In today’s brief chapter (under five minutes), our heroes arrive at the legendary whaling island of Nantucket,
Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it — a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.
In Ric Burns’s riveting documentary Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World (2010), today’s reader Nathaniel Philbrick describes the heroism of the Nantucket whalers:
One of these ships could sail up to a Pacific atoll – or could come into Nantucket Harbor – or could stand by as three whaleboats went out and brought back a 60-ton whale. It could pull all of this off – and yet it was also a home for several dozen men, for three to four years. They were the spaceships of their day, traveling to unknown worlds, killing whales and rendering the oil. This was a technology that is much more like what we’re thinking in terms of, What if we have to leave this planet, and go to other solar systems? Well the Nantucketers were doing it in the 19th century. The universe for America at that point was the Pacific, and the Nantucketers were the true astronauts of American history.
Philbrick knows his subject. He is the author of Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 (rev. ed. 2011), as well as two other books that readers of Moby-Dick should know: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000) and last year’s Why Read Moby-Dick?
Burns has made a 51-minute documentary about the island, which can be seen at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. The trailer below gives you a vivid glimpse of the island and what makes its geography and history distinctive.
A DVD of the film can be ordered from the museum’s gift shop.
[Cross-posted with Patell and Waterman’s History of New York]