Israel Potter by Herman Melville

Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, was the next novel published by Melville after Pierre, and it is a far cry from its predecessor. Melville made heavy use of a source text, The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter, published in 1824, to provide the basis of his serialized 1854–1855 novel. Melville’s work, dedicated to “his Highness, the Bunker-Hill Monument,” claims that “with the exception of some expansions, and additions of historic and personal details, and one or two shiftings of scene, may, perhaps, be not unfitly regarded something in the light of a dilapidated old tombstone retouched.” He specifically notes that he “forbore anywhere to mitigate the hard fortunes of my hero…[and] durst not substitute for the allotment of Providence any artistic recompense of poetical justice….”

Those hard fortunes start out mildly enough, in the years prior to the American Revolution, when Israel Potter, son of a Western Massachusetts farmer, sets out on his own after his father disapproves of the girl he wants to woo. Israel heads north, to the frontier, and as a hunter and trapper learns the marksmanship that will serve him later at Bunker Hill. He makes his fortune trading with Indians and helping survey the land, improving his own stake each summer and securing more pelts each winter. Returning to his family to find the object of his love still out of reach, he takes to the sea and to whaling.

After passing through all available modes of pre-Revolutionary economic activity, Potter joins the Minutemen just in time for the outbreak of hostilities. He soon finds himself captured by the British and brought back to Portsmouth, imprisoned in a hulk. Thus begin his fifty years of exile, an exile in which he will make many fantastical escapes, be pathetically recaptured, contribute further to the Revolution, represent his newborn nation on the shores of Europe, and encounter such famous personages as John Paul Jones and Benjamin Franklin.

In Israel Potter Melville returns more to the style of Redburn or White-Jacket: the novel is a genuine novel, episodic to be sure, but entertaining, accessible, full of excitement and adventure, devoid of the flights of philosophy and dense narration of the likes of Mardi, Moby-Dick, or Pierre. Melville’s thinking is still there, and to someone familiar with his work should be clear throughout, but for the most part his deeper concerns are either hidden enough beneath the genuinely amusing surface story or presented in a way that would be congenial to the more “normal” reader—such as the symbol of Israel wandering in the wilderness of London, destitute, for forty years.

There is so much real fun in the novel as historical fiction about the American Revolution, plus the joy for the Melville aficianado at uncovering the familiar tucked away amid the adventures, to completely make up for the fact that this is surely only a “minor” work.

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