Posted in Non Fiction

In the Heart of the Sea

…as the survivors of the Essex came to know, once the end has been reached and all hope, passion, and force of will have been expended, the bones may be all that are left.

It’s taken me at least as long to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea as it took the crew of the whaleship Essex to survive being shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean – which is approximately three months – and not everyone survived which is one of the more gruesome aspects of the book.


Philbrick writes a very readable non-fiction story and gives fascinating background into the whaling industry and the island of Nantucket that sparked the industry boom during the early years of the United States.  His details regarding the influence of the Quakers in this area shed more light on those “Quakers with a vengence” that owned the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  This connection to Melville’s novel prompted me to read Philbrick’s account along with the trailer to the upcoming film based on the book.

Based on published accounts by the surviving members of Essex along with letters and other documentation, Philbrick narrates the whaleship’s destruction by a sperm whale that to all involved appeared to aggressively attack the ship – something shocking to the crew members and other whalers of the time.  The struggle to survive pushed all of the crew’s morals and ideals to the limit and in some cases passed the limit.

According to Philbrick, this incident inspired Herman Melville, who spent time employed by whaleships, himself, to write Moby-Dick, his Great American Novel.  In the Heart of the Sea contains fewer details about Melville than I was expecting; however, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in survival stories.

Posted in Fiction

Some Final Thoughts on Moby-Dick

When I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in my tenth grade English class, I remember that the narrator, Nick Carraway, intrigued me more than Jay Gatsby.  So much so that, when my teacher indicated that Gatsby was the protagonist of the novel, I almost wanted to disagree.  From a literary standpoint, yes, Jay Gatsby is the central figure of the novel – his name is in the title; however, the person’s eyes through whom I saw Gatsby’s story weighed more heavily on my mind.  Since then, I’ve found myself frequently fascinated with the side-kick character.

As I have finally finished Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I ponder the situation in which Captain Ahab finds himself, seeking vengence on a white whale while seeming to shake his fist at God.  Though Ahab’s story may be powerful and his King Lear-esque monologues make him one of literature’s great protagonists, I couldn’t help but continue to go back to the opening line of the novel:  “Call me Ishmael”.  Ahab is seen through Ishmael’s eyes and I cannot help but let this narrator take over my thoughts on the novel.


Nathaniel Philbrick, in his short book Why Read Moby-Dick, referrs to Ishmael as an agnostic.  I’m not sure what the official definition of an agnostic is; however, if it’s someone who seems to sail comfortably through the oceans of both faith and doubt, then that would describe Ishmael.  As I’ve stated in previous posts, he sees the “believer” and the “infidel” with “equal eyes”.  I was not sure that I would enjoy some of the chapters in which Ishmael explains the biology of a whale or the process by which his colleagues obtained oil from the whales they caught.  But Ishmael (or Melville) fits these into his story with such ease and uses them to display his thoughts on life in general, that they ultimately became some of my favorite chapters. I especially enjoyed his comparison of a whale’s stomach to the Kentucky Mammoth Caves.  And just as Ishmael starts the novel; he finishes it – alone.

Philbrick points out the poetry Melville uses in his prose as one of the author’s greatest strengths.  One of my favorite passages contains Ishmael’s thoughts on the almost drowning of his shipmate, Pip.  Pip ultimately keeps his life but loses his sanity:

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.  Not drowned entirely, though.  Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.  So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

This is one novel that I already feel warrants re-reading.  I think it would be interesting to read it’s chapters individually and randomly.

On a side note, apparently this novel has caused a minor literary controversy over the decades.  The question to hyphenate or not to hyphenate has stirred some debate.  What I would call literary purists seem to feel that the title of the novel should be hyphenated while referring to the name of the actual whale should not.  From what I’ve read, it seems Melville hyphenated his original edition for the title but did not hyphenate the whale’s name throughout the novel.

You learn something new everyday.

Here are the other posts I’ve written about Moby-Dick.

Why Read Moby-Dick

Call me…intrigued

More from Moby-Dick

Ishmael on Religion

Posted in Fiction

More from Moby-Dick…

I’m slowly making my way through Melville’s Moby-Dick and enjoying it very much.  I like the way Melville made each chapter relatively short and, while a plot does exist, many of the chapters could be read by themselves and stand alone.

In Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Why Read Moby-Dick? , he emphasizes the American aspect of the novel.  As I’m reading about the exotic Polynesian Islands along with characters like Queequeg, the pagan cannibal, I can easily forget that Melville has written an American novel.  While Ishmael is narrating his sea travels, Melville frequently has him refer to definitively American geography and landscape such as Cleveland, Buffalo (the city), the mountains of Virginia, the Great Lakes, the Great Plains and buffalo (the animal).  One of my favorite chapters so far (chapter 54) is “The Town-Ho’s Story (As told at the Golden Inn)”- just to clarify, the “Town-Ho” is the name of a ship.  This ship deals with a previous sighting of the White Whale, Moby-Dick; however, one of the more interesting details to me involved the Canallers  aboard the ship – those men who went from working on the Erie canal to being whalers in the South Seas.  Melville, through his storyteller, describes the Canal and the land around it with a realistic but poetic pride; but the passage that I thought the most telling spoke of the transformation of American occupations along with the change in religious ideas:

…to many thousands of our rural boys and young men born along its (the Erie Canal’s) line, the probationary life of the Grand Canal furnishes the sole transition between quietly reaping in a Christian corn-field, and recklessly ploughing the waters of the most barbaric seas.

The above painting is on the cover of my copy.  It’s entitled “Peche du Chachalot” by Ambroise Louis Garneray.  Over the course of several chapters Ishmael determines that very few artists are able to do justice to a whale.  He decides that this is probably a result of the difficulty of seeing a whale in it’s entirety.  While the French made up a very small portion of whalers compared to the American and British, Ishmael indicates that French artists were able to best capture whaling action.  He suspected them of being tutored by Americans or British.

Meanwhile, Ishmael has become only vaguely acquainted with Captain Ahab and his vengeful purpose for The Pequod.  

Posted in Non Fiction

Why Read Moby-Dick?

I stated a few posts ago that I had started reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick a long time ago but never finished it.  Wade commented on that post suggesting I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s small book Why Read Moby-Dick? .  I took him up on the suggestion and easily finished this book in a day (Philbrick’s book, not Melville’s) and am now motivated to read Melville’s novel, again.  I wish I could say that it would be the next one I read, but I don’t think it will be, but soon.

The interesting information Philbrick shares about Melville, the man and the process through which he went in writing probably his most famous novel, makes this a compelling short read.  He brings the concepts, themes and history surrounding the novel to light for the average reader without making his book a substitute for reading Moby-Dick.  His comparison of political and historical ideas in the 1850’s to today’s world gave new understanding to me about the story of Ishmael, Captain Ahab and a White Whale.

One specific point Philbrick makes is that the White Whale is a whale – not a symbol – “In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough.”

He goes on to indicate why we read classic literature anyway:

This is the fundamental reason we continue to read this or any other literary classic.  It’s not the dazzling technique of the author; it’s his or her ability to deliver reality on page.

Throughout his book, Philbrick discusses the friendship between Melville and his “hero” Nathaniel Hawthorne.   It seems that the two were very different in personality and at times Philbrick hinted that Melville was somewhat of a pest to the Hawthorne family.  However, at the time of Moby-Dick’s publication, Hawthorne was the only one to recognize the talent Melville put into the novel.  According to Philbrick, the novel needed some space and time before people could start to appreciate it.

One quotation from Moby-Dick that Philbrick uses several times (and one that I found intriguing) was Ishmael’s description of his own worldview:

Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.