilon, a journalist for the NY Times, in addition to an array of other Melville enthusiasts. The audience was a conglomerate of diverse individuals: young, old, quiet, rowdy. Some filled the part of the Melville deckhand with their old coats and unkept beards, while others appeared to be scholarly university professors. Some sat in the back clutching their worn books, others sat in the front yelling “Yeah Melville!” and periodically raising toasts. Everyone however was united by a mutual adoration for their favorite author. That and, of course, free booze.

Arm TattooFor an outsider or even someone who only mildly enjoys Melville’s work, the hooting, hollering, and general bustle of Thar She Blows might have seemed somewhat peculiar.

Herman Melville after all is not the type of writer one would expect to inspire rambunctious basement parties. Hunter S. Thompson, sure. Allen Ginsberg, absolutely. Herman Melville, not quite.

Instead, Melville is the type of writer who makes students groan when they find Billy Budd on their assigned reading list, and he’s the type of writer book clubs pass over because he is considered too dense and too dry.

crowdBut then again, every writer has their followers and their critics. Amy Buchanan, who is the female singer in the shanty duo, is a devout follower. “I love that Moby-Dick inspires big feelings” She said. Readers tend to either “love it or hate it,” she explains, but the ones who do love it often become obsessed. “We all need an opportunity to come out and take a good look at each other and say ‘You too? Oh good, I was worried I might be crazy.'”

Buchanon was in good company Friday, although whether she is safe from being thought of as ‘crazy’ by non-Melville readers is still up to question. At one point the audience was posed with a challenge: How many times have you read Moby-Dick? Whoever admitted the highest number got a bag filled with books and other goodies. The winner’s answer? Over nine.

Yet in some ways maybe it does make sense for fans to celebrate Melville with such energy. Other works which have been cited as long and dry have attracted like-minded fans who enjoy extensive world building. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings series, for example, draws worshippers from all over the world to pounce on every detail and chance to learn Elvish.

Melville belongs in a similar realm. As one of America’s most iconic writers, he is credited for much of the captain and sailor imagery that recurs in popular media. Even those who have never read The Whale recognize the famous lines like, “Call me Ishmael” and can identify the peg-legged crazed captain motif.

rockwell kent

Erin Chapman presented “The Illustrated Whale,” a speech on Rockwell Kent.

Event organizers Amanda Bullock and Polly Bresnick were pleasantly surprised by the turnout—of all the places in the U.S where one would find a niche literary event for Herman Melville, it would be Brooklyn. Last year they hosted a marathon event where the 700 pages of Moby-Dick were read in two nights. Although this year Thar She Blows took a different format, they were far from disappointed. “It always amazes and delights me to discover that there are other fanatics out there,” Bresnick said, “[who are] just as hungry as I am for opportunities to get nerdy about Moby- Dick.”

“One of the goals of the evening was to celebrate it’s ongoing relevance and life, and I think we accomplished that.” Bullock said.

And the event was successful by any measure. Even though there was hardly enough room for people to stand and latecomers had to sit on the stairs or wait outside, everyone was able to enjoy the brew, chowder, and entertainment without getting scurvy. Bullock shared how they planned the event.

“When we decided not to do the full marathon this year, we seized the opportunity to realize some of the other Moby-Dick–related ideas we had been kicking around.” She said, “We expected a handful of people to show up but were overjoyed by the great response and crowd that came to nerd out at WORD. I think the eclectic mix of voices at the event reflected and celebrated Melville’s legacy very well.”

Highlights from the dozen presentation included a visual retelling of an exploding whale carcass that took place in Oregon; a reading of a survival story from the whaleship Essex which was destroyed by a whale; and a list of synonyms Melville used for the word “beard” (favorites: suburbs of the chin, long trailing moss hanging from the bow of some aged oak, whiskerandos).

Altogether it was an amazing night.

“After the show, I was just so grateful.” Buchanon said. “The New York City literary community is so welcoming and receptive, willing to join in at the drop of a hat.” The Moby-Dick Marathon – and the madness – is expected to return next year.

WORD bookstore is part of Zola Book’s Indiepledge. You can find more about it here.


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This article originally appeared on Zola Books.