Books that endure tell us about lives we can only dream of. Austen, Dickens, and Twain all lived what they wrote about, and what they lived was radically different from what we know today.
Then there's Herman Melville. In my humble opinion, Melville's Moby Dick is the greatest novel ever written. As we learned in English class, Moby Dick is really about man's struggle against death. Well, of course it is. Moby Dick is about death, but first and foremost it is about whaling. We no longer hunt whales; at least most nations don't. This shouldn't preclude readers from enjoying two books that are fascinating explorations into Melville's world.
The first, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, details the little-known incident that provided Melville with the foundation of his masterpiece. In 1820, the whaling ship Essex, out of Nantucket, was deliberately hit and sunk in the south Pacific by an enraged sperm whale. The ship's stunned crew of 20 was forced to make their way across 3,000 miles of open ocean to the western coast of South America. It took three months, and along the way they faced death, dehydration, starvation, and ultimately, cannibalism.
Philbrick presents this horrifying tale in a direct, deliberate manner, detailing the culture of the New England whalers, how they fit into the wider world of the early 19th century, and why their fate considering what they had to do to survive was not what we in the 21st century would expect. A sailor as well as an historian, Philbrick's richly detailed account of this tragedy stands on its own merits as a narrative; the fact that the story is the basis for one of the great novels of literature only adds to its attraction.
So, Melville had a historical basis for the sinking of the Pequod. What about Moby Dick himself? Was there a basis for this fish tale? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Tim Severin's forthcoming book, In Search of Moby Dick, explores the existence of a white whale from both an historical and a modern perspective. As Howard Schliemann searched for the gates of Troy by following Homer's writings, Severin retraces the voyage of the Pequod as well as Melville's travels through the south Pacific to get to the roots of the story. Was there a white whale? Does one exist today? He finds some surprising answers. Tropical island gods and legends lead to modern-day whale hunters who search for the great beasts much the same as their ancestors; gasoline motors attached to their outrigger canoes are their only modern innovations. Their physical daring is amazing, and their whispered stories will raise goosebumps. The vividness of Severin's writing as well as his careless disregard for his own safety make In Search of Moby Dick compelling reading.
With a major biography of Melville also on the way for summer, this promises to be a banner year for whaling or at least for the examination of it. If you are a fan of true adventure stories, snap up In Search of Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea.
James Neal Webb doesn't go fishing that often, but when he does, he always throws 'em back.
Editor’s Note: This review has been edited after publication.