In the Heart of the Sea | Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick

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Nathaniel Philbrick | Biography

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Nathaniel Philbrick was born in Boston, Massachusetts on June 11, 1956, to a literary family. Both his father, Thomas Philbrick, and uncle, Charles Philbrick, worked as English professors and writers. His father published literary criticism, while his uncle published poetry.

Education and Early Career

Nathaniel Philbrick grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Brown University in Rhode Island and a master of arts degree in American Literature from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. While he was getting his academic education, Philbrick was also honing his sea skills, becoming Brown's first Intercollegiate All-American Sailor in 1978 and winning the Sunfish North American sailing competition the same year. He first worked as an editor for Sailing World magazine and wrote books such as The Passionate Sailor (1987) and Second Wind: A Nantucket Sailor's Odyssey (1998). While maintaining a career as a freelance writer, he functioned as the primary caregiver for his two children. Philbrick and his family moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1986, where he became intrigued by the history of the island. He first wrote Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602–1890 (1994). Soon after, he became the founding director of Nantucket's Egan Maritime Institute and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. Philbrick, a lifelong sailor and son of an English professor who wrote fiction about the sea, was exposed to the story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex when he was a child. His father, Thomas Philbrick, told him the story, and his uncle, Charles Philbrick, even wrote a poem about it. When Nathaniel Philbrick moved to Nantucket, he naturally immersed himself in the history of this famous disaster, researching and eventually writing about it.

Historical Retellings

Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex became a national bestseller and won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000, the year it was published. In 2010 Philbrick's book inspired a historical documentary film titled Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World. Philbrick's version of the sinking of the Essex also became the basis for a screenplay of a movie of the same title, released in 2015.

After the success of this volume, Philbrick went on to write similar exciting tales based in periods of American history, including Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842 (2003), the story of how the U.S. Navy mapped the Pacific Ocean; Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006), a retelling of the Mayflower's voyage and the settlement of Plymouth colony; and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010), a history of Custer's famous defeat. Additional titles are Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011); Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (2013); and Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (2016).

Philbrick has received numerous literary, historical, and sailing awards and two honorary doctorates. His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe.

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