Don’t call him Ishmael. While Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-seller In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex revitalizes the tale that inspired the climax of Moby Dick, his method of plunging into the soul has no use for philosophical flourishes.
“There was no way I was going to outdo Melville,” says the 44-year-old author, “but what freed me to write in his shadow was that what I really wanted to do was reclaim the story as a piece of history.”
Thus, In the Heart of the Sea frames the famous story of the freakish whale within America’s frontier history and Nantucket’s Quaker culture, and it’s also crammed with science. We learn, for instance, that an adult human yields roughly 66 pounds of meat, a tidbit relevant to the shipwrecked crew’s drift into cannibalism. “When I was going into it,” Philbrick says, “I had a straight sea-yarn approach. What surprised me was that the more I found out about starvation, in dehydration — the science of these things — I wanted to put the reader there and open the story up.”
Though he grew up hearing the Essex’s story (his father, Thomas, an expert in maritime literature, would tell an expurgated version at bedtime), and though he’s a scholar who’s written two histories of Nantucket, Philbrick is also a canny marketer, which becomes plain when he discusses his period of inspiration — the summer during which, to reappropriate Melville, the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open. “It was the summer of ’97 — that was the Perfect Storm-Into Thin Air-Angela’s Ashes summer — and I was reading those three books. They’re all survival tales in one way or another. I said to myself, the ultimate survival tale is the Essex disaster.”