A Whale ain’t Nothing but a Fish
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick. Harper Collins, £16.99
On November the 20th 1820 the Nantucket whaleship Essex, sailing in the Pacific somewhere between the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands — about as far from land as she could be — was rammed by a sperm whale and quickly went down. The entire crew of twenty escaped the wreck, but only eight made it back to Nantucket. One of these was the First Mate, whose account was published soon after his rescue. Only twenty or thirty years ago the cabin-boy’s account was found, and it differs in more than just writing style. Using these and various secondary sources Nathaniel Philbrick (No doubt it’s bad form to say so, but the name is perfect) tries to reconstruct the full story.
So far, so good — well, appalling of course, I mean good for the reader — but we are also told loudly, not just by the publishers in their hyperbolic press release, but also on the title page, that this is ‘The Epic True Story that Inspired Moby-Dick’
Now just a minute. ‘Inspired’? I was about thirteen and interested chiefly in wireless, not at all in arty matters, when I sat goggling in awe through the Hollywood film with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. My vocabulary contained useful words like ‘Pentode’ and ‘Superhet’, not ‘Symbolism’ or ‘Allegory’. Nevertheless when I came out of the cinema I had the new knowledge that it is possible to say something about one thing by talking about another: Ishmael had been telling us about something much bigger than a whale. Such considerations seem not to trouble this book’s author or publisher any more than they did the producers and directors of the film. To inspire is to provide with a plot, Ahab was seriously weird, Ishmael that fashionable thing a survivor, whale-oil was what the Pequod was after, and Moby Dick was just a big fish. (Yes, a fish — Melville himself insists on this.) Ultimately this doesn’t matter: ordeals and quests, especially sea-quests, have always caught the imagination, and it would take more than Hollywood crassness to conceal their wider implications and deeper significances. Much of Moby Dick is written in a flippant pseudo-scientific style, and it may be only hindsight wisdom that credits — if it is a credit — Melville with deliberately setting out to write something meant to enter the canon of big-L Literature.
The opening chapter of In the Heart of the Sea tells how the white settlers of Nantucket took to whaling and how Quakers — pacifist toward humans, but not toward whales — came to dominate a close-knit, rigid, typically small-island society. It seems women had unusual power in Nantucket — the men were away for three years and home for three months — but (perhaps for the same reason) many were addicted to opium. The obsession with whaling is well-illustrated by the odd pieces of knowledge Philbrick has picked up: young men would wear small items of harpooning gear in their lapels so that the girls, pledged to marry only successful whale-hunters, could be sure in their choice. A mother is pleased when her little boy uses a dinner-fork tied to a ball of wool to harpoon the cat. We are also introduced to Thomas Nickerson, joining the Essex as cabin-boy. While there is much here that is clearly backed by research, as a sprinkling of quotation-marks shows, there is also a lot of the speculation common in popular historical reconstruction. Philbrick spares us ‘Little did he know on that fateful day…’ but there is plenty of ‘Must have’ ‘Probably’ and ‘Doubtless’ and at least one ‘Fate had in store’.
Most of the book is taken up with an account of the Essex’s voyage, its sudden end and the harrowing events that followed. A straightforward ripping yarn. Only a few days out, with an inexperienced captain, the ship is taken broadside and tipped on her beam-ends by a squall. Two whale-boats are lost; a dispiriting start. Later there is a near-mutiny when rations run short in fo’c’sle and steerage, but the central event is of course the sinking, and this is described vividly and without too many explanatory asides or speculations on the crew’s feelings. Rammed twice, the ship sank to top-deck level within ten minutes. Astonishingly, those aboard got off in the spare boat, and a black steward even managed to salvage compasses, quadrants and nautical almanacs. The two other boats had been out catching whales. Twenty men in three open boats in the middle of the pacific…
What became of them is told well, and sometimes with more detail than may suit many readers’ stomachs. Nantucket Quakers die hard; when lots are drawn to see who shall be eaten some men object: gambling is wrong.
At the time much was made of the whale’s unsporting conduct, and it seems still to puzzle present-day writers. Given what whaleships set out to do, and the now-proven intelligence of their prey, naïve readers such as myself might wonder why it didn’t happen all the time. Perhaps the poor benighted beasts are better pacifists than their hunters.
For the thorough-going and scholarly there are fifty pages of notes, with no distracting indices in the main text, and a ‘select’ (a mere 150-odd books and articles) bibliography. For the rest of us there are two generous wodges of photographs: vast whale jaw-bones, survivors in later life, contemporary illustrations and documents, even a fantastic seventeenth-century engraving of a cannibal orgy. There are also maps: one of the Essex’s voyage from Nantucket to the point where she sank, and another showing the routes of the ship’s boats. Necessarily, the first shows half the world, and the second the South Pacific from Polynesia to Chile, the equator to Cape Horn. The imagination boggles at the distances sailed.
There is much else to strain belief. How was it possible that Owen Chase, dying of thirst and hunger, often too weak to pull himself up to the gunwales of his tiny boat, kept a log? It was this log, written up later by his literary friend William Coffin, that Melville read before writing Moby Dick. Even more surprisingly the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson also made notes and some fine sketches of the disaster, some of which are reproduced here. His work was only discovered just before Philbrick started writing.
Harper Collins paid a quarter of a million pounds for the right to publish this book, and seem to have invested as much or more in publicity for it. They have decided to make it a best-seller, and it probably deserves to be, though not for its literary qualities. It’s none the worse for being nothing to do with Literature with a capital ‘L’, only for pretending to be: it tells us no more about Moby Dick than a history of the Danish court does about Hamlet.