We have weather here in Oklahoma: hot, miserably hot, and dry. In the early morning, as the sun rises, the air glows hazy. Orange-red dirt hangs suspended from the blue sky. The wind blows, the dirt blows, and summer is here to stay.
If it is hot, dry, and far removed from large bodies of water here, it is always sea-damp in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale. Late last year, I commenced reading this enormous tome on the chapter a day plan – no more, no less – a chapter a day. Published in 1851, it was not a critical success. However, by 1920 the winds of taste had shifted, and the book received laudatory notice from critics. The acceptance of the masterpiece came a little late for Herman Melville (1819-1891), who died in relative obscurity.
On reading this book, I envisioned pen-and-ink drawings all done old-style with detail. I also imagined steel or line engravings. The text was old-world, severe, and the stark simplicity of pen and ink or line engravings seemed a match to my mind. Herman Melville created a visual world of whaling with characterization, incredible detail, and background. He himself had put out to sea a number of times and these experiences were used in his writings.
Moby-Dick, however, had a factual basis. The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket by Owen Chase proved to be the inspiration for Moby-Dick. Thomas Farel Heffernan, in Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex (University Press of New England, 1990), presents the Owen Chase narrative and a facsimile of Owen Chase’s title page with the complete title and date of publication. The Owen Chase narrative was published in 1821, thirty years prior to the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale.
A little research revealed that stove is the past tense of stave and stave defined as forcibly caved inward. The ship, the Essex, was rammed by a whale and subsequently sunk while at sea – a tragic fate. Sometimes, truth is outrageous and has been borrowed only to be dressed in fiction’s clothes. Moby-Dick, or the Whale is the fiction and a literary classic.
Summer is here. It’s a good time to read fact that made fiction: What better choice than Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, a biographical and historical exploration regarding the era of whaling and specifically the fate of the Essex and her crew?