In Search of Moby Dick: The Quest for the White Whale

Tim Severin, Author, Timothy Severin, Author, Tim Serverin, Author Basic Books $24 (212p) ISBN 978-0-465-07696-3
In the role of adventurer-cum-historian, Severin (The Brendan Voyage, etc.) has built leather boats and replicas of ninth-century Arab dhows in order to re-create the voyages of St. Brendan, Jason and the Argonauts, and Sindbad. His new adventure explores Melville's white whale and the culture of the gifted harpooners who are the last people on earth to hunt whales from small boats. Melville himself met such men when he deserted a whaling ship in French Polynesia in 1842, and Severin returns to the same island, Nuku Hiva. There he collects the information that allows him to dissect the myths and facts of Melville's Typee, and convincingly argue that Moby-Dick was influenced by Melville's contact with the Nuku Hivans. Severin also expounds on the disaster of the whaleship Essex, the habits of the great mammals themselves and the spiritual and mystical aspects of the Polynesians' whale hunts. A description of a young islander's coming of age in a successful hunt is transfixing. The author's firsthand account of whaling from a small boat is equally powerful. Severin is mystified that the whales don't flee as the hunters draw near enough to attack: ""Where is their sense of self-preservation?"" But the hunters know: the whale gives himself to those who have performed the ritual; just as surely, the whale will punish those who are greedy or negligent. This, Severin suggests, is the root of Melville's spiteful cetacean: Ahab was unworthy, and Moby-Dick delivered divine retribution in accordance with islander lore. The islanders' generations of experience, legend and myth are the authorities for Severin, as valid to him as any laboratory test results, and his description of their culture is profoundly moving. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
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