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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In Search of Moby Dick culminates an outpouring of mainstream literature inspired by Melville's classic novel. While Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife gives Moby-Dick a feminist spin, and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea revisits the epic's genesis, In Search of Moby Dick attempts to confirm the very existence of the monstrous white whale that destroyed the whaleship Essex.
Author Tim Severin conducts a vigorous hunt: first by establishing Melville's paper trail, then by boating with the whale hunters themselves. Severin finds two primary sources for Melville's whale knowledge: Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale and F. D. Bennett's Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Around the World, 1833-1836. Severin contends that Melville went so far as to plagiarize: "[H]e plundered Beale's work shamelessly, sometimes almost copying phrase by phrase, and pirated Bennett with almost equal aplomb."
Severin, author of In Search of Genghis Khan, is not afraid of a good hunt. He sails through the South Pacific with whale hunters whose methods of whaling closely resemble those of Melville's times. The village of Lamalera is "the last community on earth where men still regularly hunt sperm whales by hand." Knives, harpoons, and ropes are the instruments of killing. Seemingly insane "hook jumpers" leap from their boats onto the whales' backs for a more certain kill.
Although the Pacific islanders' methods of whaling hark back to Melville's day, their use of the whale is entirely different. Western whalers sought only the valuable spermaceti oil, but "the native whale hunters were carefully allocating every scrap that was edible, and the oil was free to all." Intriguingly, Severin correlates the Pacific natives' attitude toward the whale with Native American attitudes toward the buffalo.
When an international whaling organization attempted to educate the people of Lamalera on modern whaling technology, including a fiberglass boat, a harpoon gun, and fishing nets, the locals were left shaking their heads at the contemporary world. Says one, "The nets tore, and were too expensive to replace. And we did not need so many whales. We did not know what to do with them. They stayed on the beach and smelled bad. It was a waste."
Numerous South Pacific whalers attest to the existence of the protective, sometimes belligerent white whale that the author seeks. Yet Severin ultimately "finds" Melville's Moby-Dick not by confirming the white whale but by understanding the islanders' attitude toward whaling: "For some Pacific peoples a 'fighting whale' was not a remote adversary to be hunted down for revenge or profit. It was a creature...which met the spiritual needs of the hunters, even as the great animals could supply some of their material wants. If the whales vanished, man would be diminished." (Brenn Jones)