British biographer Hoare (England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia, 2005, etc.) exults in the outsized glory of whales.
The author approaches his subject with fascination, with the creatures themselves, but also their environment: the ports that grew in their wake, the literature they spawned and, of course, the ocean, captured by Thoreau just the way Hoare likes it—“a wilderness reaching around the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences.” The author claims no scientific insight or cosmic communion with the leviathans, but he seeks to share his pure joy with readers. He delights in curious whale facts: a whale can be lavender in color; the humpback is known for its merriment; sperm whales are known to eat sharks, not to mention the stray human, one of whom was still alive when freed from the whale’s stomach. Hoare evokes with color and clarity the historical and latter-day aspects of whaling towns like New Bedford, Nantucket and Provincetown in Massachusetts, and Hull and Whitby in England. He also illuminates the dismal economics of whaling—the oil and ambergris, the candles and scrimshaw. Moby-Dick figures prominently, bowling over Hoare with its pungency, its radical artistic departure and the darkness and mystery of its proceedings. Finally, the author gets his chance to interact with the behemoths out in the deep Atlantic water: “Its great grey head turned towards me, looking like an upright block of granite, overwhelmingly monumental. Its entirety was my own.”
A delightfully intimate and unapologetically personal engagement—a deserved winner of the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize in Britain.