Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Historical nonfiction author Nathaniel Philbrick was raised in Pittsburgh.
Awards: Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize
Historical nonfiction writer Nathaniel Philbrick was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 11, 1956, but raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has been a highly respected author and historian for both adults and young adults since his career breakthrough with Into the Heart of the Sea in 2000, for which he won the National Book Award. He has since written books about the Mayflower, Custer’s Last Stand, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Philbrick currently resides on Nantucket Island with his wife, Melissa.
Nathaniel Philbrick, or Nat to family and friends, was born on June 11, 1956. His father, Thomas Philbrick, was a professor of maritime literature at the University of Pittsburgh. Philbrick attended primary and high school in Pittsburgh, leaving Pennsylvania to study English at Brown University. After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in English in 1978, he continued his schooling at Duke University. There, he earned a Master’s Degree in American Literature in 1980. Philbrick is married to Melissa Douthart Philbrick. They have two children: Jennie and Ethan. Melissa is an attorney and the Executive Director of ReMain Nantucket, an organization working for the promotion and preservation of Nantucket Island.
Philbrick has always been intrigued by the ocean and maritime history. He remembers his father telling him bedtime stories about the Essex and other seafaring events. This passion has appeared in almost every area of his life. At Brown University, Philbrick enjoyed competitive sailing and was the first Intercollegiate All-American Sailor in school history in 1978. Philbrick was a writer for Sailing World magazine for four years after graduate school. During this time, he also wrote and edited other books about sailing. It was only after moving to Nantucket in 1986, however, that Philbrick’s career as a bestselling author and historian truly took off.
Until 2000, Philbrick worked as a freelance author. In 1994, he published his first historical narrative: Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People. In Away Off Shore, Philbrick tells the history of Nantucket up until the end of the whaling era in the late 1800s, designating each chapter to one influential person in the Island’s history. In an interview with the Paris Review, Philbrick explains the mode of writing that developed from his first published work: “It’s really a journalistic approach to the past—trying to figure out who these people were, and telling a story.”
Following this narrative, Philbrick published Into the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex in 2000. Philbrick tells the story of the Nantucket whaleship that was capsized by an angry sperm whale in 1820, forcing the surviving crew members to live in starvation and turn to cannibalism. Whereas Melville’s Moby Dick ends with the whale’s attack, Philbrick continues the story to capture the tragedy that awaited the crew. W. Jeffrey Bolster from The New York Times states:
Philbrick has created an eerie thriller from a centuries-old tale of cannibalism on the high seas. It’s all here: audacious seamanship, untold suffering, race and madness. And it’s true. Scrupulously researched and elegantly written, In the Heart of the Sea is a masterpiece of maritime history. It would have earned Melville’s admiration.
Other opinions like this one earned Into the Heart of the Sea 40 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and the 2000 National Best Book Award for nonfiction. In 2002, Philbrick published an adaptation of Into the Heart of the Sea titled Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex for young readers. PBS later featured Philbrick and his work in “Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World” on its series American Experience in 2010.
After this career breakthrough, Philbrick continued to write more historical nonfiction narratives. He published Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition in 2003; Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War in 2006; The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 2010; Why Read Moby Dick? in 2010; and Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution in 2013.
Sea of Glory tells the story of the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838, charting the dangerous seas surrounding Antarctica. The expedition was led by Charles Wilkes and lasted four years. During this time, crewman William Reynolds kept elaborate journals that now reside unpublished at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. Philbrick used these and many other works to compile the story of this unique expedition. According to Kirkus Reviews, Sea of Glory is “[a] rare blend of history, heroics, and gut-gripping emotion.” Philbrick’s narrative was awarded the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize in 2003 by the New York Council of the Navy League.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War is another historic maritime narrative. In Mayflower’s preface, Philbrick explains why he felt the need to investigate this subject:
My initial impression of the period was bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the
time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans. I soon learned that the real-life Indians and English of the seventeenth century were too smart, too generous, too greedy, too brave—in short, too human—to behave so predictably.
Mayflower reveals the true events that stemmed from this unpredictability. Janet Maslin in TheNew York Times praised Philbrick’s work, saying: “Mayflower is a surprise-filled account of what are supposed to be some of the best-known events in this country’s past but are instead an occasion for collective amnesia.” Mayflower was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history and was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by the New York Times. Philbrick also adapted this book for young people in 2008, calling it The Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ New World.
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn was Philbrick’s first work not related to maritime history, but was a topic that had always intrigued him. It tells the story of the battle that took place in 1876 between George Custer and Sitting Bull. He aims to look at the events from both sides’ perspectives and discard myth for reason. Seth Faison wrote for the Los Angeles Times that “[w]ith strong narrative skill, offering broad context and narrow detail, Philbrick recounts a story and, in the process, dismantles old myths piece by piece.”
Philbrick’s intent of writing 2010’s Why Read Moby-Dick is to give Melville’s Moby-Dick a contemporary audience. In this short novel, Philbrick highlights aspects of Melville and Moby-Dick that captivated him as a young reader and eventually led him to write Into the Heart of the Sea. Writing in The Christian Century, Harold K. Bush states that “Philbrick’s astute gaze makes for thrilling reading, full of brilliant yet understated insights, nuggets of lost data and a few interesting asides about the novel’s relevance for the contemporary United States.” He concluded: “I’ll give Philbrick’s slim volume the best compliment I can think of: it made me want to go back and reread, and then teach, this great novel yet again.”
Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution tells the story of the bloodiest battle of the Revolution in a fresh light. Philbrick focuses on numerous people who played major roles during this time in America’s history. When asked what he wants readers to take away from his book, he stated that he “hope[s] readers will come away with a sense of the past as a time very much like our own: a time when ordinary people were forced to do extraordinary things; a time when chaos and confusion reigned; a time when no one—not even George Washington—knew what was going to happen next.” Choice Reviews praised Bunker Hill, saying, “Nathaniel Philbrick has long demonstrated a rare talent for bringing new perspectives and sparkling prose to iconic episodes in US history.” Bunker Hill was the Winner of the New England Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2013.
When asked by Chuck Leddy of The Writer for advice to aspiring nonfiction writers, Philbrick counseled:
I’d advise writing professionally in some way, whether at a magazine or a newspaper. It’s important to have deadlines and peers that you have to deal with. It provides discipline and a thick skin when it comes to accepting criticism…. Enthusiasm is big. The only hope is to have some real enthusiasm for the book. Even if you don't know what you’re doing at the start, or don't know all you need to know to finish, that’s fine—it happens to everyone. But you need that initial rush [of enthusiasm] to get you through the tough times, till you get to where you’re gaining control over the material.
Philbrick and his wife, Melissa currently reside in their home in Nantucket. They enjoysailing their Beetle Cat, Clio, and their Kirby 38 Yawl, Phebe, around the island.
Abram’s Eyes: The Native American Legacy of Nantucket Island. Nantucket: Mill Hill Press, 1992.
Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People. Nantucket: Mill Hill Press, 1994.
Into the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Viking, 2000.
Revenge of the Whale: The True Story of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Putnam, 2002.
Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition. New York: Viking, 2003.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006.
The Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ New World. New York: Putnam, 2008.
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. New York: Viking, 2010.
Why Read Moby Dick? New York: Viking, 2010.
Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. New York: Viking, 2013.