A monstrous whale rams and sinks the whaling ship Essex, and the ship’s surviving crew members struggle to stay alive in whaleboats while attempting to reach South America. The 1820 maritime disaster served as inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” A film of the story – “In the Heart of the Sea,” based on a book of the same name that won the 2000 National Book Award for Nonfiction – opens Dec. 11.
Jamie Jones, a visiting English professor at Illinois, is writing a book on the literature, art and culture that came out of the whaling industry, and teaches “Moby-Dick” as part of a course on literature and the sea. Jones talked with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel about the story of the Essex and the whaling industry, and how they are relevant today.
“Moby-Dick” is the most famous story about whaling. How large an influence was the true story of the Essex on Herman Melville?
As anyone who has read “Moby-Dick” (or tried to) can attest, the novel was inspired by countless stories, poems, works of art and episodes in world history. It’s impossible to know exactly what Melville thought about the wreck of the Essex, but we know that he was fascinated by the story. Melville wrote that he first heard the story while he was working aboard a whaling ship in 1841. (Melville deserted the ship as soon as it landed in the Marquesas Islands; who could blame him?) Melville never visited Nantucket, the home port of the Essex, until after “Moby-Dick” was published. When he did, he sought out George Pollard, who had been the captain of the Essex and survived its wreck. Melville described Pollard, by then an old man, as “the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered.”
You said there has been a resurgence of interest in “Moby-Dick” and whaling stories in general in the last decade. What is the appeal of those stories for people who likely know very little about whaling?
Like a lot of thrillers, whaling stories are weird, exciting and dangerous: the stories of people who set out on sailing ships for three, four, five years at a time in order to do battle with little-understood sea beasts in the middle of the ocean. It is shocking that anyone came back alive at all, and even more shocking that people depended on 19th-century whaling for basic needs like lighting and machine lubrication. I was reminded of the appeal of these stories recently when I watched the film “The Martian,” which also tells the story of a resourceful person in dire circumstances who made it back alive. It’s no surprise that Matt Damon’s character in the film so often resorted to maritime language to describe his predicament.
You have noted that the whaling industry was about obtaining oil for energy to keep industry running and to heat and light homes. Are there comparisons that can be drawn between whaling and the petroleum industry today?
I think most people today can agree that the large-scale, systematic slaughter of whales for oil was an environmental atrocity. The development of petroleum drilling in the middle of the 19th century put a quick end to the U.S. whaling industry; petroleum was cheaper and more abundant than whale oil ever would be. And somewhere between 1851, when “Moby-Dick” was published, and today, whales became icons of environmentalist thought. But we still exploit natural resources today in order to meet our energy needs. What kinds of environmental atrocities are we complicit with as we greedily gobble up energy? We know that climate change is driven largely by the consumption of fossil fuels, especially by wealthy, privileged countries like the United States. It’s easy to judge the actors of the past for slaughtering whales, but what are we complicit with?
How else can a story of whaling, a long-dead industry, speak to us about the world we live in today?
Whaling stories help us see just how complicated our relationship with the natural world can be. Thinking long and hard about that relationship is so urgent today, when we face enormous problems of environmental justice and climate change. I think it’s important to say that whaling is not exactly dead, either. We no longer do what is depicted in the upcoming film “In the Heart of the Sea,” but people around the world still kill whales for various purposes. For example, some indigenous people in the Arctic kill whales annually (and in a sustainable way) in order to meet subsistence needs. But it is fair to think about industrial whaling, as it was practiced on a massive scale in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as a dead industry. And I think it is important to understand how and why obsolete technologies and dead industries like whaling continue to shape our imaginations.