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On Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea”

24 Feb

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature.

Everyone has heard of Moby-Dick. Whether or not everyone has attempted to read Herman Melville’s 700-page book is another matter, but the story of the ship-killing white whale and the Ahab, captain of the Pequod, maddened by his hunt for revenge is as well-known in American lore as George Washington and the cherry tree or Rosa Parks at the front of a Montgomery bus. Few people, though, know about the story that inspired Melville’s literary classic. The story of the Nantucket ship Essex, its destruction at the proverbial hands of a whale, and the struggle for survival of its sailors is told at length in Philbrick’s book, mostly through the two pointedly differing memoirs of the ship’s first mate Owen Chase and the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson.

Philbrick builds the context of our main cast through lengthy descriptions of Nantucket’s singular culture and history. An island off the south coast of Cape Cod and east of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket is geographically isolated and therefore culturally detached from the mainland, and from early on in the history of its of white settlers, developed its living on a foundation of whaling.

The island of Nantucket didn't need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from http://maps.bpl.org)

The island of Nantucket didn’t need to be large to sustain one of the most formidable fleets of whaleships American had ever seen. (Photo from http://maps.bpl.org)

In the 19th Century, Nantucket’s “living” became an empire in the whaling industry–a veritable force of nature–that put all other whaling towns to shame through a combination of Quaker-based business sense and Spartan-like cultural indoctrination that idolized its whalers above all other professions. A famous Nantucket drinking toast tells all there is about the place of whaling in daily life:

“Death to the living, long life to the killers, success to sailors’ wives, and greasy luck to sailors.”

Not only does the toast speak to the bravado of the sailing profession but also to the conflict that lived within each Nantucketer, especially those of the Quaker religion. Philbrick subtly sets the stage for a whole story about paradoxes: the Quakers’ religion versus their livelihoods (“pacifist killers, plain-dressed millionaires”), and the predatory role of the whalers in stark relief against their utter helplessness at the hands of heartless sea.

When the Essex left Nantucket in 1820, no one was expecting a Disney cruise with an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, but the sailors expected a normal, if rigorous, voyage out into the whaling grounds of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ship, though, was under command of an easygoing, new captain and therefore crewed by the leftover sailors more experienced and entitled captains didn’t want, and from the outset, the Essex found itself under duress, whether from fluke weather or poor leadership or the combination thereof. Life on a whaleship was nothing close to easy, and the sailors who crewed such a ship put their lives at risk on a regular basis, but the Essex, at the hands of its rookie captain, seemed doomed from the start. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 3,000 miles from the nearest continent, the 240-ton ship fell victim to the very animal on which it was built to prey: a male sperm whale. A single act by this bull whale–colliding head first into the Essex and sinking it–shook the whalers to their collective core, not only because it left them stranded in a handful of smaller vessels in the middle of the ocean, but also because it was a reversal in nature: in one haunting moment, the prey becomes hunter, and the men of the Essex become helpless victims at the cold hands of nature.

Cutting in (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from "Curious Expeditions")

Several decades after the Essex occurrence, whalers are here seen “cutting in.” Whale ships were floating factories, always on the move to find their next victims, on which the valuable blubber and spermaceti were rendered. (Photo by Marion Smith, 1902, from “Curious Expeditions”)

In Philbrick’s methodical, nearly scientific tone, he recounts the events after the Essex collapses into so much flotsam. Twenty men in three boats and enough provisions for 60 days set sail for land. The men attempt to stay together against all odds, finding comfort in the company of other human bodies in the horrific vastness of the sea–suddenly much vaster without the shelter of their well-provisioned whaleship. Eventually, though, the ships are separated, and each lonely island of men is on their own with dwindling supplies of bread and water and no GPS to guide them toward safety. The paths they take and the methods they use to survive fall under Philbrick’s careful, balanced scrutiny, but the direction of this story of harrowing survival can only end in one way. It’s inevitable. There’s a reason Philbrick titled it a tragedy, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from one of the greatest and most universal of taboos: cannibalism. All I have to say is make sure you’re not sitting down to a dinner of rare steak while you’re reading this, because you might need to go vegetarian for a while.

Listening to ItHotS on audio book felt a little like listening to a long Radiolab episode. Philbrick makes a commendable effort to integrate the story line of the Essex‘s crew members and their survival story with interesting factoids on the toll of starvation on the human body, or the customs of islanders in the region of ocean through which the Nantucketers sailed, or the speculation of “what could have been” if only one pivotal choice or another had been made.

Later this year, when the Ron Howard film adaptation is released, we will see how much of this graphic and tragic story is shown on screen. Philbrick’s retelling of the Essex story seems to do justice to a history where so much detail may have been lost, edited, or redacted, but he continued throughout the book to ask questions and pry at the story’s chinks and holes. Undoubtedly, with blockbuster names like Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy on the marquee, the film version of In the Heart of the Sea will be much more valiant and much less grotesque.

Read It: In the Heart of the Sea combines the most entertaining elements of Nantucket whalers’ contextual history, the documented events from Essex‘s sailors, and speculation. The book still doesn’t include the artistry of a novel, but most readers will be caught up in this thrilling plot to notice. Readers interested in this era of American history will be totally engrossed and, since the story of the Essex is at heart the story of the human will to survive and the transformation of “civilized” people in the face of an indifferent Nature, most anyone will find something to love in this tale.

Don’t Read It: You should know to steer clear if you’re not a fan of nonfiction or of history books, but you may not know that ItHotS is no jolly cruise or an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The story itself is brutal and Philbrick doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the graphic detail involved with the sailors’ methods of survival. The prospect of a slow, painful death by starvation and exposure does frightening things to the human body and the human moral code. This book is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Similar Books: I feel like I recommend this book a lot, and that may be due to my limited list of nonfiction books under my reading belt, but it could also be due to the fact that it’s an awesome book, but David Grann’s The Lost City of Z is a great example of an adventurous nonfiction book that unfolds the mystery of a city of gold and the myth of a legendary explorer. It is a little heavier on the anthropology, and it won’t leave you with Philbrick’s sense of closure. The Revenant by Michael Punke is a novel but is based heavily on actual events. In this story of survival, Hugh Glass survives the impossible in a battle that pitches a fragile human against the ferocity of the American frontier.

Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

 

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