Rob Hardy on books


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Moby-Dick's Roots



Rob Hardy


When Herman Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851, he may have had some idea that he was creating a monumental volume for world literature, though the rest of the world did not acknowledge that until long after. He did not know that he was preserving forever the lore of the whaling trade that, because of alternatives to whale oil, would not live out the century. He also could not have known that he would ensure forever the permanency of the account by Owen Chase of being attacked by a whale, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, originally published in 1821. Indeed, with the whale fishery long gone, perhaps Chase's narrative would be long gone out of print, but it was one of Melville's many source documents, and will forever be studied by those devoted to his wild whaling tome. Now Zenith Press has brought out a beautiful edition of Chase's account, this time called Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex: The Extraordinary and Distressing Memoir That Inspired Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. It is large-sized to help fit in illustrations that Chase never would have dreamed would be included in such a version of his work: photographs, paintings, charts, and engravings showing whales, whalemen at work, whaling hardware, and more. It is a beautiful book that you don't have to be a Melville fan to enjoy. 




Melville wanted readers to know that he wasn't just writing about his own experiences in whaling. Most novels, if they start with a quoted epigram, suffice with merely one; the always exuberantly overinclusive Moby-Dick starts with scores of them, some from legends and some from scientific studies. Chase (Melville consistently spells the name "Chace") has an entry there, and here it is: "'My God! Mr. Chace, what is the matter?' I answered, 'We have been stove by a whale.' -- 'Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Whale Ship Essex of Nantucket, which was attacked and finally destroyed by a large Sperm Whale in the Pacific Ocean.' By Owen Chace of Nantucket, first mate of said vessel. New York, 1821." Melville was telling a huge story, but he did not want readers to think he was exaggerating. In his chapter, "The Affidavit," he writes, "So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory." Surely he was here having a bit of fun with us readers; regardless of the reality within his great big book, the allegories have kept literature professors busy ever since it was rediscovered in the early twentieth century. Melville uses his affidavit chapter to clear up facts about whales that might otherwise be thought tall tales. He cites Chase (and others) for a specific reason: "But fortunately the special point I here seek can be established upon testimony entirely independent of my own. That point is this: The Sperm Whale is in some cases sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship; and what is more, the Sperm Whale has done it."  




The climax of the great novel is thus no intolerable allegory; it happened to Chase's ship, and that is what makes his narrative invaluable to students of Moby-Dick. The Essex was out of Nantucket, captained by George Pollard, with Owen Chase as first mate. On 20 November 1820, it was hunting whales in the South Pacific, and having some success. The boats of the captain and of the second mate had been dragged away by harpooned whales (a "Nantucket sleighride"), and Chase was on the Essex itself, attempting to repair his own boat that a whale had just damaged. From there, Chase spied yet another whale of large size, swimming directly toward the ship. The whale struck the Essex starboard, and lay beside it stunned; Chase thought he would simply harpoon the beast, but realized that a maddened whale would be close enough to ruin the ship's rudder. The whale swam away, but then stopped, turned around, and returned. Melville includes the following extracts from Chase's narrative: "Every fact seemed to warrant me in concluding that it was anything but chance which directed his operations; he made two several attacks upon the ship, at a short interval between them, both of which, according to their direction, were calculated to do us the most injury, by being made ahead, and thereby combining the speed of the two objects for the shock; to effect which, the exact manoeuvres which he made were necessary. His aspect was most horrible, and such as indicated resentment and fury. He came directly from the shoal which we had just before entered, and in which we had struck three of his companions, as if fired with revenge for their sufferings." Again: "At all events, the whole circumstances taken together, all happening before my own eyes, and producing, at the time, impressions in my mind of decided, calculating mischief, on the part of the whale (many of which impressions I cannot now recall), induce me to be satisfied that I am correct in my opinion." 




The Essex was doomed after that second, calculated blow by the whale. None of the twenty sailors had been hurt by the attack, and they apportioned themselves into the three relatively flimsy whaleboats. While the original attack by the whale is the point of interest for Melville fans, that's only the dramatic starting point for Chase's narrative, chronicling his own boat's long journey of desperation, malady, madness, and cannibalism. Chase was among the eight who returned to land, and he eventually returned to sea, but only after writing (with an unknown ghostwriter) what Melville called "his plain and faithful narrative." It is a gruelling and unforgettable picture of a sea disaster. 




The narrative has been added to for this volume. There are accounts (some referred to by Melville) of other whaling disasters, as well as notes on the famous raft of the Medusa, an account of cannibals on the isles within the whale fishery, and more. More striking are all the illustrations. Many of these were prints and paintings Melville knew and made remarks about in his novel's Chapter 55: "Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales" and Chapter 56: "Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes." There are plenty of photographs of the Charles W. Morgan, launched in 1841 and the only American whaleship still afloat, now part of the Mystic Seaport Museum. Some of the illustrations could have been inserted into Chase's original book; for instance, he wrote of a visit to collect turtles in the Galapagos Islands that the crew on Hood's Island "... obtained three hundred turtle. We then visited Charles Island, where we procured sixty more." Adjacent to these words, this volume has a contemporary print of sailors leisurely pursuing large turtles, hefting them up on their shoulders, and putting them in the boat to be transported to the ship in the distance. Chase writes, "These turtles are a most delicious food... ships usually supply themselves for a great length of time and make a great saving of other provisions. They neither eat nor drink, nor is the least pains taken with them; they are strewed over the deck, thrown underfoot, or packed away in the hold as it suits convenience." 




This is a handsome volume, of which Chase would have been proud, and Melville would have acclaimed for its vivid illustrations that make realistic the long gone fishery he described. It stands on its own merit as a beautiful book to tell Chase's tale again, and bring back visual reminders of a sea trade that changed the world (and literature), and is now gone forever.



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