I've been wanting to write this post forever (or any post, really) but time has not been my friend lately. But I'm getting to it now, and I guess that's what counts.
I've had a few literary dots serendipitously connect themselves for me over the past month or so, which is a cool and rare experience, I think.
Awhile back, I read Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends - a great book of essays and observations, many of them about authors I share his affinity for (Philip Pullman, and others). Anyway, there's a quote from Moby Dick at the beginning of the book that I'd wondered about ever since, but never explored. Here it is, verbatim:
more I dive into this matter of whaling, and push my researches up to
the very spring-head of it, so much the more am I impressed with its
great honorableness and antiquity; and especially when I find so many
great demi-gods and heroes, prophets of all sorts, who one way or other
have shed distinction upon it, I am transported with the reflection
that I myself belong, though but subordinately, to so emblazoned a
- Herman Melville, on the writing of fan fiction
Clearly the thing I'd wondered about was how Chabon attributed the quote - to Melville on the writing of fan fiction, versus to Ishmael, who is the narrator of Moby Dick. (There are tons of references in Maps and Legends to fan fiction - I wrote about last January here.) I don't think I ever explored it though, and forgot all about it until my recent honeymoon on Block Island, when I read a book that I borrowed from my mom called In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.
Apparently the story of the Essex is incredibly well known, especially in New England, although I'd never heard about it growing up. It's a true story of a whaleship from Nantucket that was destroyed by an aggressive attack from a sperm whale (the whales they were hunting) in the South Pacific in 1820. The story spread far and wide, due mainly to the fact that the crewmembers in lifeboats were forced to eat their fellow shipmates to survive after the ship sank. The prologue to the book makes it incredibly clear that this story - the story of the Essex, its crew, and a whale with a serious attitude problem - was a big part of Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick. The first mate of the Essex, Owen Chase, wrote an account of the experience, and his son William happened to give it to Melville when the two whaleships they were working on at the time had a rendezvous. Not that this fact isn't widely known itself - it's included in the Wikipedia entry for the Essex. (and in the wikipedia entry for Moby Dick, although it has Melville
acquiring Chase's account in a different way - his father in law buys
it for him.)
What's really interesting, and explains a ton about Chabon's use of the Moby Dick quote, is that Herman Melville went beyond just reading and pulling from the account written by Owen Chase. He kind of became a little obsessed with the captain of the Essex, George Pollard - the Essex book notes that Melville even went to Nantucket, and sort of lurked around Pollard's house. The "demi-gods and heroes" part of the quote is incredibly fitting - in Nantucket around this time, social rank was almost completely determined by how you were involved with the whaling industry. Captains lived on one street - the street with the best view of the ocean - first mates on another, and so forth. They became sort of celebrities in their own right, and Melville was apparently fascinated by Pollard, whose whaling career took a complete nosedive after the Essex incident.
I guess, looking at it this way, you could call almost anyone a fan fiction writer - inspiration always comes from somewhere. But it was interesting to find out how taken in Melville was not just by the story of the Essex, but by the actual people involved - to the extent that he got excited when his ship crossed paths with Owen Chase's, and made a special trip to Nantucket to see where George Pollard lived.
In the larger sense, Melville was ultimately a fan of the entire whaling industry - something he tried to bring to life in more books than Moby Dick. It's kind of funny when you think about fandoms focused around fictional worlds like Harry Potter or Star Trek. In a way, the whaling world - which had its own intricacies, rules, vocabulary and social structure - must have seemed just as fantastic to Melville.