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NARRATIVES OF THE WRECK OF THE WHALE-SHIP ESSEX by Owen Chase et al (Dover: $4.95, illustrated)

December 17, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

On Aug. 12, 1819, 11 days after Herman Melville was born, the American whaler Essex was attacked and sunk by an enraged bull sperm whale, estimated to be 85 feet long. First Mate Owen Chase published his recollection of the attack in 1851, supplemented with brief accounts by the captain and second mate. As even a cursory reading reveals, Melville used these memoirs as the basis of the final, climactic chapter of "Moby Dick." (His copy of "Narratives" survives, along with 18 pages of notes.) Not surprisingly, Chase's descriptions of the whale's fury lack the power of Melville's writing. But his memories of the terrible suffering the crew endured as they struggled to reach the coast of South America--more than 2,000 miles from the site of the attack--in open whaleboats retain their strength and poignance.

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