Thursday, May 06, 2010

Reflections on Israel Potter

“Melville, Pennsylvania” Project – Book VI

In earlier reflections on Melville’s 1852 literary pile-up, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, I argued that it was a novel in which Melville underwent a painful metamorphosis, transforming himself into a different kind of writer altogether. If someone (other than me!) were reading his novels in chronological order by publication, and found themselves in agreement with that thesis up through Pierre, their opinion would be unlikely to change once they read Melville’s last two novels – Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855) and The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Both of these later works are entirely different from Pierre, as they are from one another. In addition, all three novels bear almost zero resemblance to anything Melville wrote prior to 1852. It was not until his last creative work, the novella Billy Budd, Sailor, which he was still working on at his death in 1891, that Melville returned to the open sea of his earlier days.

The present reflections are concerned with Potter, the second of that oddball triad of novels produced in the 1850s, after the critical and popular dismissal of Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick (1851). Israel Potter is marked by a few distinctions from the rest of Herman Melville’s canon that are worth noting right out of the gate. It is the only historical novel Melville wrote, set during and in the years after the American Revolutionary War. It is the only novel he based directly on external source material, which in this case was an 1824 manuscript, published but quickly forgotten, by the real-life Israel Potter. This individual actually did fight with distinction at Bunker Hill and ended up living for a very long time in England after that. Lastly, Israel Potter is the shortest of Melville’s novels, and seems to have been composed with some restraint – which is indeed significant, coming as it did in the wake of Pierre, a difficult novel in nearly every sense.

The simple fact that Melville was able to change course like that when writing Israel Potter, and to such dramatic effect, is to me demonstrative of his great versatility and rigorous craftsmanship. It’s one thing to grasp the idea that your earlier writing might have been too verbose and ornate for most people to digest, but it’s quite another to turn around a deliver a novel that scales those qualities back while still managing to satisfy readers with its intelligence and originality. This is no small feat. Israel Potter is impressive on the level of pure craft. It features shorter chapters, cleaner prose, a more linear narrative focus, and a more assured sense of pace. All of these work in the novel’s favor, and probably have a lot to do with the fact that, while it still sold poorly as most of Melville’s mid- and later-career books did, Potter received generally favorable critical notices.

Part of the reason the novel seems to retain its focus throughout may be because of the fact that it was based on an actual life, as I alluded to earlier. Melville seems to nod towards this in Chapter 19, when he refrains from providing details of a naval battle he has referenced in the narrative: “Elsewhere than here the reader must go who seeks an elaborate version of the fight ….. The writer is but brought to mention the battle, because he must needs follow, in all events, the fortunes of the humble adventurer whose life he records.”

The real-life Israel Potter was born to “reputable” parents, as his own manuscript states, in New Hampshire in the 1740s. He left home early after a fallout with those parents over his attention to one of their neighbors’ daughters. Neither his own mother and father nor the young girls’ guardians approved of him as a suitor for the girl, so he skipped town to take command of his fortunes. He worked for others as a farmhand for a while, until he had earned enough money to buy a plot of land, where the enterprising youngster built his own cabin and hunted his own food most of the year. After a few years of self-sufficiency, Potter returned home to reunite with his parents, who received him warmly, having thought he was dead (!). Yet he received the same treatment as before from his beloved’s father. This time Potter left for good, served for some years on a whaling voyage, and, when the call was issued for young men to participate in the revolution, took up his arms in patriotic service.

In Melville’s novel, Potter finds himself fighting at Bunker Hill, the first major engagement of the revolution. Acquitting himself honorably in combat, he is subsequently chosen to be a sailor on an American vessel, because of his prior experience and the minor problem of having almost zero men available for a national navy. When the ship he is assigned to is attacked and set on fire, Israel is picked up by a British frigate and carried to England in shackles – from whence he will not return for more than half a century.

The rest of the novel details Potter’s oddball adventures in England – and sometimes France – working in a series of off-hand jobs and experiencing various trials and tribulations. Along the way, Melville uses the novelist’s creative license to manipulate events so that Israel Potter’s path crosses with a number of identifiable figures from that time period. We see Potter employed in King George III’s botanical gardens as a kind of landscaper, leading inevitably to a colorful encounter with the monarch himself, who, discovering Potter’s American identity, assures him rather benevolently that he will not be “troubled” as long as he is in the king’s employ. Potter then becomes a secret courier for Benjamin Franklin, whom he visits in France and engages in lively dialogue, before obtaining a piece of intelligence to convey back to England inside of a false boot heel. Later, he is thrown into battle engagements with both John Paul Jones, the celebrated American naval commander, and Ethan Allen, both of whom come off as belligerent, spirited characters.

In Melville’s practiced hands, these vaunted figures are amusing and vivid; he has done the research and preparation necessary to understand the essential nature of these men and to make them spring alive right off the page. Jones in particular is vigorously drawn, and carries a pirate-sized chip on his epauletted shoulder into the battle sequences. Again Potter fights bravely and capably alongside him, but never seems to come out ahead in this story, for all of his self-sacrifice.

Indeed, for as the novel carries on and Potter ages, we learn that his one great desire is only to return to America and apply for a pension there. While he continues to seek passage to the United States and gets repeatedly denied for one reason or another, Potter falls into poverty while attempting to raise a family of, eventually, ten children. Before the novel ends, nine of them will precede him to the grave. Finally, with his lone surviving son, Potter is granted permission to return home, as an elderly man, only to endure the hardships of a miserable sea passage to his own country.

Returning, at long last, to his home soil, Potter finds his old land overgrown, the structures he grew up in long burned, and any remaining relatives far removed from New Hampshire. He does, however, experience the satisfaction of taking his one remaining son on a battlefield tour of the sites of his honorable service. Applying for a pension, Potter longs only to live out his remaining days with the graces and gratitude of the United States. Tragically, however, the application is denied by Congress on a legal technicality, and Israel Potter dies a poor man, neglected by his own country.

Israel Potter is one of Melville’s most accessible works, with its manageable length, numerous fast-paced set-pieces, and entertaining amalgamation of fiction and U.S. national history. There were times when I felt the novel could almost work for young adult audiences – with a character named Potter, this seemed sensible for some reason. I’ve read children’s books to my daughters where the author has invented a character – sometimes it’s a pet – who is a kind of eyewitness or a shadowing companion to a true-life figure of historical significance. If this seems an oft-used template, as I suspect it is, it may boil down to yet another innovation that Melville was well out in front of. No matter how you look at it as a narrative technique, it gave Melville the opportunity to flesh out individuals whose names and accomplishments were already known to educated Americans.

Then again, this is a Herman Melville novel, and Melville generally didn’t appear to seek a juvenile audience for his writings. The narrative is peppered here and there with shocking violence, for it is a wartime story after all. On one occasion in the midst of battle, Potter seizes the wrist of an arm that he thinks is attempting to undercut him at the ankles; only to find it is only an arm, with a sword still in the gripping hand. Because of the narrative’s close communion with the brutal reality of war and its ultimately tragic and inhumane conclusion, where one man who has paid so dearly for the benefit of his fellow citizens is denied the consolation of his country, Israel Potter travels beyond the specter of pure entertainment to something of greater profundity.

This is perhaps best illustrated with an example, with which I conclude. The interesting thing is that it does not even come from the novel itself. The source instead is the book’s satiric Dedication page – from which, as Melville once explained to one of his admirers, the meaning of the entire offering can be “clearly inferred” – an arguable point. In exaggerated prose, perhaps meant to send-up English documentation and language of the time, Melville dedicates the novel not to any human person, but to “His Highness the Bunker Hill Monument”, erected in Boston in the early 1800s to honor those men who fought and died for America.

In words soaked with irony, Melville here seizes the chance to “mingle my hearty congratulations on the recurrence of the anniversary day we celebrate, wishing your Highness many returns of the same, and that each of it’s summer’s suns may shine as brightly on your brow as each winter’s snow shall lightly rest on the grave of Israel Potter.”


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