Summary and book reviews of In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea

The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea
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  • First Published:
    May 2000, 302 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2001, 302 pages

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Book Summary

Tells perhaps the greatest sea story ever - an event as mythic in its own century as the Titanic disaster in ours, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick.

"With its huge, scarred head halfway out of the water and its tail beating the ocean into a white-water wake more than forty feet across, the whale approached the ship at twice its original speed--at least six knots. With a tremendous cracking and splintering of oak, it struck the ship just beneath the anchor secured at the cat-head on the port bow. . ."

In the Heart of the Sea brings to new life the incredible story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex--an event as mythic in its own century as the Titanic disaster in ours, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick. In a harrowing page-turner, Nathaniel Philbrick restores this epic story to its rightful place in American history.

In 1820, the 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, it was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, made for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three tiny boats. During ninety days at sea under horrendous conditions, the survivors clung to life as one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.

In the Heart of the Sea tells perhaps the greatest sea story ever. Philbrick interweaves his account of this extraordinary ordeal of ordinary men with a wealth of whale lore and with a brilliantly detailed portrait of the lost, unique community of Nantucket whalers. Impeccably researched and beautifully told, the book delivers the ultimate portrait of man against nature, drawing on a remarkable range of archival and modern sources, including a long-lost account by the ship's cabin boy. At once a literary companion and a page-turner that speaks to the same issues of class, race, and man's relationship to nature that permeate the works of Melville, In the Heart of the Sea will endure as a vital work of American history.

Chapter Three
First Blood

After in the Azores, which provided plenty of fresh vegetables but no spare whaleboats, the Essex headed south toward the Cape Verde Islands. Two weeks later they sighted Boavista Island. In contrast to the Azores' green, abundant hills, the slopes of the Cape Verdes were brown and sere, with no trees to offer relief from the burning subtropical sun. Pollard intended to obtain some hogs at the island of Maio a few miles to the southwest.

The next morning, as they approached the island, Nickerson noticed that Pollard and his mates were strangely animated, speaking to each other with a conspiratorial excitement as they passed a spyglass back and forth, taking turns studying something on the beach. What Nickerson termed "the cause of their glee" remained a mystery to the rest of the crew until they came close enough to the island to see that a whaleship had been run up onto the beach. Here, perhaps, was a source of some additional whaleboats - ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

It began in the summer of 1997. I never seem to get much writing done in the summer. Nantucket is a madhouse in July and August, and for me it's been a time for sculpting an existing manuscript rather than creating a new one. That said, I was desperately trying to finish up a book called Abram's Eyes, about the island's Native American legacy. All summer I'd been wrestling with the epilogue. I was attempting to link the Indians' myths of Maushop—a friendly giant who finally turns on his own family, beating his wife and transforming his children into killer whales—to Herman Melville's myth-making use of the Essex disaster, in which the whaleman's normally benign prey, the mammoth sperm ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Booklist

For more than 150 years, the primary source of information about the Essex was a volume that first mate Owen Chase, later a successful whaling captain, prepared with a ghostwriter; a summary by the ship's cabin boy, prepared some 50 years after the wreck, was found and published in the 1980s. Philbrick draws on both, using the cabin boy's more class-conscious narrative to correct the often self-serving prose of the mate. A fascinating tale, well told.

Booklist

For more than 150 years, the primary source of information about the Essex was a volume that first mate Owen Chase, later a successful whaling captain, prepared with a ghostwriter; a summary by the ship's cabin boy, prepared some 50 years after the wreck, was found and published in the 1980s. Philbrick draws on both, using the cabin boy's more class-conscious narrative to correct the often self-serving prose of the mate. A fascinating tale, well told.

Kirkus Reviews

A vivid account of a 19th-century maritime disaster that engaged the popular imagination of the time with its horrors of castaways and cannibalism... A gripping chronicle of an epic voyage of hardship and survival that deserves to be as well known now as it once was.

Kirkus Reviews

A vivid account of a 19th-century maritime disaster that engaged the popular imagination of the time with its horrors of castaways and cannibalism... A gripping chronicle of an epic voyage of hardship and survival that deserves to be as well known now as it once was.

Author Blurb Thomas Farel Hefferman, author of Stove by a Whale
Nathaniel Philbrick's recreation of the first sinking of a ship by a whale and the almost unbelievable survival adventure that followed is an exhaustively researched and, from beginning to end, engrossingly told tale. His account captures the whalemen's life and Nantucket life, the behavior of whales and the behavior of the ocean, the physiology and psychology of starvation, and, in the end, the full drama of the Essex.

Author Blurb Richard Ellis, author of Whales and Men
Where the sinking of the Pequod marks the end of Melville's great novel, the sinking of the Essex is only the beginning of Philbrick's tale. It is history brought vividly - and agonizingly - to life by a master storyteller.

Author Blurb Peter Benchley, author of Jaws
In The Heart Of The Sea is a true story of unimaginable horror. The source for Melville's 'mighty book' is a tale told wonderfully well by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Author Blurb Thomas Farel Hefferman, author of Stove by a Whale
Nathaniel Philbrick's recreation of the first sinking of a ship by a whale and the almost unbelievable survival adventure that followed is an exhaustively researched and, from beginning to end, engrossingly told tale. His account captures the whalemen's life and Nantucket life, the behavior of whales and the behavior of the ocean, the physiology and psychology of starvation, and, in the end, the full drama of the Essex.

Author Blurb Richard Ellis, author of Whales and Men
Where the sinking of the Pequod marks the end of Melville's great novel, the sinking of the Essex is only the beginning of Philbrick's tale. It is history brought vividly - and agonizingly - to life by a master storyteller.

Reader Reviews

Miranda

Graphic and amazing

Amanda V

I chose to read this book for an assignment for my AP US History class and I cannot tell you how impressed I was. Some of my friends read this book a couple of years ago in their 8th grade US History class and told me how great it was, so I thought ...   Read More

Keven

It is a good book to understand American culuture,even human nature, it is not only a historic story, but a reflection of current world. Is that whale just a whale ? He is a hero.



Susan

I loved this book! It's a great true story,and it offers insight into a place, time and industry that I knew very little about.

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