Nathaniel Philbrick Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Nathaniel Philbrick
Photo by Ellen Warner

Nathaniel Philbrick

An interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

An Interview with Nathaniel Philbrick

Why do you believe the tale of the Essex needed retelling? Why is it important to tell now?
Except for at a few old whaling ports such as Nantucket and New Bedford, the story of the Essex was known, if it was known at all, as the story that inspired the climax of Moby-Dick. It seemed to me that the Essex was something more than the raw material for Melville's miraculous art; it was a survival tale that also happened to be an essential part of American history. Back in the early nineteenth century, America had more frontiers than the West; there was also the sea, and the Nantucket whaleman was the sea-going mountain man of his day, chasing the sperm whale into the distant corners of the Pacific Ocean. Americans today have lost track of the importance the sea had in creating the nation's emerging identity. It wasn't all cowboys and Indians; there was also the whalemen and Pacific. More than a decade before the Donner party brought a story of frontier cannibalism to the American public, there was the Essex disaster.

You brought a historic tale to life with vivid detail and emotional content that rivals narrative fiction. Did it feel like you were writing fiction?
I am trained as a journalist, and instead of inventing anything, the way a fiction writer would, I was trying to figure out, as best I could, what really happened. Where information concerning the Essex and her crew was lacking, I turned to other whaling voyages for examples of what had occurred under similar circumstances. I was very much concerned with the personalities of the men, so I combed documents on Nantucket to help me identify what their backgrounds had been. I looked to modern-day scientific studies in an attempt to figure out what the crew was experiencing, not only in terms of their suffering at sea, but also in terms of the interpersonal dynamics of a survival situation. I resisted the temptation to create dialogue or presume to know what the men were thinking. On the other hand, I realized that this was an amazing story, and I didn't want my research to interfere with the inherent drama of the tale. I found that if an informational sidebar had its own story to tell, it added to, rather than detracted from, the drama. But I didn't want to litter the book with references to arcane literary and scientific studies. One of the reasons the end note section of the book is so long and detailed is that I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history. I wanted to let the story tell itself. If a reader has questions about what sources I used and what decisions I made in crafting the narrative, he or she should refer to the notes.

What criteria did you use to delineate between reliable and unreliable sources? Who do you feel is a more reliable source, Owen Chase or Thomas Nickerson? Why?
Owen Chase, the first mate, wrote his account of the disaster within months of his rescue, while Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy, waited half a century before he put pen to paper. Since the normal rule is that the person writing the closest to the actual event is the most trustworthy, that means that Chase's account should be given precedence. However, Chase was an officer attempting to put some very bad decisions in the best possible light. Even though Nickerson was writing decades after the event, he was remembering a traumatic event that had occurred in his teenage years, and psychologists tell us that an older person's memory of such an event is quite reliable. Instead of contradicting Chase, Nickerson adds details that the first mate chose not to reveal. For example, Nickerson reveals that Chase had had an opportunity to lance the whale after the first attack but chose not to. With the help of Nickerson, whose narrative was not discovered until 1980, I aimed to broaden, and in some cases challenge, the received wisdom of Owen Chase.

Do you think that Captain George Pollard was a poor captain or just unlucky?
Pollard was certainly unlucky, but he also had difficulty asserting his will upon the crew. Pollard was a first-time captain and seemed hesitant to overrule his subordinates. In just about every situation, his instincts were correct, but he inevitably allowed himself to be talked out of his convictions by his two mates, Owen Chase and Matthew Joy. As leadership psychologists will tell you, a leader, particularly in a survival situation, must make decisions firmly and quickly. Pollard was too much of a Hamlet.

Were you surprised that after the Essex disaster so many of her survivors returned to the sea?
No, I wasn't. On Nantucket in the early nineteenth century a young, ambitious man had few options. If he wasn't going to go whaling, there wasn't much else for him to do. When asked how he could dare go back to sea, Pollard simply said that the lightning never struck in the same place twice. These men had every reason to believe that they had survived the worst that fate could ever throw at them.

What fascinates you about a survival tale such as this? Why do you think that such true survival tales are so popular today?
A survival tale peels away the niceties and comforts of civilization. Suddenly, all the technology and education in the world means nothing. I think all of us wonder while reading a survival tale, what would I have done in this situation? Would I have made it? There's a part of us that feels our pampered twenty-first-century existence is a kind of lie, I think. We read these stories to experience vicariously the essential truths of life and, of course, death.

Why do you think, given the fascination the true story of the Essex held for so many, that Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick failed to garner much attention immediately following its publication?
Part of Melville's problem with Moby-Dick was timing. American popular tastes had shifted. Instead of the wilderness of the sea, Americans were, after the Gold Rush of 1848-49, most interested in the Wild West, and Moby-Dick was published in 1851. The other strike against Moby-Dick was that it was, for the mid-nineteenth century, a very unconventional and challenging novel. For us, it's different. A generation reared on Joyce and Faulkner finds the subtleties and outrages of Moby-Dick a wonderful delight. For readers of Longfellow and Whittier, Melville's novel was very, very strange.

You say in your Epilogue that the Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. Can you explain?
To my mind, an adventure is something a person willingly undertakes. Shackleton attempting to traverse Antarctica or Mallory climbing Mt. Everest are adventurers. If they run into troubles, they are, by and large, troubles of their own devising. The crew of the Essex were whalemen simply trying to make a living when they were attacked by an 85-foot whale. There was nothing adventurous about the sufferings they subsequently endured. I would certainly call them heroic, but they were not adventurers.

As a current resident of Nantucket, what do you perceive to be the town's relationship with its whaling history?
Nantucket today has, I think, a somewhat tortured relationship with its past. On one hand, Nantucketers are proud of the island's whaling history; on the other, they care deeply about the marine life they see in the waters surrounding the island. Just last Fourth-of-July weekend a pod of pilot whales beached on the north shore of the island, and Nantucketers worked ceaselessly for an entire day in a vain attempt to save the very same whales their forefathers would have instinctively massacred. Times change.

What's next for you? Have you plumbed the depths of Nantucket history?
I don't think it's ever possible to plumb the depths of this island's rich history. However, my next book does take me away from the island, even if it is, I think, a natural evolution for a Nantucket historian. It's about the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, an unprecedented voyage of discovery by the American Navy that would do for the Pacific Ocean what Lewis and Clark had done for the American West. Following in the whalemen's considerable wake, this expedition would chart hundreds of Pacific Islands and bring back so many scientific specimens that the Smithsonian Institution would be created, in part, to house them. For good measure, this expedition would also venture toward the South Pole and establish for the first time that Antarctica was a continent. Two ships would be lost; dozens of men would never return. It's yet another amazing story of the sea with which modern-day Americans have lost touch.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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