Nantucketer Nathaniel Philbrick shares enthusiasm for Melville

Sailor and author Nathaniel Philbrick. — Photo by Tad Gillespie

Sail Martha’s Vineyard, the nonprofit organization whose goal is to connect Island children and the community with the traditions and experiences of the community’s maritime heritage, will host Nantucket author Nathaniel Philbrick on Wednesday, March 28.

For his own part, the award-winning author has introduced many readers to the nation’s maritime heritage and history.

In 2000, he published the New York Times bestseller “In the Heart of the Sea,” about the ill-fated voyage of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk in the Pacific Ocean by a sperm whale.

That was followed by “Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842,” and “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,” a gripping account of the voyage of the Mayflower and the settlement of Plymouth Colony.

In his most recent book, “Why Read Moby-Dick?” Mr. Philbrick makes the case that the 19th Century novel, acclaimed as a classic of American literature but seldom read, should be on everyone’s reading list. Mr. Philbrick will speak about his latest book, as part of Sail MV’s monthly dinner series held at the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven (Call 696-7644 or go to

In anticipation of his visit, The Times emailed a series of questions to Mr. Philbrick at his home on Nantucket. His answers follow:

How would you describe your connection to Martha’s Vineyard and your decision to speak here, in terms of the subjects that interest you in your writing?

The Vineyard is one of my favorite places. My wife and I greatly enjoy sailing to Edgartown, Oak Bluff, and Vineyard Haven; in fact our first date was during a 470 regatta at the Vineyard Haven YC in 1974. Back in the early 1990s, I did research on the Island for my book “Abram’s Eyes,” about the native legacy of Nantucket. You’re also lucky to have two great independent bookstores. A couple of years ago, we had the privilege of sailing with Bob Douglas on the Shenandoah, and I look forward to returning to the Black Dog.

People often assume that Nantucketers and Vineyarders are like two peas in a pod (a rowing pod). Historically, what was the relationship?

The Vineyard was settled by the English almost two decades before Nantucket, and one of Nantucket’s leading citizens was Peter Folger, who had formerly been the Indian interpreter on the Vineyard, and whose daughter Abiah would be the mother of Benjamin Franklin. When it came to whaling, Edgartown had a close connection with Nantucket, and if I remember correctly, before her final voyage, the Essex offloaded some of her oil at Edgartown.

The novel “Moby Dick” resonates with Americans and with Vineyarders because of the regional significance and attachments between Nantucket, the Vineyard, and New Bedford. But, fewer and fewer people read the book today. Why?

Moby Dick can be an intimidating read: not only is it long, the level of the language can be offputting to some readers. But as I argue in “Why Read Moby-Dick?” the novel is well worth the extra effort, particularly when you’ve had some life experience. Too many people were forced to read it in high school or college and have been running from it ever since. I’ve talked to so many people who have taken up the book later in life and have been completely blown away by it. It may be long, but many of its chapters are surprisingly short; it’s actually tailor made for reading in airports and train stations.

What do you suppose the reaction is from readers who think of you as a story teller and discover in your book about the book that you are suddenly a literary preacher.

“Why Read Moby-Dick?” is a different kind of book for me, but it actually speaks to what got me interested in writing in the first place. I was an English major in college and got a master’s in America literature, and my first interest in Nantucket was from a literary point of view. That said, there’s a lot of history in this little book. When you look at what was going on in America when Melville wrote “Moby Dick,” you begin to appreciate how the novel is much more than a tale about whaling.

“The Mayflower” painted a vivid and exciting story of the first colonists and their interactions with the resident tribes. I am sure I speak for many people when I tell you that it changed the way I look at the names on the signs of various brooks and streams when I drive through Southeastern Massachusetts and imagine what it was like at the time you describe. In your account, Martha’s Vineyard appeared to have been a lazy backwater. Why? – good relations between settlers and Wampanoags, or geography?

All of the above. Being islands, both the Vineyard and Nantucket were removed from what was happening on the mainland, and by the latter half of the 17th Century, the English and native peoples had been forced by their relative isolation to work things out in a way that wasn’t necessarily true in the rest of Massachusetts. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t plenty of tensions between the two peoples on the islands at that time.

Is there a common element that attracted you to what appears to be diverse subject matter in your various books?

All my books are about America. I purposefully try to find topics about something that I wish I knew more about, but each book is part of the same larger story.

What story in our contemporary history do you think a future Nathaniel Philbrick would choose as a subject?

Not sure, but one of the common elements in my books is that all hell seems to break loose toward the end. I think there are plenty of recent candidates for that kind of story arc, whether it be the BP oil spill, 9/11, or some meteorological disaster.

If Nantucket washes away sooner than expected, would you move to Martha’s Vineyard?

Depends on how fast the sea is rising. The Vineyard might be the perfect transition stop before moving to a mountain in Maine.