Compass

Preface

In September of 1986, I moved to Nantucket with my wife Melissa and our two children. It was Melissa’s job as an attorney that brought us to the island, a sandy crescent almost thirty miles out to sea about which I knew almost nothing—except, of course, for what I’d read in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Not surprisingly, in retrospect, I was immediately taken with Nantucket’s whaling past. At that time I was a freelance sailing journalist, but with each passing year I delved ever deeper into the island’s history, eventually publishing a handful of articles in academic journals such as the New England Quarterly. Then, in the spring of 1992, I got my first big break.

In those days any Nantucketer with literary aspirations looked for guidance from Mimi Beman, proprietress of Mitchell’s Book Corner on Main Street. As it so happened, Mimi had been contacted by Albert “Bud” Egan, Jr., owner of the Marine Home Center, a highly successful lumberyard and home furnishings business on Lower Orange Street. Bud had a longstanding interest in the island’s history, which he attributed to his mother, who’d come from one of Nantucket’s founding families, the Coffins. Just a few years before, Bud had started the Mill Hill Press and was now in search of an author to write a history of the island through the end of whaling in the late nineteenth century. Based on the articles I’d shown her, Mimi recommended me.
I’ll never forget my first meeting with Bud in his second-floor office overlooking the sheds of the lumberyard and beyond that the marshy convolutions of Nantucket Harbor. Bud was a no nonsense kind of guy. I should submit an outline and sample preface to Mimi, who was acting as his informal consultant, and we’d take it from there. It was my first commission to write history.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I found myself writing and rewriting that preface. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was establishing what was to become my method for starting a book. By working my way through draft after draft of the opening overview, I slowly came to understand what it was I wanted to say. I also began to find my own voice as an historian. Most important, I was able to move from a disparate pile of notes and ideas to a firm structure for the book. I would devote each chapter to a specific character whose story would move the overall history of the island forward to the next character until I had finally made my way to the end of Nantucket’s whaling era.

Mimi gave me the green light, and in the fall of 1992, at the age of thirty-six, I embarked on the path I’ve been following ever since. By going directly to the sources—whether they be in the archives or out there in the landscape—I hoped to hunt out the stories and the characters that brought the past to life.

First I went to the Nantucket Town Building, an undistinguished brick edifice containing a warren of little rooms stuffed to overflowing with records and documents, many of them dating back to the mid-seventeenth century. Then it was on to the Nantucket Historical Association. This was the pre-Internet era, so instead of calling up archives on my laptop at home, I spent weeks in their library, reading almost a century’s worth of island newspapers on microfilm. I was so new to it all that I didn’t fully appreciate at that time the extraordinary richness of the association’s collection: journals, logs, daybooks, and letters that revealed the history and culture of both an island and the industry that made it famous. It was in the archives of yet another island repository, the Nantucket Atheneum (which also happened to be the town’s public library), that I found my favorite artifact: the journal of Peleg Folger, a young whaleman in the middle of the eighteenth century with an eye for the telling detail and a wicked sense of humor.

Since my children, then seven and ten, could be counted on to return home from school every afternoon at precisely two-thirty (and I was the one responsible for meeting them), I decided to enlist them in the enterprise. After school we’d all pile into the car and search out the places about which I’d been reading, places like the Hidden Forest in the eastern portion of the island, near where the Wampanoag leader King Philip seized the “praying Indian” John Gibbs, and Capaum Pond, the kettle hole to the west that had once been at the center of the first English settlement. What became known as “Daddy’s wild goose chases” often left us muddy and itchy with poison ivy, but these escapades proved immensely helpful when it came to understanding the importance of place to the past. On a tiny sea-swept island, geography matters, and I was lucky to have the past right there, under my feet.

By the end of December I was about a quarter of the way through a first draft. During a New Year’s Day visit to Lake Winnipesaukee, my good friend Peter Gow provided crucial input and encouragement and became the book’s editor. By Memorial Day weekend I’d finished a first draft, and with the help of Peter, my father (a retired English professor who doubled as our copy editor), and my mother-in-law (a retired librarian who created the index), I rethought, rewrote, and revised, another process I’ve followed in every book since. The manuscript was done by the fall of 1993 and published in the spring of 1994.

In the almost twenty years since, much has changed on the island. Sadly, Bud Egan and Mimi Beman have both passed away. However, Bud’s love of Nantucket history has been memorialized in the form of the Egan Maritime Institute , an organization that celebrates Nantucket’s seafaring heritage and continues to publish books through the Mill Hill Press, while the store Mimi turned into a Nantucket institution, Mitchell’s Book Corner, is still operating on Main Street. This book honors both Nantucket’s past and its future. With the reissuing of Away Off Shore as a Penguin paperback, it’s my hope that the book with which I found a calling will now find a new audience.

Nathaniel Philbrick
Nantucket, December 20, 2010