Jul 11

Nonfiction Thrills: Nathaniel Philbrick's Essex Tale

Fiction vs. reality. It doesn't have to be a contest. But for sheer entertainment, fiction has a huge advantage, right out of the gate, over nonfiction. It sets its own rules of time and logic to make events fall into place in ever more precarious and exciting chunks. In fiction built on suspense, the advantage is especially vital. Nonfiction accounts of events, on the other hand, are hamstrung by often less-than-dramatic facts (though it seems many writers are just making up a million little pieces of bullshit to tap the memoir market).

But nonfiction has an ace up its sleeve; it can be real. It can give us real persons that think and feel and bleed and make love. It can illuminate the events that have shaped our world. When the writer succeeds, the investment of the reader can be visceral.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000, Penguin Books) delivers nonfiction at times rousing and at times gut-wrenching. It’s the story of men thrown into impossible, nightmarish conditions, with only a handful of survivors to tell about it.  

Philbrick reveals the story slowly and adroitly, pulling you into the world of Nantucket, the small Massachusetts island town dominating the whaling industry in the early 19th century, its sailors and whalemen among the most daring and accomplished on the planet. The Nantucketers form an insular, anachronistic society, peopled by forthright Quaker pacifists that are filled with bloodlust and greed at the sight of a whale.

Under the unsure hand of twenty-eight-year-old first-time captain, George Pollard, Jr., and his ambitious, driven first mate, Owen Chase, the whaling ship Essex sets sail in 1819 for the far reaches of the Pacific on a planned two-, maybe three-year voyage. Their aim; kill sperm whales for the volume and quality of prized oil the great beasts are unlucky enough to produce.

In the middle of the Pacific, in the middle of a hunt, an unheard-of disaster strikes. An enraged bull attacks the Essex, ramming the ship in the starboard bow, not once but twice. The ship, “stove in by a whale,” topples and sinks, and the crew of twenty escapes into three small whaleboats, with scant food and water, and with thousands of miles of ocean separating them from South America.  But Nantucketers are consummate, resourceful seamen; they jury-rig sails, plot a course and throw themselves resolutely into the impossible.

And so the true horror begins.

The sailors force themselves into a starvation diet, their only chance of completing the long journey. Day after endless day, set upon by sharks, howling storms, and becalmed, brutal heat, living on sips of water and a few ounces of hardtack, the men begin to die. Desperate yet still deliberate, they resort to the last great taboo of civilization: cannibalizing the dead and drawing lots among the living.

This is one nerve-wracking tale and a terrific how-to for writers of nonfiction. Philbrick’s research is exhaustive, yet this is not a stodgy, academic history. He infuses the narrative with compelling scholarship on the privations the men suffered, illuminating the psychology of survival, leadership, social stratification, and the extreme dehydration and starvation, and describes the horrifying results visited upon other victims of these conditions. Forget what you’ve seen in movies; a man nearly dead from thirst is a ghastly sight. Eyes and tongue and lips and face are desiccated almost beyond recognizable humanity, and skin is stretched like parchment over skull and bones. The victims sure as hell don’t look like buff Hollywood actors wheezing through big death scenes, dreaming of Oscar night, their coiffed hairdos aesthetically mussed.

Philbrick hit a home run with this book, and its images haunt you long after you finish reading it. Images such as that of the survivors, little more than living skeletons themselves, clinging jealously to the bones of comrades they’ve eaten; bones from which they still suck marrow; bones they refuse to relinquish to their horrified rescuers.

The Essex nightmare became a sensation in the press and imagination of the 19th century, as familiar then as the Titanic became to the 20th century. Herman Melville was inspired by it to write one of the crowning achievements of American literature, Moby-Dick, yet over the years the Essex slipped into obscurity. Philbrick has done a great service in bringing this incredible story back to life in a riveting book, giving us insight into tragedy and heroism in the heart of the sea. Readers and writers of suspense literature owe him for mastering the form in the language of the real.