April 17, 2013

Coming soon: new Moby-Dick adaptation (sort of)


Exactly what the sperm whale that attacked the whaleship Essex looked like.

Whales are big this spring—they’ve already been seen entrancing underwater paparazzi and invading the American Museum of Natural History. The BBC is also hooked: last week they announced plans for a new drama called The Whale. The 90-minute production will introduce the tragedy of the Essex whaleship, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. While the Essex’s ordeal made it widely famous in its own day, today it’s best known as the historial basis for Moby-Dick.

When young Herman Melville finished reading The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex in 1840, he made a note in the margins: “The reading of this wondrous story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect on me.”

Essex survivor and first mate Owen Chase wrote The Narrative shortly after he returned to Nantucket—he completed the book, which was published in 1821, just 4 months after returning home—and it was his son who gave Melville a copy when both were at sea. In fact, Melville read the narrative only 100 miles from the site in the southern Pacific Ocean where a whale mysteriously attacked the Essex.

On November 20, 1820, the Essex‘s lookout spotted spouts and the ship’s three whaleboats set out in pursuit. All three boats harpooned whales, but Chase’s boat was damaged in the process; he and his crew returned to the Essex for repairs while the other two, led by the ship’s captain and second mate, respectively, were dragged by the harpooned whales. While Chase worked to fix his boat, an extraordinarily large whale surfaced, rammed into the bow, swam underneath the ship, and battered the hull. The creature resurfaced slowly, apparently stunned. Then the whale rallied. Chase described the second onslaught:

I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed, and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.

Sound familiar?

The Essex left Nantucket with twenty-one men. After six months at sea in small whaleboats only eight survived, including George Pollard, the captain, and Thomas Nickerson, the teenage cabin boy who later wrote a narrative of his own.

Whales live a long time—sometimes over 150 years. The culprit was probably still kicking when Melville read The Narrative. I’d hardly blame the man for being a bit shaken—but more than anything he was inspired.

“The more I got into the Essex disaster, the more it seemed that in Moby-Dick there is a deep secret, a darkness lurking. I really feel that’s informed by the survival and the suffering of the men of the Essex,” said Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

“Very few people will know that Moby-Dick was directly inspired by this story,” said Eamon Hardy, executive producer of The Whale. “We hope to tell it as excitingly as possible.” Filming started in Malta last week.

Don’t let my first paragraph fool you. I don’t know much about trends. But I do know that whales are eternal, and Moby-Dick is forever.

Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.