Melville wrote White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War during a two-month period of intense work in the summer of 1849. He drew upon his memories of naval life, having spent fourteen months as an "ordinary seaman" aboard the frigate United States as it sailed the Pacific and made the homeward voyage around Cape Horn.
A crewman on the man-of-war Neversink, White-Jacket gets his name from the shirt he turned into a coat and lined with rags, old trouser legs, and cast-off socks. The journey he undertakes is dangerousa man falls overboard, White-Jacket tumbles from the rigging, and the least insubordination is punished with the lash. Melville's story portrays the inhumanity of naval life, saving special vitriol for the unnamed ship's surgeon, who has the power to stop a flogging if a man's life is endangeredbut never does; and for the inept Dr. Cuticle, who amputates a sailor's healthy leg to make a point. The description of such excesses was instrumental in convincing the United States Navy to outlaw flogging. Many scandalized Northern readers acknowledged that the treatment of sailors was little different than that given to slaves in the South.
Melville regarded the writing of White-Jacket as a mere job, undertaken for much-needed cash, but the novel received almost universal acclaim. The English liked its praise of British seamen and its vivid descriptions of naval life. Americans were interested in Melville's attack on naval abuses and his advocacy of humanitarian causes. Part autobiography, part epic fiction, White-Jacket remains an imaginative social novel by one of the great writers of the sea.