In the Heart of the Sea
Moby Dick sits on my shelf like a faithful but jilted lover patiently waiting my return. Considered by some to be a literary rite of passage like rounding Cape Horn is to sailors, Melville’s paean to the age of whaling is at best heavy sledding.
If you have not time enough in your life to tackle this beast of a book with its long digressions into the history of whaling and the minutiae of the sperm whale, then you might consider Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, the marvelous retelling of the incident that inspired the writing of Melville’s tome.
In the year 1819, the Essex, a whaling ship out of Nantucket, at that time the largest whaling port in the world, was rammed and sunk by a huge enraged sperm whale. This is the horrifying tale of how the captain and a few of the crew somehow managed to survive in lifeboats for three months until they were rescued by another whaling vessel in the Pacific. It was a famous story in the early and mid-nineteenth century that inspired Melville to spin his own tale of a whale who waged war against his oppressors. The liner notes call Philbrick’s book “a timeless account of the human spirit under extreme duress, but it is also a story about a community, and about the kind of men and women who lived in a forbidding, remote island like Nantucket—a pioneer story that explores how we became who we are, and our peculiar blend of spiritualism and violence.”
This is a wonder of a book that brings to life the realities of life at sea on a whaling ship in the early days of America. Not only that, it reminds us of how fragile existence is and how easily and quickly our lives can be placed at the mercy of the cruel forces of nature.
by Nathaniel Philbrick