Crossposted from The Stars Hollow Gazette
Like Robinson Caruso (it’s primitive as can be), The Whale is kinda sorta based on a real life incident, the sinking of the Essex by a Sperm Whale.
Now if you think this dense symbolist tome is grim (and long and boring too), you may be grateful that Melville spared you the rest of the tale. Far from “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”, in fact there were several survivors including Captain George Pollard Jr. who seems remarkably un-Ahab like to me.
In terms of length they drifted through the Pacific for three months (“Still no sight of land, how long is it?” “That’s a rather personal question, sir.”) and, in desperation, ate the Captain’s cousin (“I’d rather eat Johnson, sir!”).
Well, it wasn’t the Royal Navy–
Dear Sir, I am glad to hear that your studio audience disapproves of the last skit as strongly as I. As a naval officer I abhor the implication that the Royal Navy is a haven for cannibalism. It is well known that we now have the problem relatively under control, and that it is the RAF who now suffer the largest casualties in this area.
Now you might think after an experience like that you’d be as reluctant as John Harrison (who got terribly sea sick during his trip to Lisbon testing the H1 and never sailed again) to return to whaling, but Captain Pollard got another command, the Two Brothers.
Which promptly sank off French Frigate Shoals near Hawaii.
After that crews were understandably reluctant to sail with him and he ended his life as a night watchman on Nantucket where he met Melville (who was a customs inspector, you can’t make any money writing) after the book’s publication. It’s said they got along quite well.
While the Essex is as lost as the Pequod, marine archaeologists have recently found the wreck of the Two Brothers and there’s an interesting article in The New York Times about it.
No ‘Moby-Dick’: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed
By JESSE McKINLEY, The New York Times
Published: February 11, 2011
On Friday, in a discovery that might bring a measure of peace to Captain Pollard, who survived his second wreck (though his career did not), researchers announced that they have found the remains of the Two Brothers. The whaler went down exactly 188 years ago after hitting a reef at the French Frigate Shoals, a treacherous atoll about 600 miles northwest of here. The trove includes dozens of artifacts: harpoon tips, whaling lances and three intact anchors.
The discovery is believed to be the first of a Nantucket whaler, one of an armada of ships that set sail during the early 19th century when the small Massachusetts island was an international capital of whaling. It was a risky pursuit that led sailors halfway across the world – and sometimes to the bottom of the sea.