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In Search Of Moby Dick: The Quest For The White Whale Paperback – March 27, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0306810459 ISBN-10: 030681045X

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (March 27, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030681045X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306810459
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,913,419 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Historian and adventurer Tim Severin has made a career of retracing epic voyages. He crossed the Atlantic in an open boat of stretched leather to test whether a sixth-century Irish monk could have made a fabled journey to North America, and later explored the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia to see how the archipelago has "evolved" since 19th-century naturalist Alfred Wallace first surveyed it. The quest for the white whale, however, lands Severin in different territory: the shifting currents of fiction. Following tenuous evidence of pale sperm whales, Severin embarks for the South Pacific and the birthing grounds of Melville's masterpiece. On Nuku Hiva, the setting for Typee, he finds that the island harbors "many of the sources that Melville had raided to embellish his own, rather thin, experiences." Also thin is any evidence of a white whale, so he moves on to Pamilican, a dirt-poor little scrape where the locals subsist on jerry cans of imported fresh water and by "jumping" the sea's bounty. Their principal prey is the whale shark, the largest fish in the sea. Artists of the jump actually wrestle these plankton eaters underwater by hand, hooking the beasts with a massive grappling hook before coming up for the fight on board. One ancient hunter speaks vaguely of having jumped a white whale shark, but there are also rumors of giant white manta rays and other fantastic creatures.

The centerpiece of the book is a visit to the little-known island of Lamarala, the "last community on earth where men still regularly hunt sperm whales by hand." An old-timer with 60 years of whaling notched into his harpoon explains enthusiastically that the white whale "has visited us many times. Sometimes it can be a wicked fellow." Severin's gripping firsthand account of an actual hunt gives credence to a 1993 report of 34 Lamaralese fishermen being towed out to sea for four days by a big bull sperm whale. But does he find Moby-Dick's kin? In a manner of speaking. What surfaces in these pages is not so much the white whale as the idea of the white whale--a creature bathed in mystery and the people that speak knowingly of it, all of whom give meaning to the sea. --Langdon Cook --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In the role of adventurer-cum-historian, Severin (The Brendan Voyage, etc.) has built leather boats and replicas of ninth-century Arab dhows in order to re-create the voyages of St. Brendan, Jason and the Argonauts, and Sindbad. His new adventure explores Melville's white whale and the culture of the gifted harpooners who are the last people on earth to hunt whales from small boats. Melville himself met such men when he deserted a whaling ship in French Polynesia in 1842, and Severin returns to the same island, Nuku Hiva. There he collects the information that allows him to dissect the myths and facts of Melville's Typee, and convincingly argue that Moby-Dick was influenced by Melville's contact with the Nuku Hivans. Severin also expounds on the disaster of the whaleship Essex, the habits of the great mammals themselves and the spiritual and mystical aspects of the Polynesians' whale hunts. A description of a young islander's coming of age in a successful hunt is transfixing. The author's firsthand account of whaling from a small boat is equally powerful. Severin is mystified that the whales don't flee as the hunters draw near enough to attack: "Where is their sense of self-preservation?" But the hunters know: the whale gives himself to those who have performed the ritual; just as surely, the whale will punish those who are greedy or negligent. This, Severin suggests, is the root of Melville's spiteful cetacean: Ahab was unworthy, and Moby-Dick delivered divine retribution in accordance with islander lore. The islanders' generations of experience, legend and myth are the authorities for Severin, as valid to him as any laboratory test results, and his description of their culture is profoundly moving. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

TIM SEVERIN has made a career of retracing the storied journeys of mythical and historical figures. He has sailed a leather boat across the Atlantic in the wake of the Irish monk Saint Brendan, captained an Arab sailing ship from Muscat to China, steered the replica of a Bronze Age galley to seek the landfalls of Jason and the Argonauts and Ulysses, ridden the route of the First Crusade from a castle in Belgium to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, travelled on horseback with the nomads of Mongolia to explore the heritage of Genghis Khan, sailed the Pacific on a bamboo raft to test the theory that ancient Chinese mariners could have travelled to the Americas, retraced the journeys of Alfred Russel Wallace, Victorian pioneer naturalist, through the Spice Islands of Indonesia aboard a native sailing vessel, identified the facts behind the story of Moby Dick the fighting white whale among the native peoples of the Pacific islands, and discovered the origins of the 'real' Robinson Crusoe in the adventures of a castaway stranded 300 years ago on a desert island off the coast of Venezuela.

As a historical novelist he has written the best-selling VIKING and HECTOR LYNCH trilogies. The Book of Dreams, the first volume of his SAXON trilogy was published in August 2012


His travels have been the subject of award winning documentary films and a major BBC documentary series, and are collected under the title TIME TRAVELLER. They have been screened on Discovery Channel, Sky Television, and National Geographic TV, and he has written regularly about his expeditions in the National Geographic Magazine. He has won the Thomas Cook Travel Book award, The Book of the Sea Award, a Christopher Prize, the Sykes Medal of the Society of Asian Affairs, and the literary Medal of the Academie de Marine. His replica boats have become museum exhibits. In l986 he was awarded the Gold Medal (Founder's Medal) of the Royal Geographical Society for his research into early voyages, and in 1987 the Livingstone Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 1996 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, by Trinity College, Dublin, and in 2003 received an Honorary Doctorate from the National University of Ireland.


He lives in Co. Cork, Ireland.

Customer Reviews

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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Tim Severin has a gift for creating wonderfully colorful reasons for writing a book -- he sailed in a skin-covered coracle to establish the background to the fable of St. Brendan, and navigated a dhow to recreate the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, in just two of his odysseys. In this one, he searches for the mythic roots of the great white whale that provided the theme and tumultuous climax of Melville's classic, Moby-Dick. In a journey that spans the vast reaches of the Pacific, he first of all explores the island in the Marquesas where Melville deserted the whaleship Acushnet, travels to Tonga in search of the tattooed harpooner, Queequeg, and then moves on to the Timor Straits and the Flores Sea,in particularly haunting passages that describe his encounters with primitive whale-shark and sperm whale hunters, where harvesting great animals from the teeming tropical waters can mean the difference, for clans and families living on the edge of want, between survival and death.
This book is a page-turner. I sat down after breakfast on a lazy weekend morning, and could not put it down until supper time, when every page had been read. His quest rings with a sense of sincerity. Nothing here is contrived. Tim Severin shares with us the difficulties -- and great blessings -- of discerning the links between truth and myth.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on December 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Herman Melville based his gigantic masterpiece _Moby Dick_ on fact. This is one of the most fascinating parts of that magnificent book. As mystical and symbolic as the parts and the whole may be, they are all firmly grounded in fact, in the world of nineteenth century whaling as it was. Facts crowd into the chapters, even the most novelistic ones. Tim Severin has made a career of replicating historic vessels, using them to trace the supposed routes of their historic sailors, and then writing about the results. In _In Search of Moby Dick: The Quest for the White Whale_ (Basic Books), he does not plunder Melville's great work, but actually expands it. Using _Moby Dick_ and other Melville texts, he has gone on an adventure to find the white sperm whale, and although he never brings home the fabulous creature, he does indeed find it in ways that demonstrate that even a century and a half after the white whale entered literature, he still exists as fact as well as fable.
Severin's curious quest takes him first to the island Melville described in his bestseller _Typee_, and then to islands where Melville never visited, but where there are still whalemen who still harpoon whales. The descriptions of the dangers of the hunts on which Severin accompanied the islanders are vivid and memorable. He finds, intriguingly, that the island legends of the white whale are in many ways the same as those of Melville's whalemen. He conveys vividly the excitement of the hunt, both of physical prey by contemporary whalemen and his own search for Moby Dick. The islanders know there is a white whale out there. Ahab was not able to destroy him, and the islanders revere and respect him. Severin's vibrant book shows that the whale hunters will surely pass away before Moby Dick, secure in legend and literature, is ever finally caught, or finally known.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By W. Watson on July 16, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it. It has been well reviewed by others here on this page.
I was disappointed to find that the still pictures the author took and the drawings by Patturson mentioned in the credits were not found in the paperback De Capo Press book. I guess one has to buy the hardback. I found it a bit odd that the author often referred to Melville's copying (plagurizing) passages of other texts in the production of his book Moby Dick, but did not mention that in the times of its publication it was not uncommon to plagurize other books. Maybe he just didn't know.
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