July 4, 2014


The Real Life Inspirations Behind Moby-Dick (GEORGE DOBBS, 7/02/14, Airship)

November 20, 1820, far out in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, 23-year-old Owen Chase saw a chilling sight:

"I observed a very large spermaceti whale, as well as I could judge, about eighty-five feet in length. ... [he] was lying quietly, with his head in a direction for the ship. He spouted two or three times and then disappeared. In less than two or three seconds, he came up again ... and made directly for us."

Chase, the first mate of Essex, the 21-man whaling ship out of Nantucket, was about to face a desperate struggle for survival. The whale struck the side of the ship "with full speed" and with a force that "threw us all on our faces," then disappeared into the depths:

"He had stove a hole in the ship. ... I turned to the boats, two of which we then had with the ship. ... While my attention was thus engaged for a moment, I was roused with the cry of a man at the hatchway: 'Here he is -- he is making for us again.' I turned round and saw him ... directly ahead of us, coming down apparently with twice his ordinary speed and ... with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. ... I bawled out to the helmsman, 'Hard up!' But she had not fallen off more than a point before we took the second shock."

The ship's bow cracked. Chase rushed below to gather what supplies he could for survival at sea, but it was already too late: "the water by this time had rushed in."

The shock and despair felt by this previously "lucky" crew is evident in Chase's report a year later: "We were more than a thousand miles from the nearest land, and with nothing but a light open boat."

Melville met Chase's son William on a whaling voyage 20 years later, close to the spot where the Essex sank, and was shown a rare printed copy of the account, from which he later made detailed notes. For comparison, here is the whale attack in Melville's Moby-Dick:

"The whale wheeled round ... catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethink it -- it may be -- a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam."

Compare this to another excerpt taken from Chase's account: "He was enveloped in the foam of the sea. ... I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together as if distracted with rage and fury." It seems evident that Melville used the account as his primary source, not only for details of Chase's experiences but also for its vivid language.

Unfortunately Owen Chase's nightmare did not end with the whale attack. 

Reread it on our last cruise, which brought no few sidelong glances.

Posted by at July 4, 2014 8:10 AM

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