Reading "White Jacket" On Independence Day Jul 4, 2017
I wanted to celebrate the Fourth of July by reading a classic work of American literature and decided to reread Melville's "White-Jacket", alternatively titled "The World in a Man-of-War". The book was Melville's fifth novel, written just before "Moby-Dick". It proved appropriate to July 4 for many reasons as, in his study of Melville, Andrew Delblanco aptly describes "White-Jacket" as a "paean on behalf of democracy. It is that and more.
Written in 1850, "White-Jacket" purports to describe Melville's own experiences when he shipped in 1843 as an "ordinary seaman on board of a United States frigate, then lying in a harbor of the Pacific Ocean." Melville's voyage as a sailor lasted about 14 months as the ship sailed south around Cape Horn and then north in the Atlantic until ultimately reaching the United States where Melville was discharged. Melville calls the ship the "Neversink". It was a large sailing vessel, a man-of war, consisting of over 500 sailors and commanded by a captain, Captain Claret. There is also a Commodore on board the "Neversink" who commands a fleet. (At the time of the voyage, there were no admirals in the United States Navy.) Melville wrote "White Jacket" quickly and claimed he did not think highly of the book. In that judgment he seems to me mistaken.
This is a lengthy book consisting of 90 short chapters written in a large, expansive almost bravura style. It does not have a continuous developed plot but rather is episodic in form. Melville describes in great detail life onboard the Neversink, and the people on board. He makes great use of the telling anecdote. "White Jacket" is also full of long passages of reflection about navy life and the ambiguities of human nature. In many places, the book becomes almost more a long essay than a novel.
The book tells the story about an individual and about a world and microcosm. The book is narrated by "White-Jacket", and the reader never learns his name. The baggy white jacket the narrator wears and that give him his nickname frames many of his adventures as the jacket, together with the narrator's introspective, "meditative" disposition, separate him from most of his fellow sailors. As the book progresses, the white jacket subjects the narrator to ridicule at various times and, near the end of the book, almost becomes his shroud which leads to his death. After falling overboard from the mast, the narrator is able to cut off the old jacket to be rescued by the crew and return to a common humanity.
Besides this individual component of the story, Melville uses the ship as a metaphor for diversity and for American life and democracy where good and evil and people of all backgrounds and positions are intermixed. There is a degree of camaraderie and freedom from the restraints of a 9 to 5 life (or its 1850 equivalent) onboard the Neversink. There are acts of heroism and strong, noble individuals, including particularly Jack Chase, Melville's superior on the mast whose praises are sung throughout the book. Melville dedicated his late final novel "Billy Budd" to Jack Chase.
The strongest impression left by the book, however, is its criticism of excesses and cruelties in the Navy. In particular, "White Jacket" includes many passages and chapters about the punishment of flogging which was widely practiced on the Neversink under Captain Claret, an individual who is also shown as having good qualities. Melville offers graphic and repeated descriptions of flogging, including a description of how White Jacket himself fortunately and narrowly missed a severe flogging and of how an aged, revered sailor named Ushant received a flogging for disobeying an order of the Captain to trim his beard. Melville's book may have been a factor in an Act of Congress which outlawed flogging in the navy.
Melville also describes the large degree of stratification in the Navy between the seamen, or "people" and the officer crew, from the Commodore and Captain, through the Lieutenants and the young dictatorial Midshipmen. The book recognizes the need for discipline and organization on a military vessel at sea. But Melville writes sharply about petty tyrannies of one person over another, about rigid social distinctions, and about unnecessary excessive, and harsh discipline. The backdrop to the book is American democracy with its many people and freedoms, but also its excesses and injustices, including the institution of slavery. Melville also is critical of many of his fellow sailors, with their ignorance, profligacy, smugglings and thefts, and violence. At the end of the book, Melville writes:
"Oh, shipmates and world-mates all round! we the people suffer many abuses. Our gun-deck is full of complaints. In vain from Lieutenants do we appeal to the Captain; in vain-- while on board our world-frigate-- to the indefinite Navy Commissioners, so far out of sight aloft. Yet the worst of our evils we blindly inflict upon ourselves; our officers can not remove them, even if they would. From the last ills no being can save another; therein each man must be his own saviour."
Besides constituting a "paean on behalf of democracy", "White-Jacket" has a more immediate relationship to the Fourth of July. Several chapters in the book describe the celebration of the holiday on board the Neversink. When the ship ran out of grog before the holiday, the ship's officers allowed the sailors to celebrate the day by performing a play or "theatrical". The men decked themselves in costumes and wrote, rehearsed, and performed their own drama called "The Old Wagon Paid Off!" starring none other than Jack Chase. During the July 4 performance, ship discipline was relaxed. With the exception of the Commodore and the Captain, the ship's officers attended the performance, and shared a spirit of brotherhood and fellowship. White-Jacket said "the unwonted spectacle of the row of gun-room officers mingling with 'the people' in applauding a mere seaman like Jack Chase, filled me at the time with the most pleasurable emotions." White Jacket continued:
"Nor was it without similar pleasurable feelings that I witnessed the temporary rupture of the ship's stern discipline, consequent upon the tumult of the theatricals. I thought to myself, this now is as it should be. It is good to shake off, now and then, this iron yoke round our necks. And after having once permitted us sailors to be a little noisy, in a harmless way -- somewhat merrily turbulent -- the officers can not, with any good grace, be so excessively stern and unyielding as before."
Alas, rigorous discipline soon returned to the ship.
In the story of the individual narrator, of life on the Neversink, and of the freedom and camaraderie of the theatrical on July 4, "White-Jacket" reminded me of the ideals celebrated in the United States on Independence Day.