Monday, July 6, 2009

A moveable feast: In the Heart of the Sea

A while back, I reviewed the newly-published Ray Bradbury screenplay for the 1956 film of Moby Dick here on Guys Lit Wire. The book Moby Dick is a recurring obsession; every few years I'll re-read it (yes, including the allegedly boring bits) and plow through stacks of critical commentary. This cycle of Ahabery was spurred by an interview I did with writer/comedian Mary Jo Pehl (Mystery Science Theater 3000), in which she spoke about Melville. In searching for new material, I discovered a book about the Essex, a ship sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, and the whalers' subsequent horrific ordeal. This event inspired Melville to write Moby Dick; he even met several of the survivors.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, is based on two first-hand survivor accounts, one by first mate Owen Chase published shortly after the disaster, and one by cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, 19 at the time of the sinking. Nickerson's account did not surface until 1980, and having two distinct accounts to draw on helps Philbrick bring the characters and their struggles to vivid life.

It's not just a tale of a whale, it's a tale of a whole society, the Quaker-laced whaling fleet based on Nantucket Island. This brief, shining society, centered entirely on the deaths of whales half a world away, provided most of the oil needed to keep the world's lamps lit, and its machines greased. Philbrick doesn't apply modern morality to them, but instead shows us how their narrow world view caused the rise and fall of both the island itself, and the particular sailors from the Essex.

I won't sugarcoat it: there's cannibalism. But Philbrick does such a good job getting us into the heads of characters, their ultimate decision to eat what's available makes perfect, if ghastly, sense. He also provides context, using the results of a 1945 study on starvation at the University of Minnesota to explain the gradual physical and mental breakdowns.

This is neither a horror story, nor a "triumph of the human spirit" tale. Philbrick presents the story with a minimum of garnish, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. What is certain is that the fate of the Essex led directly to the composition of arguably the greatest American novel ever.

Read an interview with author Nathaniel Philbrick here.

Netflix a Discovery Channel documentary on the Essex here.

And finally, a cheery pop song about cannibalism:


Kristopher said...

I read this book several years ago and was blown away. Philbrick does a great job describing not just this one disaster but the whole whaling industry and the culture built around it.

The most horrible, ironic, couldn't-make-it-up-if-you-tried fact? The Essex sank not far from Hawaii, but the survivors have heard (false) reports that the Hawaiians are cannibals. Instead, they decide to head in the opposite direction toward South America, over 2000 miles away. And because of that decision, some of them resort to cannibalism themselves.

Alex Bledsoe said...

And the reason they accepted those false rumors was because no Nantucketer had told them otherwise. Their insular society was very nearly their doom.