Book review: 'The Whale' by Philip Hoare

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By Gregory McNamee
Sunday, February 14, 2010

THE WHALE

In Search of the Giants of the Sea

By Philip Hoare

Ecco.453 pp. $27.99

On Nov. 25, 1963, John F. Kennedy, felled by an assassin's bullet, was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. In his coffin was a whale tooth, placed there by his widow, who had meant to give it to him as a Christmas present. "It was a potent act," writes Philip Hoare, a close student of things cetacean: "the king of Camelot interred with the talisman of a heroic age."

Call him Ishmael, this Mr. Hoare, who would not, at first glance, seem a likely candidate for the job. He is famed on the other side of whaleroad, as the Anglo-Saxon kennings called the ocean, for books of a more indoors nature, among them studies of Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward. But inside this literary scholar's heart, it turns out, has long lurked the strenuous desire to head to the sea--"cities and civilizations rise and fall, but the sea is always the sea," he writes -- and find Leviathan for himself.

And so he does. Where there is a place on the planet likely to harbor whales of just about any description, Hoare is likely to have visited it, to have read about it, to have studied its every contour. "The Whale" results from years of devoted researching, talking, kayaking, diving and swimming; it is equal parts almanac, literary study, celebration, elegy, eulogy and literary travel essay.

Hoare makes landfall, naturally, at Nantucket, where President Kennedy's amulet may have come into being, shaped by Quaker refugees from Puritanism whose studied nonviolence did not apply to the animal orders. Nantucket is already a resonant place for American readers -- at least those who have made their way through "Moby-Dick," and even more so those who did not skip over its technical chapters. That book and Herman Melville's world-ranging spirit haunt the pages of Hoare's. But though he spends much time in Melville's company, he goes beyond it to consult with other writers -- Poe, Hawthorne and Thoreau among them -- who were also well-versed in the ways of the whale.

Some of his literary and scientific informants are less well known than those writers, however, and Hoare does great service in bringing them back into the conversation. One is Thomas Beale, the foremost authority on whales in the early 19th century, who traveled the world on a parallel track with his contemporary Charles Darwin and who nearly single-handedly created a literature devoted to whale ecology. "Like Thoreau," writes Hoare, "Beale's experience of whales left him amazed at the lack of knowledge about them." Beale actually did something to remedy that lack of knowledge, and it is from his work that the whaling paintings of J.M.W. Turner derive -- paintings that in turn inspired Melville, then just starting as a writer and in need of the great subject he soon found in the world of whales.

"The Whale," which won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, nicely pairs with the work of Richard Ellis, another modern literary student of the sea and author of "The Book of Whales," among many other titles. Hoare takes a less encyclopedic, more poetic approach than Ellis, but his work is equally rigorous, something every serious student of whales -- and, more widely conceived, of the natural world -- will want to have at hand.

Hoare turns up surprises in his wanderings and readings. One comes late in the book, when he reports the curious turn of history by which the whale was caught up in the carnage of World War II, bombed from above on being misidentified as enemy submarines, hunted ruthlessly by Allied and Axis ships alike for meat and oil. How many whales died in the war years we cannot know, but it was then that observers first voiced fears that they might be bound for extinction, their numbers fallen by three-quarters since the advent of industrial whaling.

Even absent the global wars of years past, whales are ever fewer. Having swum with them in the glorious warmth of the Azores, Hoare raises the question of what a world without whales might look like. That is not an inconceivable scenario, for along with all the other foes -- harpoons and flensing factories, illnesses, stomach-clogging islands of oceanic garbage -- whales now have to reckon, like the rest of us, with a changing climate that may reduce their number even more.

But it may not. "No one really knows," writes Hoare. "We are living through a vast experiment, one which may result in the flooded world that Melville imagined; a world that the whales will inherit, evolving into superior beings with only distant memories of the time when they were persecuted by beings whose greed proved to be their downfall." For those who care for Leviathan, that's not a bad prospect.

Gregory McNamee writes the weekly "Animals in the News" column for the Encyclopedia Britannica's Web site.


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