So out of the books that showed up the other day, I’ve already finished Call Me Ishmael. It was excellent overall. I got a little lost when Olson went on about Melville’s trip to the Mediterranean, but it starts so strong that I had more than enough momentum to help me push through to the end.
And it starts with The Essex. Read the wikipedia page all the way through. Then read the “First Fact” section of Call Me Ishmael. Then, go watch In The Heart Of The Sea when it comes out next month (although I suspect a lot of the story has been changed for the big screen).
Since the 1800s, whaling stories have always been sensational in a man-versus-beast sort of way. The two main stories are always (1) man hunts the whale, establishing our supremacy in Nature, or (2) man is violently reminded that Nature is supreme and must remain humble in its sight. The true story of The Essex seems to be one of the latter, but the movie, just from glancing at the trailer, seems to mash the two together with (I’m calling it now) the predictable ascension of the former.
But it’s the 21st Century, and now we know how intelligent whales and dolphins are, and we know how damaging it was our hunting whales, how almost evil it was (is?). Which is what makes a story like Moby Dick persist. The white whale certainly represents death and/or some form of God/divine retribution, and Ahab is still clearly mad, but now the act of hunting the whale taints everything Ishmael tells us about the nobility of the whaling profession (and specifically the American whaler). Moby Dick has become more of a cautionary tale about the evils of American imperialism and the damage that we’ve done to the world in our pursuit of progress via non-sustainable methods.
Which is why I’m really interested in seeing In The Heart Of The Sea. Honestly, I’m going to root for that whale the entire time, and I can’t wait to see how it’s portrayed. Or even how long the whale is in the story. The trailer seems to make this movie about a guy trying to survive the all-destructive power of Nature in a quest to get home to his love, but, to me, The Essex is a story about the darkest places man will go to survive when there is no chance for survival (you know, the whole cannibalism thing). And this is what Olson really drives home in his account of The Essex in Call Me Ishmael. So I’m really hoping that the movie does directly address the whole man-eating-man thing, that it uses the whale not as the “bad guy” in the movie but rather as the threshold guardian that opens the door for man’s darkness to express itself.