“Stove by a Whale”: The Essex Shipwreck at 200

Two centuries ago, on November 20, 1820, a sperm whale attacked and sunk the whaleship Essex far from land in the Pacific Ocean. Of the twenty men in the Essex crew, only eight survived their harrowing attempt to reach land.

In this seminar we will investigate the enduring fascination with this infamous incident and its grisly aftermath from cultural, literary, and ecological angles. Beyond the power of the incident itself, the Essex tragedy is an excellent case study for the adaptation of primary sources into historical narrative, fiction, and film: the incident and particularly the written account of survivor Owen Chase were a major inspiration for Herman Melville’s work Moby-Dick, and Nathaniel Philbrick drew on Chase’s account along with that of another survivor, Thomas Nickerson, and many other primary sources for his bestseller In the Heart of the Sea (adapted into a 2015 film), among other works.