All Research is a Kind of Time Travel

I wrote In the Heart of the Sea during the fall, winter, and spring of 1998–99. The sperm-whale skeleton that is now the centerpiece of the NHA’s whaling museum was then a collection of freshly harvested bones (still oozing whale oil) in a storage shed off Bartlett Road. The NHA’s library was a far cry from the climate-controlled hive of scholarship on Fair Street that it is today. Back then, it was on the second floor of the Peter Foulger Museum on Broad Street, and innovation in 1998 was the new computer-generated Eliza Starbuck Barney Genealogical Record, which I used to determine how the Essex crewmembers were related to one another. (Not surprisingly, almost all the Nantucketers were cousins various times removed.) The most important resource at the library was Thomas Nickerson’s account of the Essex disaster, a recently discovered composition book of handwritten prose and sketches that provided a revelatory window into a story that had been previously told, almost exclusively, from the perspective of the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase.

As I’ve relearned in writing each of my books, the hardest chapter to write is the first. In the case of In the Heart of the Sea, I needed to create the world of Nantucket in 1819, a world the whalemen would take with them as they suffered unimaginable hardships in some of the remotest places on the planet. Fortunately, the NHA possessed an essential resource: the journals of the Quaker whaling merchant Obed Macy. With Macy’s help, I was able to provide an almost day-by-day sense of what life was like on Nantucket in the summer of 1819. But my research was not confined to the archives.

In many ways, the town of Nantucket is a living museum, and I spent the afternoons of the fall of 1998 wandering the crooked streets with thoughts of how Owen Chase, who lived on Orange Street, would have walked up the hill to the Second Congregational (now Unitarian) Meeting House, or how 14-year-old orphan Thomas Nickerson might have wandered out to the Old North Burial Ground to visit the graves of his parents, or how the wharves might have looked when they were crowded with whaleships being outfitted for the next voyage.

All research, whether it’s in archives or on foot, is a kind of time travel. I must say, however, nothing I had so far experienced in the fifteen years since writing In the Heart of the Sea had prepared me for that drizzly morning last November when I walked onto the set at the Warner Brothers lot in Leavesden, England. They had done it. They’d reimagined the world of Nantucket in 1819—from the seaweed growing on the pilings of the wharves (which were surrounded by a huge water tank) to what looked like a dead ringer for the Pacific National Bank. It was disorienting, thrilling, and wonderfully strange, and I, for one, can’t wait to see the movie.

From the Fall 2014 issue of Historic Nantucket

Nathaniel Philbrick is the award-winning author of books about Nantucket and American history.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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