Melville Patches His Jacket

August 6, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: White-Jacket, by Herman Melville.

It’s tough to read White-Jacket on its own terms, and not as The Book Before Moby-Dick.  Too much fun, for instance, to see how Melville’s approach to designing his narrative and combining his mini-essays, reminiscences, fictional events, and factual chapters into a cohesive whole changed from this book to his masterpiece.

Moby-Dick is, obviously, much more successful at this, but the earlier book is different in interesting ways.  W-J does not begin with a compelling narrative like the adventures of Ishmael and Queequeg, propelling the reader into the more various and philosophical chapters of the book’s middle; instead, it begins with a mildly humorous description of the eponymous white jacket, made of patches and scraps of fabric.  To the reader accustomed to Melville, the chapter and the device of the jacket are irresistible as a metafiction, a metaphor for the entire work, for his style in general: the patchwork, uncanny (“white as a shroud”), self-made, absorbent jacket is a fine symbol of Melville’s work.  Besides which, that whiteness: already creeping into (or back into, if such a coat actually existed) Melville’s mind, the pariah, mysterious whiteness.

(Also, as in M-D, the beginning of the narrative is not actually the beginning of the book.  Here, there’s a preface (in the English edition) or note (in the American) in which Melville states that he’s used his own “man-of-war experiences and observations” in the book.  Unlike the extravagant legend-building in the paratextual opening of M-D, here there’s an avowal of basis in fact and truth, in real life.  Melville still not over the sting of Mardi‘s dismissal, not yet ready to write another giant piece of fiction.)

After this opening, W-J slips into the kind of observations of nautical life loosely joined to a fictional framework which occupy much of M-D‘s middle — but without doing much of the work of helping us identify with the narrator or the other characters on the ship.  The observations are engaging enough, but the reader is left with a lot of unanswered, nagging questions about the narrator, and about how to read the book (interestingly, the preface in the English edition encourages the reader to read the book as fact-based fiction, while the American-edition note makes it seem a work of biography).

And yet the voice into which Melville is growing — has grown, it seems, by this point in his career — compels.  There’s a great section from chapters 16 to 19, including a furious chapter, full of complex, fascinating rhetoric,  about the injustice of war and worthless preparations for war; an ironic, contrapuntal chapter about the desperate attempts to save anyone fallen overboard on a man-of-war; a smooth segue into a beautiful statement of the man-of-war “full as a Nut,” a kind of floating city or world; and a gorgeous chapter, containing a premonition of the Icarus theme in M-D and a paean to sailors, who “expatriate ourselves to nationalize with the universe.”

Melville said he wrote Redburn and White-Jacket for the money, plain and simple; it’s a gross simplification, of course, because the man was full of interesting thoughts and interesting words, and got himself invested in whatever he was working on.  And yet (even a fraction of the way in, as I am into W-J) the difference is plainly there, between these works and M-D, or even between these and Mardi or Pierre.  To my own surprise, I find the difference is not so much one of sincerity, or deeper thinking, or even of finding a theme worthy of his best work.  No: the difference is one of artifice.  Melville was at his most rigorously artificial, his most fantastical and fictional, when he cared most, when he felt he was playing for artistic and aesthetic keeps.  For Melville, plain speaking could only lead to superficial understanding.

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§ One Response to Melville Patches His Jacket

  • […] 4.  White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville.  Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books.  A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages.  The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close.  (See three posts starting here.) […]

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