In 2010, I attended Readercon, a science fiction and fantasy convention held each year in Massachusetts. Afterward, my wife and I spent a week touring the state, and soaking up the local history. One of the towns we visited boasted a Herman Melville room in its public library. There, amid many relics of the America's whaling history, I saw copies of all the books Herman Melville had written.
Herman Melville? I thought he just wrote Moby Dick?
The memory of that visit stuck with me, and last year I finally decided to do a little follow up. I read Melville's first novel Typee, in which a young man finds life aboard a whaling vessel more than he bargained for. So one day, when he is granted shore leave on Nuku Hiva, one of the Marquesas Islands, he flees the town along the shore. He climbs into the nearby hills, and hides from the search parties the captain sends out to bring him back to the ship.
Once he reaches the top of the mountain, which forms the center of the island, he finds himself amid barren surroundings. All he has is the remnants of the ship's biscuits he hid away in his clothing, along with the tobacco he had brought to trade with the natives. Unfortunately, it rained heavily during his climb, and much of the biscuits have seeped into his clothes, or merged with the tobacco. It's an unsavory mess, which doesn't last him long.
The man has to make a choice: remain atop the mountain, where nothing grows, or climb back down a little, and ply the natives for food. Those nearby, in the remote area of the island, who are less likely to hand him over to the captain, have a reputation for cannabalism. But what choice does he have? If he doesn't eat, he will die. Better to risk being eaten, than to slowly starve to death.
In director Ron Howard's recent movie "In the Heart of the Sea," Herman Melville begs an old man to tell him about his time serving aboard the Essex. This ship had a terrible history, in which the ship and crew were attacked by a great white whale. So harrowing was their encounter that none of the survivors have dared speak of their trials. But Melville assures the man that, while he wants to hear the truth of the man's story, he will not publish a nonfiction account of the Essex. Instead, he will use the man's factual account to write a novel. He's particularly keen on the title Moby Dick.
So the old man tells his story. Like Melville, who also served aboard a whaling vessel, the Essex left Massachusetts, and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of whales. After awhile, the captain realized they couldn't find enough whales to secure the needed oil. So they sailed around the tip of South America, and there, in the vast Pacific Ocean, they found a rich hunting ground. This was an area that Melville knew well, as the whaling ship he had served aboard also traveled to the Pacific, which is how he visited the Marquesas Islands, and so was able to utilize that experience in his novel.
Typee and its sequel Omoo make clear how difficult it was to catch and harvest whales. Of those who sailed aboard such vessels, only a few actually got into the small boats and tried to harpoon the whales. Those who did so often suffered injuries, loss of limbs, or died in the process. In neither novel does Herman Melville actually describe what it was like to capture, kill, and harvest a whale. In fact, the most glaring aspect of both novels is the the poorly-run nature of the ships he served aboard. So it makes sense, even if it is a little ironic, that despite serving aboard a whaling ship, Melville still felt he needed to study the history of the Essex, and learn all he could of their experiences.
What? Study history? Seek out first hand experiences? Really, is that necessary? I thought fiction writers just thought stuff up?