In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

What did it win?

National Book Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A sperm whale sinks the Nantucket whaler Essex, leaving the crew to cross the Pacific in three small boats.

Was it really any good?

A great story, only capably told. Though I have to admit the cliché-ridden Preface (“a sight that would stay with the crew the rest of their lives;” “look back to that distant time as if it were yesterday”) had me expecting something worse.

The genre of true adventure has boomed since the phenomenal success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Obviously there are a lot of us who feel that life in the twenty-first century isn’t tough enough. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry has stepped into the gap and made “reality” into Adspeak for anything having to do with absurd physical challenges and televised tests of survival. As a result, Philbrick’s contention that the story of the Essex is “not a tale of adventure” but a “tragedy” is hard for us to appreciate today. (Would such a distinction apply to the story of the Gloucester fishermen? Or the lives lost on Everest?) Whale hunting was a dangerous way to make a poor living in 1820, but in the twenty-first century readers may safely imagine it as a kind of Extreme Sport, the nineteenth century equivalent of rock-climbing or bungee-jumping. Gladiator was the most successful movie released in 2000, and only a year later American courts had to decide whether to allow the broadcast of Timothy McVeigh’s execution over the Internet as pay-per-view. Such things remind us that even killing people may be a form of popular entertainment.

In other words, the time was right for another re-telling of this classic American tale. That it is a modern re-telling is made especially clear in the politically correct sense of poetic justice it carries with it. The whaling industry, for example, has always been an environmentalist’s nightmare, and there is something satisfying to a modern sensibility in the way the tables are turned on the Essex. Then there is the dramatic irony that has the xenophobic crew members choose to avoid making the relatively short run to Tahiti because of their fear of cannibals, only to find themselves driven to the same extreme in their attempt to reach South America.

The past is a foreign country, and we should be wary of judging its citizens by what Auden called a “foreign code of conscience.” This said, the book’s most curiously modern feature is its sincere but overly decorous way of handling race. Instead of pointing out the obvious – that the black members of the crew may have been the first to die because they were not like the others; not, in Conrad’s magic phrase, “one of us” – Philbrick finds a scientific explanation in a study showing low percentage body fat among African Americans. And as for the reason why the people of Nantucket didn’t like to talk about the Essex tragedy in later years:

It wasn’t just the fact that the men had resorted to cannibalism. It was also difficult for Nantucketers to explain why the first four men to be eaten were African American. What made this a particularly sensitive topic on Nantucket was the island’s reputation as an abolitionist stronghold.

This is unconvincing, and left me wondering what evidence Philbrick had for thinking race was such a sensitive topic. The endnotes only offer support for Nantucket’s abolitionist reputation. Without something more, I can see no reason why Nantucketers in the nineteenth century would be upset in the slightest that so many of the victims were black. One would have thought there were far more obvious reasons why the tragedy would have remained a sensitive topic not to be discussed within a close-knit community where almost everyone had some connection to the families of those involved.

If the past cannot be punished under a foreign code of conscience, neither can it be redeemed.

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