White-Jacket by Herman Melville

Melville is such a satisfying author to read chronologically. Typee is so young and fresh, Omoo a bit more jaded, Mardi a letting go and an exploration. With Redburn the sails are trimmed, but perhaps just a bit too much. And then White-Jacket, which serves as both a culmination and a prelude.

White-Jacket has all the techniques we’ve come to expect, all executed in top form. There is the description both of quotidian life and also of the tasks, duties, and skills of the man-of-war’s men; a whole way of life is imparted. There are the descriptions of a legion of idiosyncratic characters—the narrator is friends with the readers of the group, of course. There is the social commentary, this time mostly focused on corporal punishment, but also on war and national service more generally. There is, again, the American issue. The microcosm of the world as a man-of-war. The large number of brief, episodic chapters. Definitely lighter on the metaphysics than Mardi, but it’s still Melville.

And there is an older and a wiser Melville-narrator, a gentle soul who does his best to stay out of trouble, likes to read (or just spend time with books), and has a tendency toward irony. I find him irresistible. The ever-present tangents. The constantly nagging thought that this seaman could not possibly be a seaman. The deep love of and frustration with humanity. Here is some of his advice on how to keep a good disposition despite an unpleasant job:

It would be advisable for any man, who from an unlucky choice of a profession, which it is too late to change for another, should find his temper souring, to endeavor to counteract that misfortune, by filling his private chamber with amiable, pleasurable sights and sounds. In summer time, an Aeolian harp can be placed in your window at a very trifling expense; a conch-shell might stand on your mantel, to be taken up and held to the ear, that you may be soothed by its continual lulling sound, when you feel the blue fit stealing over you. For sights, a gay-painted punch-bowl, or Dutch tankard—never mind about filling it—might be recommended. It should be placed on a bracket in the pier. Nor is an old-fashioned silver ladle, nor a chased dinner-castor, nor a fine portly demijohn, nor any thing, indeed, that savors of eating and drinking, bad to drive off the spleen. But perhaps the best of all is a shelf of merrily-bound books, containing comedies, farces, songs, and humorous novels. You need never open them; only have the titles in plain sight. For this purpose, Peregrine Pickle is a good book; so is Gil Blas; so is Goldsmith.

At the same time, it’s so much lighter than Moby-Dick, and, I think, in much closer dialogue with other works of maritime literature. About to round Cape Horn, White-Jacket tells us:

But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s unmatchable “Two Years Before the Mast.” But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle.

Melville’s friend Dana is my friend Dana, too, and look what a friendly chat about books we’re having. Doesn’t that have you looking forward to spending some time with Ishmael in the near-distant future? It does me.

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