Surviving the Essex

The Afterlife of America's Most Storied Shipwreck

David O. Dowling

Surviving the “Essex” tells the captivating story of a ship’s crew battered by whale attack, broken by four months at sea, and forced—out of necessity—to make meals of their fellow survivors. Exploring the Rashomon-like Essex accounts that complicate and even contradict first mate Owen Chase’s narrative, David O. Dowling examines the vital role of viewpoint in shaping how an event is remembered and delves into the ordeal’s submerged history—the survivors’ lives, ambitions, and motives, their pivotal actions during the desperate moments of the wreck itself, and their will to reconcile those actions in the short- and long-term aftermath of this storied event. Mother of all whale tales, Surviving the “Essex” acts as a sequel to Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, while probing deeper into the nature of trauma and survival accounts, an extreme form of notoriety, and the impact that the story had on Herman Melville and the writing of Moby-Dick.

Paper: $19.95 | E-book: $21.99
ISBN-13: 9781611689075
Pages: 240 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: April 12, 2016


  • As many readers know, Moby-Dick was inspired by the shipwreck of the whaling ship Essex in 1820. As David O. Dowling discusses in Surviving the Essex, the wreck of the Essex was an early example of prurient tabloid scandal, capturing the imagination of readers eager, then as now, for stories of heroism and villainy in the face of moral dilemmas.

    The Washington Post
  • Die-hard fans who cannot get enough of the Essex tragedy are the best audience for this book and the readers most likely to appreciate its various insights.

    New England Quarterly
  • The best parts of this book reveal the stories behind the publication and promotion of the Essex narratives. . . Dowling tells a great story here, placing Nickerson’s authorship, as he does Chase’s, in the context of market-driven literary production.

    Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies
  • With glistening prose and a detective’s eye for detail and acts of deception, David Dowling investigates one of the most famous and harrowing events in maritime history. By carefully dissecting contending narratives of the sinking of the Essex, Dowling illuminates issues diverse and fascinating: cannibalism, ghostwriting, the literary marketplace, reputations, and even the culpability of the whale in sinking the ship.

    George Cotkin
    author of Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick

About the Author

David O. Dowling

David O. Dowling is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Iowa. He has written numerous books on the intersection of business and literature.

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