Saturday, February 19, 2011

Moby Dick Discovery

Some readers may not be aware of this, but captain Ahab was real... sort of. The real captain Ahab was more pathetic than the one in Melville's book. Perhaps it is better to say that Moby Dick was real in the sense that Melville was inspired by stories he heard of a giant sperm whale smashing the the whaleship Essex to pieces in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The captain, George Pollard, made it to a rescue boat and was later picked up by another whaler that then crashed again in shoals right outside Honolulu. They just recently found the wreckage of this second ship of Pollard's. Pollard survived that wreck as well and eventually made it back to Massachusetts where he talked at length with Melville about the ordeal, inspiring the epic novel.

Why am I posting on this particular find? Well the story of the Essex is one I've heard several times before Evan shared this link with me, because one of our ancestors was the second mate on that ship (Matthew Joy, who is mentioned in the post). Joy is my maternal grandmother's name, and as I've mentioned before on here, they've been in Massachusetts since the early 1600s. Matthew Joy did not fare as well as George Pollard - he also got in a rescue boat, but he was never picked up and died at sea. The crew on the other boats ended up descending into cannibalism (of the dead, that is) before they were rescued (I think only one or two were left by that point). If I recall, Matthew Joy died before all that began, so I think his earthly remains avoided that fate.

You can read about the whole thing in In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, and also The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex (which was written by the first mate). I've read the first book, but not the second. Thomas Jefferson wrote two reports on the whale fishery as Secretary of State, in 1788 and 1791. The two authoritative histories about the fishery that you usually hear about are Starbuck's history (1878) and Tower's history (1907). These books are massive - I've leafed through them but haven't read them. I've always dreamed of doing something with the mountains of data in them. And speaking of whaling data, this is a great site.


  1. Many of the best pieces of literature are based on real world events - think Shakespeare's "The Tempest" or Dafoe's "Robinson Crusue."

  2. Do you ever do what Lovecraft's characters did and search for your family's ancestral legacy all across New England?

    Did it have weird results, like bumping into an old farmhouse, and being greeted by a seven foot tall bearded man with an ancient Yankee accent?

    Or maybe a town with fish-like people?

  3. :) no

    I've picked up tid-bits throughout my life from my grandparents on both sides. My paternal granddad traces his line back to Martin Luther, I've talked about my great grandad who was the president of the Constitutional Convention in Maryland, in the 1968, and struggled to get that passed in the midst of the havoc of Baltimore after the King assassination. On my mom's side the Joys go way back to the initial Puritan settlements and the Comeaus go way back to the initial French Canadian settlements - I have family on that side that was in the center of the desegregation debate in Virginia as well.

    So growing up there was a lot to glean tid-bits from. I think we had a family that has a cool enough history to have plenty of things to mention in passing, and I've tracked down details on my own because of that (particularly on my great-grandfather in Maryland).

    So far, nobody traces back to Innsmouth, Massachusetts.

    I do, however, have family that was in Tarrytown, New York. That has its own place in weird fiction. Do you know it?

  4. Nope. *checks*

    Oh yes, Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

    The story showed the village to be in a swamp like forest. THAT was NY once?

  5. I've been to Lovecraft's gravesite in R.I., BTW. I'll post a picture of it on FB. They don't like you taking pictures of it, BTW.

  6. I have a book that was owned by my great-great grandad (is this right, Evan?) Lucas Boeve, of Tarrytown New York (this is written in the front cover) that I love because of its little Lovecraft connections.

    First, of course, is the fact that Lovecraft was a fan of Washington Irving, who featured Tarrytown in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The book was published in 1910, and it's called "Comets: their origins, nature, and history". It was published because of the public excitement over Halley's Comet, which would pass over that year. What's neat about this is that the 1910 passage of Halley's comet was a big milestone in the young Lovecraft's life, and is partly responsible for attracting him to astronomy, which of course contributed to his common theme of cosmic insignificance. The other neat thing about the book is that it has a lot of discussion of planetary orbits as well. And what planet is missing? Pluto of course! It wasn't discovered in 1910. And of course, Pluto's discovery in 1930 was also important to Lovecraft - it was a central element of one of his most famous works - The Shadow Out of Time.

  7. "I Am Providence", right Gary? Very cool.

  8. Yeah. You can barely read the headstone though anymore as I recall.

  9. Loading it now. Then I got to get on with my day.

  10. Given your family connections, I assume you've read "Moby Dick"?

    I've got to around to it as part of a literature challenge (quote unquote) that I've got going with a friend. Not looking forward to it though; apparently MD is very hard work. Painfully long descriptions of wailing ships and the like...

  11. Haha... make that *whaling ships*.
    Freudian slip, perhaps?

    (Reminds me of a great clue I saw on a cryptic crossword once: "Whale"... The answer: "blubber")


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