Brutality of whaling brought to life
captures essence of Essex tragedy
By John Stanton Contributing Writer
In the end you are left with an image of the sea. Not the raging whirlpool ocean of Melville, but the quiet, relentless, ever present sea. Nat Philbrick's sea is one that wears men down, that takes from them as much as it gives. You can build an empire from the bounty of this sea, but sooner or later it will expect a payback.
In 1819, the ill-fated whaling ship Essex set sail from a place that had built an empire by harvesting the oil to be had by melting down whales. The awful fate that awaited the crew of this particular whaleship would stand forever as a reminder of how the sea can push men over the edge.
"The sea is one of those eternal frontiers," said Nat Philbrick, whose book "In the Heart of the Sea" details not only the fate of the crew of the Essex, but recreates the world from which they sailed. "It is right up there with the American West. We have somehow lost sight of the fact that before the West was won, Nantucket whalemen where sailing in the Pacific."
Much like the push west, the brutality of whaling was often made more palatable by a veneer of glory.
"If you're an islander in 1819, whaling is the cool thing to do," said Philbrick. "The whole culture of Nantucket in those days was aimed at glorifying it."
"In the Heart of the Sea" makes clear that the Nantucket empire of the 19th century was built on the backs of the men who actually set out to sea to hunt whales.
"The spine of this book is the survival tale and the lengths men will go for that survival," said Philbrick. "And there is nobility in that. What is behind it is that I think we've lost an understanding of the awesome, non-human power of the sea. Even here on Nantucket we turn our backs to it now. But it is real and it will always be here."
What Philbrick has done with "In the Heart of the Sea" is remind us of that power. He has written a well-crafted mix of history and adventure, a tale of survival and cannibalism that goes far beyond that awful incident to describe a time and a place that is long gone but somehow still lingers in the fog of this island.
"What I enjoy about history is the connection with people who lived through it," said Philbrick. "That connection can transcend an era."
The tale of the whaling ship Essex, of course, has been told before. Every Nantucket schoolboy knows the story of how the ship was attacked and sunk by a whale, how the survivors set out in tiny boats across the vast Pacific Ocean, eventually being forced into cannibalism to survive. How once the men who had died of natural causes were eaten, the survivors drew lots to see who would die. You can read about it in the log written by Owen Chase, the first mate on the Essex. You can read the novel Herman Melville crafted from Chase's story, called "Moby Dick."
"I grew up on Melville," said Philbrick. "But he is always heading towards abstraction and metaphor. I wanted to give the true and brutal picture of whaling. What I wanted to do, in some way, was rescue the Essex from 'Moby Dick.' "
Unlike "Moby Dick," which lingered for years without finding a publisher, Philbrick's book has already been translated into nine languages, and before it was even in book stores was number 14 on amazon.com's listing of pre-publication orders. Philbrick spent May getting his first taste of a big time book tour, beginning in London and returning to the U.S. to wind its way through 22 stops before returning to Nantucket for a reading on Memorial day weekend at the Methodist Church. Then he sets back out on the road.
"After Memorial Day I head out to the West Coast," he said.
"Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., San Diego. My first day in London I am scheduled for six radio interviews and three book signings. I'm amazed and kind of bewildered by the whole thing."
What "In the Heart of the Sea" does is to create a time and a place. It lets the reader walk around a bit in history. To do this Philbrick, the historian, relies on an unpublished manuscript left behind by Thomas Nickerson, a 14-year-old orphan who was a cabin boy on the Essex. It is through his eyes that Philbrick, the writer, lets readers enter the story.
In fact Philbrick begins the story of the Essex with an image of Nickerson: "It was, he later remembered, 'the most pleasing moment of my life,' - the moment he stepped aboard the Essex for the first time. He was 14 years old - and like every other Nantucket boy he'd been taught to idolize the form of a ship."
The description of the culture of a community that romanced and glorified the arduous life about a whaling ship, that put a soon-to-be -dashed idealized view of whaling in Nickerson's head, gives "In the Heart of the Sea" a needed complexity.
"There had always been the Owen Chase account, and that is an incredible historical document," said Philbrick. "But Nickerson provided me with the voice. We can all relate to the idea of a young man starting out on an adventure."
"Anyone who writes an account has a point of view based on his point of view. Chase's is more like his resume for future work. He fails to mention his part in what turns out to be bad decisions. But Nickerson does the same thing. At one point he claims they never resorted to cannibalism. His account was written year later, as an old man, who did not want to leave cannibalism as his legacy."
A second element that lends the book the kind of human dimension that gives this story the feel of a novel, is the care Philbrick takes in setting out the different personalities of 28-year-old Captain George Pollard and First Mate Chase. From the outset, the two men seem uniquely suited to each other's jobs. Chase is the more decisive man with a sense of entitlement towards stepping up the role of captain, while Pollard is more considered in his approach to leadership.
Those minor personality traits will take on a greater importance in the face of the disaster that awaits them in the Pacific.
"Here again, Nickerson's account was helpful," said Philbrick. "Plus, I did a lot of research into the psychology of disasters. William H. Macy wrote about the personalities of captains and mates. I read it and I thought, this was what was driving those guys. You don't need to make this up, or extrapolate. Nantucketers already knew this. But it is me interpreting events and placing it in context. I really wanted to make readers know those people."
In that gap between the actual incident and how we look back on it across the prism of the passage of time Philbrick provides us with another level. The book crosses back and forth to between the struggle of the survivors and what we now know about dehydration, starvation, oceanography, and how people react to crisis situations.
"I set out to cobble together the voices of the survivors, with the context of what we know today," said Philbrick. "I wanted to dovetail these little asides to provide a modern context for what was happening, without stopping the narrative flow."
In the summer of 1997, Philbrick read three books: An account of a mountain climbing disaster called "Into Thin Air," an account of the sinking of a Gloucester fishing vessel called "The Perfect Storm" and an account of a life of hardship in Ireland called "Angela's Ashes." It did not take him long to see that the ultimate survival tale was the story of the Essex disaster.
"I think what makes this book not just a knock-off of the others is the attention to the history," said Philbrick. "Despite the topic, I did not want to be sensationalist. I wanted to create a moment in history that reaches outside the region. The question is how do you take a survival tale and make it a work of history? I thought the way to do it was to make people understand that this pleasant little tourist community was once an essential part of a young America."
It is the whale attack, and the primal act of cannibalism, that draws our lurid attention. But the fate of the Essex seems to have been sealed before it ever left Nantucket. The summer of 1819 was filled with what seem now to be omens. Comets were seen in the summer skies and waves of grasshoppers swarmed the island.
"At the wharves and shipping offices there was much speculation, and not just about the comet," Philbrick writes. "All spring and summer there had been sightings up and down the New England coast of what the Mercury described as, "an extraordinary sea animal - a serpent with black horse-like eyes and a fifty-foot body resembling a string of barrels floating in the water. Any sailor, especially if he was young and impressionable like Thomas Nickerson, must have wondered, if only fleetingly if this was, in fact, the best time to be heading out on a voyage around Cape Horn."
For Philbrick it was the best time to be writing this book. He sold the idea, reportedly for a million dollars, to publisher Viking/Penguin, based on a proposal that included the first few chapters of the book.
"I ended up going in a different direction from the proposal," he said. "It was clear I had to back off the history and maybe choose sides a bit. The feedback from the publisher was to tell it the way it happened, but not let the historic notations get in the way."
That is not to say that Philbrick downplays the history, or asks readers to set aside reality for the sake of the story. There are over 20 pages of historical notations and references at the end of the book.
"That was kind of liberating, pushing it to the story side rather than getting stuck up in the mechanics of history," he said. "I found that following my curiosity was a good guide about where to go."
Where the story eventually goes is the awful reckoning that the men in these tiny boats must eat their boat mates to survive. It is the ultimate taboo, in the face of the terrifying power of the ocean.
"For Pollard and Ramsdell, it was the bones ñ gifts from the men they had known and loved ñ that became their obsession," writes Philbrick. "They stuffed their pockets with finger bones; the sucked the sweet marrow from the splintered ribs and thighs."
For shipwrecked sailors, cannibalism in the face of certain starvation was an awful but accepted act. The survivors of the Essex spoke openly of it from the day they were rescued. But Philbrick lets us glimpse the physic toll that lingered after the men returned to Nantucket.
"They had all suffered terribly, but it was Pollard and Ramsdell - found clutching the bones of their dead companions - who had come the closest to complete psychic disintegration. Of the two, Pollard's was perhaps the greater. A year and a half earlier, his aunt had entrusted him with the protection of her oldest son, Owen (Coffin, who was sacrificed after the men drew lots to see which of them would die). Pollard had not only presided over his cousin's execution, but had eaten his flesh, thus participating in what one historian of cannibalism at seas has called the taboo of gastronomic incest."
"In the Heart of the Sea" makes clear that it is the place they sailed from and the place the survivors limped back to that is equally as telling as what happened out on the open sea to the crew of the Essex. In the end it is the everlasting image of the ocean's dark power that stays after the book is finished.