White Whales

Rammed several times by a large, white whale, the Essex sank on this day in 1820, some 2,000 miles west of South America. An account written by First Mate Owen Chase, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, was published the next year. Chase’s Narrative famously describes how he and some of the nineteen others survived by drawing lots for who would eat and who be eaten. The following excerpt is from earlier on, the white whale setting these grisly events in motion:

He was enveloped in the foam, that his continual and violent threshing about in the water had created around him, and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together as if distracted with rage and fury…. I turned to the boats, two of which we then had with the ship, with an intention of clearing them away and getting all things ready to embark in them, if there should be no other resource left. While my attention was thus engaged for a moment, I was roused by the cry of the man at the hatchway, “here he is,— he is making for us again.” I turned around, and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with apparently twice his ordinary speed, and to me it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.

Herman Melville was just an infant at the time of the Essex sinking, but when William Henry Chase gave him a copy of his father’s memoir twenty years later, “this wondrous story had a surprising effect upon me,” and it became one of his sources for Moby-Dick. The Essex story was still living memory when Melville’s novel was published thirty years later — November 14, 1851 in America, the previous month in Britain — but some critics described Moby-Dick as the more unbelievable, and therefore inferior, story. The following is from a review published in the New York Evangelist on this day in 1851:

Mr. Melville grows wilder and more untameable with every adventure. In Typee and Omoo, he began with the semblance of life and reality, though it was often but the faintest kind of semblance. As he advanced, he threw off the pretense of probability, and wondered from the verisimilitude of fiction into the mist and vagueness of poetry and fantasy, and now in this last venture, has reached the very limbo of eccentricity.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.