Thursday, October 4, 2012

Book Review: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Penguin, 2000)

Front Cover 

Philbrick, the author of MAYFLOWER, made his initial reputation with this brief but powerful tale of the Nantucket whaleship Essex's disastrous encounter with a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1820.  The 20-man crew, forced to take to three whaleboats as the Essex sank after it was rammed by the whale, faced a horrific three-month ordeal that included subsistence living on a coral island, hunger and thirst at sea, and ultimately cannibalism.  Remarkably, five men survived, and several of them committed the tale to paper.  Philbrick's account is partially inspired by new details uncovered in the memoirs of Thomas Nickerson, the Essex's cabin boy, which were only published in the 1980s.  It has long been known that Herman Melville's MOBY DICK was inspired, at least in part, by what happened to the Essex.  Philbrick gives us the whys and hows, and much more besides, in these densely packed 240 pages.  (Melville, who was not known for concision in his writing, is probably shaking his head somewhere and wondering how Philbrick was able to accomplish the feat.)  

Philbrick takes us through the history of Nantucket Island and the Quaker influences that shaped its culture, a description of the whaling industry of the 19th century, observations on the biology of whales, and, when the time comes, a rather gruesome (but necessary) discussion of the physiology of extreme hunger and thirst.  He also has important observations to make about the state of race relations among the Nantucket whalers (not as charitable as one might expect, given the Quakers' color-blind reputation) and the deep divisions between the "Nantucket men" and the off-islanders, or "coofs," who were brought in to fill out whaling crews as the demand for manpower grew.  These last are not mere sociological digressions; the first victims of the cannibalism were African-American, and the dispensation of the personnel in the whaleboats owed a lot to "in-group" and "out-group" dynamics.  Throughout, Philbrick knows just the right amount of detail to bring into his narrative without bogging it down.

At Stevenson University, we're currently using this book as a common reading in our Freshman Science Seminar sections.  Despite the somewhat grotesque subject matter and the occasional deployment of technical sailing terms and the like, this book is an excellent way to show students, as well as the general public, how science in the most "general" sense has intersected with other elements of American culture in the past, and is a good jumping-off point to discuss similar interactions of today.

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