American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

WHITE-JACKET (1850). Based on his experiences in the U.S. Navy, Herman Melville’s* (1819-1891) protagonist White-Jacket narrates the voyage of a young man on the Neversink as it cruises from Hawai’i, around Cape Horn,* to its home port. Melville’s subtitle, The World in a Man-of-War, indicates that Melville also attempts to present a full portrait of all aspects of life on board: he describes the various stations, from the maintop to the gundeck, and positions, from the highest officers to the lowest men. Melville’s narrator takes an activist position relative to this society, frequently lashing out against the abuses suffered by the sailors. He provides particularly graphic and outraged indictments of the practice of flogging and, more generally, of the arrogation of power by the officers. As the novel proceeds, White-Jacket becomes increasingly concerned with the extent to which life on a man-of-war is bound up with death.

In contrast, from his position in the maintop under the tutelage of seasoned sailors like Jack Chase, White-Jacket comes to appreciate much that is positive about naval life. Jack and other sailors spin their yarns, telling of adventures and exotic locales, and White-Jacket relishes his superior position in the maintop. He comes to feel a sense of development or accomplishment from his experiences as a sailor.

The sea figures prominently in one major scene, one of the most dramatic in all of Melville’s writing. Near the end, White-Jacket, plagued by his absurd and impractical jacket throughout the voyage, becomes tangled in it and falls from the maintop into the sea. There he feels the approach of death, rips off the jacket, and surfaces with a new sense of freedom. Springing back into the maintop, he optimistically feels a predestined sense of being “homeward-bound.” [See also THE RED RECORD]

FURTHER READING: Anderson, Charles R. Melville in the South Seas. New York: Columbia UP, 1939; Samson, John. White Lies: Melville’s Narratives of Facts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989; Vincent, Howard P. The Tailoring of Melville’s White-Jacket. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1970.

John Samson