Nathaniel Philbrick is one of America’s great authors, with books on the Mayflower, Bunker Hill, and, recently, Travels with George. This last is a most revealing study of George Washington’s travels throughout all 13 states in the new republic.
Once, however, I got past Philbrick’s focus on Washington’s teeth, or the lack thereof, I found his writing simply too good, too intriguing. One of the most encouraging asides in his rear-view vision of Washington on the road was his invitation to spend two nights in Salisbury, North Carolina, as the guest of a noted anti-Federalist congressman. Can anyone imagine such a scene in our polarized nation today?
To this point, I was drawn to and repelled from Philbrick’s book on the tragedy of the Essex. That nineteenth-century Nantucket whaling vessel may have been the first to have been stove-in and sunk by a whale. I knew that the survivors of this catastrophe had been “reduced to cannibalism,” as reported. Not to my usual taste in reading.
So, I dove into Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. The author takes his title from Exodus 15:8, and scripture illuminates the issues raised in this captivating book. How could I continue to resist a book about sailors shipwrecked?
My father was torpedoed in World War II. The U-516 surfaced to sink the SS Deer Lodge. The German skipper waited until all the merchant sailors had clambered into the boats before he sent in the second torpedo to finish the lone, lumbering old freighter. She met her doom on February 17, 1943, about 60 miles off Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Only in 2009 did I learn from one of Pop’s shipmates that my father had been responsible for saving so many of the crew. Manny Dias told me Leslie Morrison raced around the slanting deck of the sinking vessel to unlatch the pelican hooks. They were holding down the rubber boats. Without Pop’s quick action, Manny told us, most of those merchant sailors would not have survived the frigid waters of the Indian Ocean.
Even more remarkable was Manny’s description of the German submarine skipper’s actions. He came among the men in the boats, asking if they needed first aid, water, food, or charts. Manny’s story shared with me not only my father’s heroism, but also the compassion of KvtKpt Gerhard Wiebe. Has Hollywood found an honorable German enemy yet? Here was one.
Survivors of the Deer Lodge were rescued just 18 hours after their ship sank. Even that was for many a harrowing experience. Before this, my dad had a full head of curly brown hair. After, it was replaced by thinning and straight hair. He jokingly dismissed the sudden change. “Must’ve been the oil in the water,” he scoffed.
More important was Pop’s story of the Lifeboat Ethic that governed the conduct of men of that Very Great Generation: “We put the injured men in the bottom of the boat; we who were well bailed, and we took turns swimming around outside our boat. Every man looked out for every other man.” It has always seemed to me that Lifeboat Ethic is what we need in America in this pandemic.
One of the most stunning revelations of In the Heart of the Sea was the witness reports of the sperm whale’s attack on the Essex. Several said the old bull came into the weakest part of the ship with his huge head at six knots. The 85-foot Leviathan, these men testified, had crashed into them only after they had first attacked his pod, killing younger bulls and pregnant cows with their harpoons.
The record of the destruction in 1820 of the Essex was related to the young Herman Melville when he decades later spent some time on Nantucket Island. It is always assumed to have inspired his book Moby Dick. And his 1851 story is regarded by many literary critics as the greatest of American novels.
[My son-in-law and I have enjoyed debating the merits of Moby Dick. He was a graduate instructor in literature at Penn State. Son-in-law says Melville could have benefited from a skillful editor; Moby Dick needed to be hauled up on shore so that the editors could carve away some the novel’s excess blubber. I have fun countering him. I tell him those of us who have been to sea know that Melville was right: the sea is 95 percent tedious hum-drummery and five percent terrifying.]
Moby Dick makes the whale the embodiment of malice: huge and menacing, motivated by some animal rage. The whale’s point of view seems not to have been considered. Can an animal have a point of view?
Moby Dick contains one of the most poignant scenes in all literature. When Ishmael and Queequeg’s whaleboat manages to get inside a pod of whales, they find there the nursing cows and their delightful calves.
Intelligent and curious, the calves frolic and bump up on the gunwales of the Pequod’s boats. Queequeg is the most skillful of the harpooners. But even this South Pacific islander cannot bring himself to harm them.
Does not this scene speak to us today? If the whale that sank the Essex attacked only to defend the lesser members of his whale community, was not his attack justified? Did Melville’s great work frame Moby Dick?
I am grateful to Providence that my dad’s crew did not have to survive for months in open boats. Author Philbrick takes care not to judge the whalers who were “reduced to cannibalism.” Judge not lest ye be judged.
Still, one of the most startling insights from In the Heart of the Sea, was the counter-example. An earlier shipwreck also had some men in the boats starving. But they were able to use the body of one of their dead as bait—and thereby stave off starvation while avoiding the odium of man-eating.
I’ll file that one away, just in case. As also I wear my dad’s lifeboat whistle. You may never know when your own life may be the one in peril on the sea.