The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 12 February 2019

White Jacket

or: The World in a Man-of-War

by Herman Melville

It is 1843, and young Herman Melville has gone to sea aboard the American warship, the USS United States. He's already been at sea for years, has wandered the Pacific islands, written stories and short novels. Perhaps he saw the United States as an opportunity to find new stories. Perhaps he just saw it as a way to get home from Honolulu, a 14-month journey around The Horn and back to New York. What resulted was this 1850 encyclopedic novel, written a few years yet before Melville's epic masterpiece Moby Dick.

Moby Dick of course, is also encyclopedic, long-winded, drawn out and slow. On the other hand, it is rich with period detail, metaphor and adventure. It remains perhaps the best novel in American literature. White Jacket can be seen as a preparatory novel in Melville's development. The book is a sea-going adventure, full of rich sensory detail. If the book has a mission, though, it is to tell as much as possible about day-to-day life aboard an American warship carrying five hundred men. The ship itself, called here the USS Neversink had been riding the waves for decades. (The United States was fated to be taken by the Confederates during the American Civil War, but was ultimatly scuttled in 1865.) Melville's story thinly disguises many real-life seamen and officers. One might describe this as a non-fiction novel, given its attention to realistic details. We learn of the particulars of life aboard ship, and the conditions under which these men serve the United States Navy. And these aren't great conditions. The rules are anti-democratic. Medical care is as much fatal as curative. The food is lumpy and weird by modern standards. The corporal punishments are particularly brutal. Indeed, Melville labors over several chapters on the nature of floggings on board. These punishments are often for the most trivial of offenses, and the rules can be read at certain angles to allow for flogging to death. Ultimately, Melville's arguments against flogging resulted in the US Congress devising laws that would ban the practice and modify criminal punshiment in the armed services. The descriptions of floggings are difficult enough, but it is the description of an unecessary leg amputation that will strain the reader's endurance. This is the kind of gritty detail that enlivens this book and also makes it long and exhaustive. But that detail is also enriched by Melville's craft, poetry, wit, his use of metaphor and moral purpose.

White Jacket, himself, is our narrator, though he tells the story in the third person as much as in the first. It's a nickname the narrator earns when he can't get an official Navy jacket to keep him warm high in the yardarms of the ship. Instead, he sews his own jacket out of sail cloth. The jacket itself is a character-defining prop, which sets him apart from the remainder of the crew, and figures in at least two near-death experiences.

There's a magical quality, yet, to this book, which presages that of Melville's later epic. As detailed and encyclopedic as it is, there are lyrical moments that make the journey worth the time and patience the reader will need to bring. The book was widely-read in its time, though it now lives in the shadow of that white whale.

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Also by Melville: [Timoleon]