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Reviewed by:
  • Surviving the Essex: The Afterlife of America’s Most Storied Shipwreck by David O. Dowling, and: The Essex and the Whale: Melville’s Leviathan Library and the Birth of Moby-Dick ed. by R. D. Madison
  • Colin Dewey
David O. Dowling
Surviving the Essex: The Afterlife of America’s Most Storied Shipwreck
Hanover, NH: ForeEdge, 2016. xii + 198 pp.
R. D. Madison, ed.
The Essex and the Whale: Melville’s Leviathan Library and the Birth of Moby-Dick
Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2016. xxxiv + 275 pp.

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” declares the titular down-on-his-luck singer in Ethan and Joel Coen’s film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Director Ron Howard might have adapted the Coen brothers’ line for In the Heart of the Sea, his 2015 recounting of the 1820 loss of the whaleship Essex by ending it, “ . . . then it’s a sea story.” The tale of the Essex is a spectacular sea story about disaster, shipwreck, and cannibalism, one that became a literary event almost before it had ceased being a maritime one. But lurid and compelling as it was, the tale was never unique. Recognizing that the story of the Essex was a prime, saleable representative of the shipwreck genre, the ship’s mate, Owen Chase, hastily penned and published his recollections. Today, the story borrows a veneer of consequence from Melville’s best-known work, as promotional materials for various latter-day Essex retellings bill it as the story that inspired Moby-Dick. Indeed, the advertised association has made reading the Essex narrative in one or another of the several popular versions seem, for some, a substitute for Melville’s more formidable novel. And some, of course, have checked that box with the movie version: Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (2015), based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart of The Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000). Those who seek tutelage from Howard’s film will learn that Moby-Dick was conceived one dark and stormy night when a scrawny Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) used a bag of money to induce Thomas Nickerson, the aged surviving Essex cabin boy, to recount his harrowing story. [End Page 121]

Ludicrous as this frame narrative is to the Melville scholar, the film’s foregrounding of Nickerson, just 14 years old at the time of the voyage, reflects the heightened importance of his story to modern retellings of the Essex story. At around age 70, Nickerson wrote out his story with hopes for publication, but the document remained hidden in a New England attic until 1980, when the Nantucket Historical Association acquired it and published an abridged version in 1984. This discovery arguably brought about the modern Essex renaissance, with Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and Howard’s film building on the tensions between Chase’s and Nickerson’s narratives.

Mercifully, neither Robert Madison’s The Essex and the Whale nor David Dowling’s Surviving the Essex is primarily out to retell the tale, even though both books reference the irresistible sea story and its current popular revival. Both enrich our understanding of how Essex lore functioned in the nineteenth-century literary marketplace and the significance of the story in the genesis of Moby-Dick.

Dowling’s Surviving the Essex offers a detailed analysis of the principal accounts and their authors in the years after the events that brought them such notoriety. Dowling is a scholar of media and culture knowledgeable about print and journalistic business practices in the nineteenth century, a book-history matrix that serves this project well. The best parts of this book reveal the stories behind the publication and promotion of the Essex narratives rather than dwelling on details of the events themselves. Aiming to rehabilitate the reputation of Essex captain George Pollard, Jr., Dowling examines Owen Chase’s 1821 Narrative in close detail and is justly critical of readings, like Thomas Heffernan’s in Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex (1981), that he feels are too quick to endorse Chase’s claims to accuracy and objectivity. “Heffernan,” Dowling writes, “is...