Monday, March 08, 2010

Reflections on White Jacket

Melville, Pennsylvania Project - Book III

Typee (1846) you can characterize as the “debut novel” that put Herman Melville “on the map” or whatever first-time success cliché you want to use. Omoo (1847), though I have not read it yet, is clearly a sequel, an attempt to deliver on the promise of the first novel. Mardi (1849) is the bolder, idea-driven experiment, the attempt to branch out, and even though it failed, it is still notable for its heft and philosophical bent. It nods towards the mightier Melville novels to come. Then there’s Redburn (1849), a back-to-basics novel, a shorter and more palatable coming-of-age story. Later, of course, there was Moby-Dick (1851), the masterpiece, the epic journey, the Great American novel.

All of this to get around to the following: White Jacket, or the World in a Man-of-War (1850), to this writer, is a head-scratcher. I’m not sure what I can make of this novel from the great Melville, other than to say it’s a mailed-in effort, an attempt to appeal to the same people who might have found Redburn interesting, a way to earn some money. And you can believe me when I say I don’t have a problem with that. But I do find it hard to swallow the idea that there wasn’t, at least in its conception if not in its execution, some kind of subterranean raison d’etre to this story, some unique point that Melville was trying to make in this novel alone, other than just to describe in detail life on board a man-of-war ship in the nineteenth century. This point, if it does exist, eludes me.

Maybe there isn’t one after all. The key may be in the sub- or alternate title: The World in a Man-of-War. Originally I took “the world” to mean just that – our planet, our civilization. The whole wide Earth. But it could be that the emphasis in that curious alternate title should not be in the phrase “the world”, but rather in the preposition “in”. The world in a man-of-war. Or, put another way, the world is the man-of-war, and White Jacket exists to tell you about everything in that world.

The novel opens with a rapid-fire description of the garment that gives the narrator his name – crafted by his own intrepid skill using a needle and an old shirt, in order to try to protect himself from the elements while at sea. Soon after, the frigate man-of-war Neversink embarks on a journey to New York City from somewhere in the South Pacific.

The first portion of the novel describes the rank-and-file of the crew, the social/hierarchical structure in place among it, and the various duties and pastimes they engage in as the ship sails south, navigates the treacherous passage around Cape Horn, and heads back north along the eastern edge of South America, bound for home. In this first leg of the “journey” you might call White Jacket, not a whole lot happens. Still, it is notable for several reasons.

We are guided along by one of Melville’s vaporous narrators, who tend to introduce themselves and then fade quickly and almost entirely into the background for long stretches of his novels. All we know about “White Jacket” is that he is a common sailor, not a person of rank, and he made his own “jacket” from a white shirt which not only fails to protect him from the weather but also draws the negative attention of the crew towards itself. Nonetheless it seems clear that he is no “greenhorn”, like Wellingborough Redburn in the previous novel, and can hold his own on board the ship.

Characteristically, Melville devotes the majority of his attention to the eccentrics surrounding the narrator. We are introduced to several. The most favored of these is clearly one Jack Chase, who holds the position of “captain of the top-sail”, which seems to be a job for a seasoned, well-respected noncommissioned officer-type. A veteran sailor whose men have his back secured. This figure is presented in bold, colorful terms and appears to have a kind of iconic status, at least to White Jacket.

The ship’s leader, Captain Claret, is described as a competent, reasonably well-liked skipper; he’s not the conniving despot presented in Redburn (Captain Riga) nor is he the tortured lunatic to follow in Moby-Dick. He has the misfortune to have been assigned to transport a “Commodore”, an elderly officer whose life has been devoted to the Navy, back to the United States. This is tricky, because while Claret remains skipper, the Commodore outranks him, and has to be shown constant deference. The descriptions of this man “condescending” to wander among the crew from time to time are humorous and hold up against the military of today, where the divide still gapes between senior officers and common troops. I recognized these types of scenes from my time in the service.

Another character on board is Lemsford, a bookish sailor who aspires to become a poet, and spends whatever liberty he can acquire from his rigorous duties on the frigate in the service of his craft. He scribbles poem after poem and puts them in a wooden box, which he then hides in a cubby hole near one of the cannons he’s assigned to maintain and operate. This leads to one uproarious moment when the frigate, suddenly called into a brief skirmish, has to fire their cannons – only to have Lemsford’s gun blast out a pile of loose poetry manuscripts he had hastily shoved into the barrel. One character quips that blasting poems out of a cannon is truly “the way to publish”.

The first third of the novel is most notable, however, for its colorful and by all accounts authentic portrayal of flogging, the capital punishment used by naval officers on wayward crew members around this time. The story goes that the description of this brutal practice in White Jacket was so accurate and vivid that it forced Congress to take action to ban the practice in the United States Navy. Once you read the chapters, it isn’t too much of a surprise that the Congressional action occurred, since Melville appeals for it directly in the novel. His arguments against the practice of flogging sailors are certainly forceful, and the descriptions are full-blooded, to say the least.

The middle portion of the novel finds the Neversink docking for a rest at Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Although the ship remains in port for some time, the soldiers are not allowed shore leave, in spite of a passionate appeal from Jack Chase to the ship’s leaders. So any hopes the reader might have of getting an impression of 19th century Rio de Janiero are dashed; you won’t get a guided tour of the town like readers of Redburn do of a sordid and grungy Liverpool. Instead, there is more passage of time, minute details about various aspects of the ship itself and what sailors do to while away the hours, everything from theater to games and gambling to battle drills and observations of what the elderly Commodore does while strolling around the ship, receiving laurels from everyone and everything.

Even more than the flogging chapters, an account of an on-deck amputation of a sailor’s leg that was shattered by a bullet at mid-thigh is one of the most visceral and gut-wrenching accounts of primitive surgeries I have ever read anywhere; it actually made me feel queasy. The eccentric surgeon turns the procedure into open-air theater, inviting surgeons from other vessels to watch while he arrogantly waxes about his own skills. This sequence becomes even more chilling when the patient expires during the procedure, a fact the dispassionate surgeon casts away like the blood he wipes from his own fingers, and the poor sailor, whose suffering has been borne in full view of his mates, is cast overboard in a rudimentary burial.

After what seems like a long and rather uneventful layover in Rio, the ship finally casts off for home, and Melville extends the tour of the Neversink to even further corners, to the point where the reader wonders if there is any aspect of the sailors’ lives or their surroundings that has escaped a detailed accounting. By the time the ship is making its final run for New York and Melville enters into a weirdly dramatic rendering of what he calls “the massacre of the beards” – an episode in which the captain orders the crew to shave their heads and their long beards, and the crew emphatically revolts against the idea – one wonders why so much attention is being attached to such a trivial matter, even with the distance of the centuries and the knowledge that facial hair had a different quality of fashionableness in those years. Indeed, anticipating this, Melville explains that the revolt has had historical precedents reaching all the way back to Roman times, but this didn't lend the episode extra weight - or velocity - in my own estimation.

Melville described both White Jacket and Redburn as “cakes and ale”, strongly implying that they were commercially-driven books, as indicated before. But in my opinion, the latter novel is superior to the former. In a coming-of-age tale like Redburn, everything is new for the character, and one can understand the openness to all experiences and the need to account for them. With White Jacket, however, the extraneous detail and lack of a narrative focus are harder to explain, or forgive. Each of Melville’s books to this point had been at least partially set on ships, and all of them have some account of the sailors’ existence. There’s simply not much new to say in White Jacket, and there’s a gaping hole in this novel, at least to me, where a sense of purpose or narrative drive should be filling, or carrying us past, the space.

Melville succeeds here in performing the duties of we might call an early version of the “embedded journalist”, even though the story is presented as a fiction. But he fails roundly in performing the duties of a storyteller. That’s not to say you come away from White Jacket having wasted your time. Melville’s prose is as vivid and muscular as ever, and his sense of humor is effective and amusing. Nonetheless, while one can always expect a certain degree of moralizing in Melville’s books, White Jacket seems particularly didactic at times; one gets the feeling that they’re being preached to. Preaching is always more welcome to those who have specifically sought after it than to those who, seeking a good story or some other end, find themselves subjected to the sermon instead. You might argue that Melville was always actively preaching, of course; but in many of his other books, the sermonizing comes rigged up to a gripping narrative that whisks us along with its momentum.

What’s really interesting to me is that Melville completed this puzzling, unsuccessful book in New York, but then relocated in 1850 with his family to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, into a farmhouse he called “Arrowhead”, purchased with assistance from his father-in-law, the Chief Justice of the State of Massachusetts. There, according to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Herman Melville for the “Penguin Lives” series, he settled not only with his wife and young children, but also numerous other relatives hanging around what sounds like a rather rambunctious household. Yet he moved immediately on to write the great Moby-Dick, and in spite of all possible distractions and literary hardships, he managed to bury the harpoon of his creative energies into the flank of the mother of all narrative drives: an obsessive quest for a huge, white whale.

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