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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex Paperback – May 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

The appeal of Dava Sobel's Longitude was, in part, that it illuminated a little-known piece of history through a series of captivating incidents and engaging personalities. Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is certainly cast from the same mold, examining the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry through the arc of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a boisterous sperm whale. The story that inspired Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick has a lot going for it--derring-do, cannibalism, rescue--and Philbrick proves an amiable and well-informed narrator, providing both context and detail. We learn about the importance and mechanics of blubber production--a vital source of oil--and we get the nuts and bolts of harpooning and life aboard whalers. We are spared neither the nitty-gritty of open boats nor the sucking of human bones dry.

By sticking to the tried and tested Longitude formula, Philbrick has missed a slight trick or two. The epicenter of the whaling industry was Nantucket, a small island off Cape Cod; most of the whales were in the Pacific, necessitating a huge journey around the southernmost tip of South America. We never learn why no one ever tried to create an alternative whaling capital somewhere nearer. Similarly, Philbrick tells us that the story of the Essex was well known to Americans for decades, but he never explores how such legends fade from our consciousness. Philbrick would no doubt reply that such questions were beyond his remit, and you can't exactly accuse him of skimping on his research. By any standard, 50 pages of footnotes impress, though he wears his learning lightly. He doesn't get bogged down in turgid detail, and his narrative rattles along at a nice pace. When the storyline is as good as this, you can't really ask for more. --John Crace, --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In 1821, a whaling ship came upon a small boat off the coast of Chile containing two deranged men surrounded by human bones that they alternately chewed and clutched to their shriveled bodies. The two were survivors of one of the most well-known marine disasters of the 19th century: the sinking of a 240-ton Nantucket whaleship by an 80-ton sperm whale. A maritime historian, Philbrick recounts the hellish wreck of the Essex (which inspired Melville's Moby-Dick) and its sailors' struggle to make their way to South America, 2,000 miles away. Of the 20 men aboard the two boats, only eight would remain alive through the ravages of thirst, hunger and desperation that beset the voyage. With a gracefulness of language that rarely falters, Philbrick spins a ghastly, irresistible tale that draws upon archival material (including a cabin boy's journal discovered in 1960). Philbrick shows how the Quaker establishment of Nantucket ran a hugely profitable whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries and provides a detailed account of shipboard life. A champion sailboat racer himself, Philbrick has a particular affinity for his subject. His fastidious, extensive notes and bibliography will please historians, but it's his measured prose that superbly re-creates a cornerstone of the early American frontier ethos. 16 page photo insert not seen by PW. 15-city author tour; foreign rights sold to nine countries. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reissue edition (May 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141001828
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141001821
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (947 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #614 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nathaniel Philbrick
Life at a Glance

1956 in Boston, Mass.

Linden Elementary School and Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, Pa.; BA in English from Brown University in Providence, RI, and an MA in America Literature from Duke University in Durham, NC

Philbrick was Brown's first Intercollegiate All-American sailor in 1978; that year he won the Sunfish North Americans in Barrington, RI; today he and his wife Melissa sail their Beetle Cat Clio and their Tiffany Jane 34 Marie-J in the waters surrounding Nantucket Island.

Melissa Douthart Philbrick, who is an attorney on Nantucket. They have two children: Jennie, 23, and Ethan 20.

After grad school, Philbrick worked for four years at Sailing World magazine; was a freelancer for a number of years, during which time he wrote/edited several sailing books, including Yaahting: A Parody (1984), for which he was the editor-in-chief; during this time he was also the primary caregiver for his two children. After moving to Nantucket in 1986, he became interested in the history of the island and wrote Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People. He was offered the opportunity to start the Egan Maritime Foundation in 1995, and in 2000 he published In the Heart of the Sea, followed by Sea of Glory, in 2003, and Mayflower, due in May 2006.

Awards and Honors
In the Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award for nonfiction; Revenge of the Whale won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award; Sea of Glory won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize and the Albion-Monroe Award from the National Maritime Historical Society. Philbrick has also received the Byrne Waterman Award from the Kendall Whaling Museum, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for distinguished service from the USS Constitution Museum, the Nathaniel Bowditch Award from the American Merchant Marine Museum, and the William Bradford Award from the Pilgrim Society.

Amazon Author Rankbeta 

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

315 of 324 people found the following review helpful By Robert Oliver on May 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
There have been many great stories of survival and tragedy on the seas, and this book is one of the best of them. At one time the story of the Whaleship Essex was well known in America, but gradually that story faded into memory. Nathaniel Philbrick brings that memory back to life again with his very well written book. The main events in this book took place in the time period of 1819-1821. The Essex was based on Nantucket Island, and in the first part of the book there is a very interesting history of Nantucket and the Whaling Trade. Enough information is given so that we understand the world that the men of the Essex lived in, and the ordeal that lay before them. The Essex was believed to be a lucky ship, but that reputation of good luck would soon be overwhelmed at sea. After several months at sea, the Essex was attacked and rammed by an eighty-five foot whale. It is fascinating to read about the attack of the giant whale on the ship, and to realize that the attacking whale was the actual basis for the whale in "Moby Dick". The Essex was severely damaged and in danger of sinking after the whale attack, and the crew faced the grim prospect of a desperate journey in open boats across the Pacific Ocean. The story of their battle for survival with little food or hope of rescue will grip your heart. Terrible choices of survival had to be made, and there are graphic accounts of starvation and cannibalism in the book. This is truly the story of a great tragedy at sea, but there is also the hope and endurance that can sometimes be found even in the darkest moments. There are moments of wonder with thoughts and descriptions of whales and the ever changing sea. I recommend this book to everyone that loves the history of the Sea, and the spirit of survival against all odds.
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89 of 91 people found the following review helpful By Richard S. Sullivan on June 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In 1819 the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a very large sperm whale. The ship sank and the crew was forced to sail across thousands of miles of the Pacific ocean fighting thirst and starvation. This was the story that inspired Melville's Moby Dick. It is absorbing, well researched, and reads like a good adventure novel, only it is true. It is elegant from start to finish and I say elegant because of its restraint. Philbrick had every chance to play this one for the bleacher seats, but didn't.
We could have gotten a long saga of castaways dying of thirst and starvation with all of the drama of a potboiler. He could have given us a day by day description of the sea trek, but instead the trek is mercifully taken up in 90 pages. (Don't fret, you will get the anxiety wobblies during this phase of the book.) Philbrick has fully researched the physiology of dying of starvation and thirst and spares us none of the details. To survive, the crew resorted to the drawing of lots, execution and cannibalism. We learn about the history, quite plentiful in fact, of survival cannibalism from the Raft of the Medusa to the Andean plane crash. It is not a book for the squeamish.
It is also a book about Nantucket, whaling, men at sea, celestial navigation, maritime commerce, and more. Never are the facts crammed down us like so many notecards in the author's collection, but are deliciously laid out in the context of the story. It is not a long book, but it doesn't seem to short either. Like most good books, it made me want to learn more about the subject, in this case the fascinating history of whaling.
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221 of 238 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on May 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
All too often a book telling a story may also require that the equipment or the vessel used to be described. Much less frequent is the help of illustrations to let a reader who may know little to nothing about the construction (in this case) of a Whaling Vessel, understand the explanations and gain further enjoyment from the book. A further tribute to the Author is that the detail given of the ship The Essex and the implements of the Whaling Trade were of an appropriate length. Too long and the reader would have been lost in a maze of technical jargon, too little and understanding all that happened would not have been possible.
For anyone desirous of going much deeper into the History of Nantucket, or of Whaling, there are 39 pages of notes written in prose form at the end of the book. They are organized by chapter, and they are further supplemented by a Bibliography.
Mr. Philbrick clearly is a man qualified to relate this tale which records one of the more miserable tales of human suffering. It would have been easy and disappointing to let this story turn into a lurid 93 day telling of decisions and actions that no person should ever be forced to make. The Author maintained a scholarly approach, together with objectivity on some points of contention/speculation, of the events and how they may or may not actually have happened. He also offers insight into how these massive creatures communicate, and how that could have played a role in the collission.
The Author also relates modern day medical study and facts about what physical and emotional torments the survivors endured. I thought this was a welcome addition to the understanding of just how horrible this experience was.
This is the only book I have read on the History of the Essex. The book is readable even if your knowledge of ships, like mine, is near zero. And the story told without embellishment is both terrifying and amazing.
A very enjoyable book.
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