Israel Potter: His 50 Years of Exile (Library of Essential Reading)by Herman Melville, Ian S. Maloney (Introduction)
Israel Potter (1855) examines the life of an ordinary patriot, a common man manipulated by powerful forces and utterly forgotten among the lists of American Revolutionary War heroes. His story is filled with the twists and turns of battle, captivity and escape, mistaken and shifting identities, and politics. On his journeys Potter meets King George III, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, and Ethan Allan. Israel Potter is a quintessential and vital story of the everyday American hero, struggling to overcome adversity and attempting to find a place of harmony in a world of revolution, upheaval, and forgetfulness.
- 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
- Attended the Albany Academy in Albany, New York, until age 15
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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.