About the Author
Herman Melville was born in August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of a merchant. Only twelve when his father died bankrupt, young Herman tried work as a bank clerk, as a cabin-boy on a trip to Liverpool, and as an elementary schoolteacher, before shipping in January 1841 on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. Deserting ship the following year in the Marquesas, he made his way to Tahiti and Honolulu, returning as ordinary seaman on the frigate United States to Boston, where he was discharged in October 1844. Books based on these adventures won him immediate success. By 1850 he was married, had acquired a farm near Pittsfield, Massachussetts (where he was the impetuous friend and neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and was hard at work on his masterpiece Moby-Dick.
Literary success soon faded; his complexity increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City, where from 1866-1885 he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and where, in 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollated, packed tidily away by his widow, where it remained until its rediscovery and publication in 1924.
Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).
Date of Birth:August 1, 1819
Date of Death:September 28, 1891
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:Attended the Albany Academy in Albany, New York, until age 15
Herman Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819, to Allan Melville and Maria Gansevoort Melville. His parents were both children of heroes of the American Revolution, and the couple was wealthy at the time of Herman's birth. Allan's father, Thomas Melville, was a participant in the Boston Tea Party, made a name for himself at Bunker Hill, and was given a government commission in the Boston Custom House after serving in the War of 1812. Maria's father, Peter Gansevoort, became famous for his spirited defense of Fort Stanwix, where he held off Tory and Native American forces, even though his troops were grossly outnumbered. Herman Melville was, in many ways, haunted by the remnants of this glorious and storied lineage. His father strove to make a name as an importer in order to continue the family traditions of excellence and prestige, but his quest would prove disastrous, and he fell into economic hardships when Herman was only twelve years old. After venturing out in a storm, Allan fell ill and was left raving in a "deathbed mania," as Neal Tolchin has richly explored. Allan's raving condition left the state of his soul in peril, for according to the family's strict Calvinist upbringing his lack of contrition left his passage into heaven in grave danger. Much of Herman Melville's work deals with disillusionment, loss, and attempts to understand what lies beneath the surface of our known world. He had moments of success and fame in his early writing career, but he died in relative obscurity in 1891-one New York newspaper even misspelled his name in his obituary.
Despite his lack of critical and commercial recognition during his lifetime, Herman Melville has become one of the canonical figures of the American Renaissance period, along with noteworthy writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, and of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville and Hawthorne were friends, and it was to Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter, The Blithedale Romance, and The House of Seven Gables, that Melville dedicated his 1851 classic, Moby-Dick. The two men famously met during a hike up Monument Mountain in the Berkshires. The friendship, it has been speculated, may have been the igniting spark behind the dark, philosophical probing of Melville's work in Moby-Dick. The two men would eventually have a falling out, and the cause of the dissolution of their friendship has been the focus of numerous speculations: professional jealousy, the apprentice surpassing the master, mishandled reviews, the overzealous nature of Melville, the reserved demeanor of Hawthorne, and even sexual attraction between the two. The breakup of his friendship with Hawthorne was just one of many difficult moments in Melville's life.
Besides the loss of his father early in life and the ending of his relationship with Hawthorne, Melville faced deep personal tragedy and loss throughout his life. His son, Malcolm, appeared to commit suicide when he shot himself in the head while in military dress uniform, although many in the family contended that the death was an accident. Melville also had a disturbing relationship with his wife, Lizzie. Rumors of physical and verbal abuse plagued the marriage. Melville, not wholly unlike his father, was not able to sustain his family by his chosen occupation. Eventually, he had to abandon writing as an income-providing profession and find a government position as a customs inspector. He abandoned fiction writing altogether and took up writing difficult poetry, such as Battle Pieces (1866-- inspired by the profound losses of the Civil War) and the epic poem Clarel (1876--inspired by his pilgrimage to Jerusalem). These two volumes of poetry contain important motifs for Israel Potter. Love and respect for country weighed heavily on Melville's mind throughout his life, just as religion and the unknown beyond mortality preyed on his soul. Elements of both these concerns frequent Melville's canon.
Much of Herman Melville's life and thinking is reflected in the forgotten tale of Israel Potter. Patriotism and pilgrimage are central motifs of the work, and authorial connections abound. Both Potter and Melville share the same birthday. Both men felt alienated from the links to the glorious past of the American Revolution; both felt the stings of anonymity, loss, and degrees of poverty. Both men had to shifts jobs to make ends meet; both share the Berkshires as their mountainous home at points in their lives. And, clearly, both Potter and Melville felt like outcasts throughout their lives; both men pursued their goals only to end up lost in perpetual questions and meandering down futile avenues for recognition. Melville wrote what is arguably the "great American novel" of any generation when he penned Moby-Dick (1851). The book's lack of critical or commercial success must have taken its toll on Melville as a writer and human being. The epic quest brought together the sly, wandering narrative speculations of Ishmael, the faithful and earnest Queequeg, the dutiful Starbuck, the carefree Stubb, the orphaned Pip, the devilish Fedallah, and of course, the titanic anti-hero in the demonic Captain Ahab; all of these characters converge on the complicated ship of state Pequod (named for an extinct Native American tribe) in a quest to fulfill Ahab's monomaniacal will to slaughter the white whale. Such an inability to taste the fruits of literary genius in his lifetime has led numerous critics and readers to see striking parallels in Melville's fictional worlds. Most famously, Melville's story "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853) tells the tale of a character who refuses to copy law documents anymore, hauntingly responding when asked why, "I would prefer not to." Melville as author has been associated with this character, for he retained a preference for voyaging on his own, for refusing to doggedly copy others even though that refusal might eventually lead to physical deterioration and destruction. Bartleby was once a clerk in the Dead Letters Office in Washington. Melville has resembled his clerk, for in the darkness of his imaginative soul, his letters-his words to the reading public-had been destined for the flames of oblivion and obscurity.
Such was not always the case for Melville if we scan through his early achievements as a writer. After his father's fall from grace and his own shifting around in occupations, anywhere from surveyor to schoolmaster, Melville decided to become a sailor, which would lead to his eventual ascension to noted author. After jumping ship in the Marquesas and taking up residence with a native tribe, Melville returned home with enough material to begin his writing career. He began with two travel adventures inspired by his time on the high seas and in the Pacific islands, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). Both of these books were reviewed favorably and Melville was distinguished as a literary figure as a man who had lived among cannibals. But in Melville's mind, the books lacked the imaginative flair that he desired as an author. He thought that they were too formulaic, too focused on casual popular reading. Mardi (1849) turned far in the direction of the wandering imagination, as Melville voyaged freely through allegory. After completing what he saw as merely jobs in Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850), namely because they recounted lived experience, Melville set sail for Moby-Dick (1851), only to feel the cold sting of rejection. Pierre (1852), a strange, Gothic romance followed close after, and it left reviewers thinking that Melville was indeed insane, for the novel revolved around psychological alienation, murder, illegitimate and unknown children, possible incest, and subversion at every bend of the road. Authorial allusions to the failed and idealistic title character, Pierre Glendinning, can be found lurking throughout this strange tale of an author seeking truth by breaking away from the binds of his home estate in the country, only to plunge himself deep into the darkened tombs of a claustrophobic city writing space.
After several pieces of short fiction, Melville turned to this revolutionary narrative of the beggar, Israel Potter (1855). Much of the conflict between anonymity and memory connects the life of Potter to Herman Melville. The esteemed critic Alfred Kazin, in an attempt to resurrect this novel, wrote that Potter and Melville share an inexplicable, perpetual lifetime exile. If exile connects Potter and Melville, then the story is crucial for readers to rediscover the points where character and author connect. This story of family, American ingenuity, hard work, patriotism, and betrayal may hold important clues to Melville's silence, his inability to fully speak with readers during his writing days, and the importance of resurrecting those moments for future generations.
Melville's decision to chronicle the life of an anonymous private from the Revolutionary War has puzzled many critics; in fact, for many generations the book was seemingly ignored by readers and critics alike. But it is this neglect that adds to the novel's importance as an authorial mystery. Israel Potter is an irregularity in the Melville canon for a variety of reasons. It is Melville's only true historical novel, based squarely on a real life story, and thus, it is the only novel that Melville claimed to merely rework solely from a central text (Henry Trumbull's Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter). It lacks much of the philosophical speculation that takes place in so many of Melville's works. In fact, Melville claimed that it did not contain anything weighty. And yet, it has recently been read by critics through a surprisingly diverse array of critical viewpoints. Carolyn Karcher reads the novel through the lens of slavery. Robert Zaller asserts that it is a story of revolution and power relations. Alexander Keyssar sees the story as a hope in the American Dream. Clark Davis argues that it is a story rooted in the search for hearth and home. The differences of opinion surrounding the text make it an important place for reinvestigation, particularly because the story centers on one average man. The novel urges readers to take note, to take an interest in the common people who serve and live among us; Israel Potter asks us to think about the commonality between ourselves and those who came before us. And just as powerfully, the text cautions against hero worship, the blind buttressing of a national agenda and wholesale acceptance and monumentalizing of the lives of "great" men who lead. While the plot swirls around history, politics, and revolution, its center may be a singular story of material loss, with the hope of spiritual redemption.
Much of Israel Potter was drawn from the 1824 Revolutionary narrative titled The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter, which was ghostwritten by Henry Trumbull. This textual reworking has caused many critics to overlook and dismiss its importance in Melville's canon. Melville came upon this small, pamphlet-like book in a London bookstall and was inexplicably drawn to rework the memoir into his adventure story. Critics such as Peter J. Bellis, Scott E. Casper, Daniel Reagan, and Brian Rosenberg have rightfully questioned the genre of the novel, for the book seems to position itself as a biography. The mention of noted early American biographer Jared Sparks in the book's introduction adds to this line of questioning. Sparks, however, was noted for authoring a series of biographies, and became the driving force behind the ever-popular Library of American Biography. The purpose of the series, in Sparks' words, was "to select some of the most prominent lives from the first settlement of the country down to the present time…. The series will thus serve in some degree as a connected history of the country, as well as to illustrate the character and acts of some of the most illustrious men of the nation." By writing Potter's story, Melville seems to reconstitute or reexamine Sparks' aim in the Library of American Biography. Instead of focusing on the life of a noted, extraordinary figure well established in the annals of history, Melville turned to a forgotten but fascinating individual behind the scenes of the action and brought him to the forefront. Daniel Reagan argues that Israel Potter was a means to criticize Sparks' "tendency to ignore the common man as a viable subject and productive force of history." For Reagan, "Israel Potter acts as a collyrium to cure the blindness promoted by the lives of great men." Melville's resurrecting of Potter's life in print may be his ironic way of answering the blindness of his contemporary audience, in assessing his own work's capability to withstand the forces of time.
Israel Potter begins with a curious dedication: "To His Highness the Bunker Hill Monument." Dedicating the book to a monument seems to slyly pose the question of whether a granite erection can adequately honor the sacrifices of men such as Potter. National monuments have been the source of numerous arguments during the course of America's development; one need only consider the controversy surrounding the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., or more recently, the Maya Lin-designed Vietnam War Memorial in that same city, to recognize that monuments have always been prone to second-guessing, heated cultural debates, and political squabbles. There is irony embedded in Melville's dedication to the Bunker Hill Monument, for when we reach the end of the tale, we find Potter nearly run over by a parade float commemorating the heroes of the Revolutionary War. Potter returns to the Berkshires, to the America that has forgotten him, without celebration or recognition. In fact, he is almost swallowed up by the rhetoric following the actualities of the war itself. Melville as author may have felt the same sense of betrayal and longing to return to his Berkshires moorings after his unsuccessful attempts to garner reading audiences throughout his life. He may have indeed felt overwhelmed by the rhetoric of the American Revolution, especially considering his grandfathers' prominence in that all-important genesis of the American republic.
In between the dedication and Potter's return to rest in peace, Israel Potter functions as a free-flowing adventure story. Readers will move quickly from the beautiful natural imagery that Melville employs to the Berkshires in the opening chapter and the awe inspired by settlers taming the rugged landscape, to a setting-off process of adulthood for young Israel Potter. Potter initially leaves home because he has been denied the love of a young sweetheart. He travels and works at different jobs with the hope of returning to take the hand of the love he left behind. That dream is thwarted when the woman marries another man during his absence. Like Melville himself, Israel Potter seems set on a course of escape and recuperation only when his hopes and dreams have proven fruitless. Potter heads off to join in the Revolutionary War as a personal choice of flight and not merely to satisfy his sense of patriotism.
The Revolutionary War episodes pass quickly in the novel, and we are drawn into a world of espionage and political maneuverings. We meet the incomparable Benjamin Franklin when Potter delivers secret communications for the American cause abroad in Paris. Readers will find a satiric picture of a shrewd and calculating Franklin, who appears to instruct others to live under the maxims set forth in Poor Richard's Almanack, while Poor Richard himself seems to float above his own frugal, practical wisdom. John Paul Jones appears as a wild, reckless leader who pines for personal glory and autonomy as a leader. Jones also seems to disdain the fellowship of simple countrymen such as Israel Potter. Ethan Allen, seen as a prisoner of war during Potter's travels, appears to retain the independent cunning of the American spirit despite his captivity on British soil. These three encounters form a trinity in terms of the American experience: the statesman, the seaman, the country woodsman. All are warriors in their own way and demonstrative of the American spirit, but it is plainly up to the reader to make sense of their depictions in the story of Israel Potter. We are led to compare and contrast the virtues and vices of the characters we meet along the way, to examine the lives of "great" men alongside common ones.
Potter's encounter with these noted American heroes does not alter his life for the better. Unlike the aim of the Sparks' Library of American Biography, Potter does not benefit from knowledge of these heroic figures. Furthermore, Melville questions the constitution of these enshrined American heroes. Melville moves Israel Potter from Franklin's shrewd calculations to Jones' reckless abandonment and finally to Allen's uncompromising courage in the face of adversity. The reader begins to see something deeper lurking in the tale related to Potter's own understated heroism: his resiliency, his ability to adapt, his realization of shortcomings, and his adjustments in life's twisting course. Israel Potter's tale is not a jubilant affirmation of the unsurpassed supremacy of American ingenuity, drive or spirit, nor does it provide an easy formula for heroic virtue. But, it may very well be Melville's testament to the individual's common plight of suffering, cultural adjustment, and hope in future resurrection, regardless of national credo or religious doctrine. Israel Potter may provide a fleeting glimpse into what Melville considered truly heroic.
Israel Potter is the story of one simple country life, turned to a life of war, patriotism, poverty, and, ultimately, exile. The book has been relegated to borderlands of historical amnesia, but it may very well be one of the most important American literary pieces awaiting rediscovery in the twenty-first century. Israel Potter's story parallels that of countless soldiers facing death and subsequent anonymity all over the world and across the span of time. It is the story of forgotten individualism and of lives lost without unique commemoration, often for the sake of God and country. The novel makes apparent that war makes the distinction between victors and vanquished difficult, if not impossible, to discern. While Israel Potter is a Revolutionary War narrative, readers will not find jingoism or empty rhetoric in Melville's words. Israel Potter commands attention because it reworks monumental history from the eyes of the common everyman who is trying to survive and perhaps better his place in a world marked by chaos and confusion. Ultimately the story's progression defies easy answers as to whether Potter was successful in his quest. Israel Potter thus becomes a journey for the reader to take into the character's search for self-identity; the book leads its readers to question its implications in terms of family and religious values, national narratives of power and impotence, and individual agency in the face of a collective consciousness, and of course, it brims with authorial echoes of the mythos that Herman Melville has become.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Herman Melville's ISRAEL POTTER is a satiric fictional account of the real life of Israel Potter. Melding the adventures of other early seamen into a romping pastiche, Melville cruises through major characters of the Revolutionary Era with rhetorical brilliance, skewering icons such as Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones. Taken in the comedic spirit, the novel is also a commentary on the character of America and Americans. The most unsettling aspect, however, is to learn that a greater tale of intrigue and real life adventure lurks beneath the surface of the original tale by Henry Trumbull and its later adaption by Melville. See GONE OVER, by David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsar, for a more realistic and suspenseful treatment of this timeless story.
Anybody reading this novel will, no doubt, know that Melville is always a challenge. Nothing he wrote was conventional. ISRAEL POTTER, in many ways Melville's most straightforward novel of those written after the publication of MOBY-DICK, is, nevertheless, weird in that it is caught somewhere between tragedy and satire. While relating the story of an American impressed into the British navy before the War of 1812, Melville uses the chance to paint broad, humorous portraits of Ben Franklin, John Paul Jones and other major figures in our history. These are not flattering portraits. Melville's models here are 18th-century British satirists. As was often the case with Melville, he based this book on an actual account. Israel Potter did exist and wrote a book about his fifty-year effort to return to the United States. Melville's book is a novel, but it is, in essence, a retelling, with a comedic twist, of one man's autobiography. It is well worth reading and is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. There are passages of intense description of nature, as is always the case with Melville, and one will learn much about daily existence in England and America at that time. But it's hard to tell what Melville thinks of the historical figures he ridicules here. Certainly the book is a tribute to the freedom America represented. But it is not necessarily a celebration of the Founders as human beings. Bear in mind that Melville was a staunch supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He was definitely a nationalist. But the realist in him made sure we knew our most famous men had their flaws.