Way back in 1956, when I was seven years old I received an invitation to a birthday party for the daughter of my father’s best friend. Her name was Shirley and she was a great deal older than I was. In fact she attended Hartman Junior High at the time. She was blonde, beautiful and always nice to me so she became a kind of goddess in my eyes. Shirley introduced me to rock and roll and showed me how to dance. When my family visited with hers she always took me to her room and entertained me as though I was an equal to her. Of course I adored her so when my mother told me that I was going to get to accompany Shirley and some of her school friends to a movie on her birthday I was over the moon with excitement.
A bit of controversy revolving around me put a monkey wrench in the plans. Shirley had wanted to see Trapeze, a story involving a love triangle between Burt Lancaster, Gina Lollobrigida, and Tony Curtis all set under the big top of a circus. My mother was concerned that the material in that movie might be a bit too adult for me and so Shirley’s mom made a last minute decision to take all of us to see Moby Dick instead. This put me in a most unfortunate predicament with Shirley’s friends who complained that I was too immature to be part of their celebration anyway. I recall feeling quite uncomfortable as the group grudgingly accepted the change in venue. As it ultimately turned out I think that I was far more traumatized by the violence from the infamous white whale than I would have been by the romantic scenes in the circus plot. Nonetheless the damage had already been done and I had my introduction to one of the most revered stories in American literature, Moby Dick.
Being a silly kid I had little idea that the screenplay of the movie I had seen came from Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick. It was not until I was in high school that I realized that the story of whalers had been inspired by real events and that it magnificently captured the essence of a long ago era. I faithfully read the book just as so many students have done and felt almost as negative about it as I had about the movie. Somehow I had little interest in the plot and the beautiful metaphors and allusions didn’t help to garner my fascination. Moby Dick was one of those reading assignments that I did with little enthusiasm. Once I had completed it I put the book away thinking how lucky I was to never have to look at it again.
How could I have known then that I would one day meet and marry a man whose take on Moby Dickwas far different from mine? My husband, Mike, cherished the book and told of the pleasure that it had brought to him. Somehow I began to view the story through a different set of eyes and I felt compelled to give it another try. I’ve now grown to fully appreciate Herman Melville and his writing. I’ve seen different versions of the story on film and I have studied his characters and writing style more closely. I realize that he indeed created one of the most incredible books of all time. People will be reading and discussing Moby Dick for centuries.
Mike’s mother became obsessed with genealogy once she retired but she had hit a concrete wall like so many of us do when we attempt to find windows into our family’s past. Mike began to help her and stumbled upon a man who was a distant cousin who had unlocked the mysteries that had plagued my mother-in-law. The gentleman was more than happy to share his discoveries and through them a flood of information literally fell into my mother-in-law’s lap. Among the clues were several connections to the story of Moby Dick. The complex family tree revealed that Mike descended from people who had long ago lived in various parts of Massachusetts. Among them were members of the Nickerson family who in turn were related to Thomas Nickerson, an interesting character who had actually experienced the true life adventure of contact with the killer white whale portrayed inMoby Dick.
In 1819, Thomas Nickerson set sail on the whaling ship, the Essex. He was only fourteen years old and served as a cabin boy. Much like my own grandfather he had been essentially orphaned forcing him to make due for himself, thus he was wise and self sufficient beyond his years. Working on the ship provided him with a place to sleep, food to eat, and prospects for a future livelihood. It was his first voyage and it could not have been more incredible.
The crew of the Essex was in search of whales to provide the oil that lit the lamps in homes across the United States and Europe. Their work was hard and usually involved months and sometimes years at sea even in the best of conditions. The Essex was an older ship that had recently been refurbished. It had a reputation of being a lucky vessel but its final journey would be unlike any before.
The adventure had hardly begun when a massive storm overtook the ship causing damage that would play an even bigger role in the tragedy that would later unfold. From the start it seemed as though nothing went right for the crew. Efforts to find the whales were fruitless. The voyagers traveled farther and farther away from their homes in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Eventually they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and in an Ecuadorian port they learned of an area far out in the Pacific that was teeming with whales. Desperate to meet their goals they traveled more miles away from land than good sense might otherwise have prompted them.
They did indeed find the whales for which they had been searching but among those giants of the sea was a monstrously large species that the crew would later claim attacked and destroyed their ship. Far from shipping lanes the survivors of the wreck paddled across the water in three tiny boats hoping to find either another ship or land. Their trial endured for days, then weeks, and finally months. Desperately hungry and losing hope they survived as best they could even resorting to eating the dead. When they were finally rescued Thomas Nickerson was among them. Their amazing story would serve as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Melville chose to write a fiction piece but he used the characteristics of people and events that he had known to develop the plot and the protagonists. Thomas Nickerson shows up in the story but not with his real name. Melville crafted characters like Starbuck and Coffin from his own experiences. Similar names also happen to show up in Mike’s family tree. It is clear that his ancestry runs deeply in the early history of our nation and the whaling industry was a way in which they survived.
Ron Howard’s newest movie, In the Heart of the Sea, tells the story of the ill-fated Essex. It is a powerful adventure movie that captures the essence of the tale that has so fascinated the world for almost two hundred years. It provides a glimpse into the lives of those sailors who risked so much each time they chose to go back out to sea. It is a beautiful movie and should have attracted a huge audience but somehow it has not. The critics have panned it and the theaters where it is showing are largely empty. Perhaps we have moved on from historical extravaganzas and prefer to entertain ourselves with fantasies and glances into the future rather than the past. Sadly we do ourselves a disservice when we are no longer fascinated by the challenges of those who came before us. Today we have a tendency to dismiss those long ago people as having done everything wrong as though we would have been more thoughtful had we been in their shoes.
I’d like to think that we can be open minded enough to appreciate the privations and struggles of the past. I want my grandchildren to see this film so that they might learn about one of their ancestors and develop a desire to read one of the greatest novels ever written. We cannot know who we really are until we understand who we have been. We learn about our history because it helps us to navigate the future. I’d like to think that we will fill the theaters to see this bit of Americana and then we can all go see the latest Star Wars movie as well.