Book Review – In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

in the heart of the sea - book coverIn addition to having a bit of a fascination with the ocean—in part the result of a combination of growing up in New England and too many viewings of The Little Mermaid in my early childhood—I went to college a stone’s throw from New Bedford. It would have been impossible during those four years to miss any of the area’s historic position in the whaling industry and its connection to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—however much I might try (and it would have been irresponsible to ignore that history since one of my majors was history). So the first I heard of the Essex whaleship was probably in an English class discussing Moby-Dick as the main source of the novel’s inspiration. So when I saw that my library had added In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex to its digital catalogue, the part of me that has that love/hate relationship with Moby-Dick immediately clicked to add it to my request list—and then I learned the wait was so long because they’re making a film based on the book.

In August of 1819, the Essex left port in Nantucket on what was intended to be a two-year whaling voyage. Traveling south through the Atlantic beyond the equator and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America and into the Pacific where Nantucket-based whalers were pressing further and further in pursuit of the sperm whales that were their primary targets. In November of 1920—more than a year after setting out—the Essex was further into the Pacific than most whalers had gone before and its captain and crew knew little of the islands between them and the South American coast when they met with the large male sperm whale that fought back and sank their ship. With only three whaleboats and as many provisions as they could carry, the twenty member crew began making what adjustments they could to the boats’ construction to enable them to sail for civilization. Of the twenty members of the crew, only eight would survive the ordeal and only after immense suffering and resorting to extreme measures (including cannibalism).

My interest in the tale of the whaleship Essex was mostly in relation to Moby-Dick. However now that I know it’s being made into a film, my main reaction is ‘Why would anyone want to watch this?’ Philbrick’s book relies heavily on the accounts published by the first mate, Owen Chase, in the year after the survivors’ rescue and return to Nantucket as well as a manuscript/account written by the crew’s youngest member, Thomas Nickerson—who was only fourteen when the whaleship left Nantucket—during his later years. Nickerson’s account was only uncovered and published in the 20th century. Referencing other accounts of shipwrecks as well as studies on the physical and psychological effects of starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism, Philbrick’s book provides a detailed account of the events of those ninety-plus days at sea while also taking a closer look at Nantucket society as a whole.

For me, the most interesting and engaging portions of Philbrick’s book were where he was able to bring it back to Melville and Moby-Dick. As much as the novel frustrates me as a reader—I really wish that Melville’s editor had been a little more aggressive with that manuscript—tracing elements of the novel to their inspiration is fascinating. Melville sailed with the son of first mate Owen Chase and in later years went to Nantucket to meet the Essex’s last captain, George Pollard to hear his account as well. Quoting passages from Moby-Dick where it fits, In the Heart of the Sea focuses more on the aftermath of the sinking than the events leading up to it providing a fuller picture of how and why the real-life events informed one of American Literature’s most famous novels.


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