One of Melville's most popular novels, White-Jacket is both a brisk sea adventure and a powerful social critique, which also contains some of Melville's best black humor (particularly the hilarious Surgeon of the Fleet episode). In 1843, after three years of voyaging in the South Seas, Melville signed up as an ordinary seaman on the man-of-war United States, and headed for home. What he observed on that trip formed the basis of White-Jacket, a success both as a story and as an expose of certain naval practices of which the public was only dimly aware. Because the publisher Harper & Bros. made sure the book got into the hands of every member of Congress, White-Jacket was instrumental in abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy forever.
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About the Author
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The title, 'White Jacket', serves as a double entendre by the author, Herman Melville. He actually sews up a hand-stitched jacket made from white sail cloth and other material, but it is ill-fitting, continually wet, ineffective against the cold, and actually the source of trouble between himself and the crew. So, the white jacket is a suit of his own making that very well brings about his own downfall. In the end, he discards it when he sees himself about to drown. And so, Melville uses this theme to serve as a metaphor for white superiority and the threatening danger of civil war over slavery. Indeed, Melville experiences effective slavery during his voyage aboard the USS United States (USS Neversink in the book) during its run from the Pacific back to the Atlantic. And like so many black slaves, he and his crewmates suffer the ever-present threat of public lashings for even minor infractions. So, Melville also uses his book as an indictment against a hypocritical system, whereby officers are never wrong and never experience corporal punishment but the enlisted crew remain in perpetual danger of arousing the slightest displeasure of any officer with the ultimate result of a humiliating public lashing. However, no military organization could function effectively if it were a democratic institution who would ever risk their life in such a case? (Even the early Communists quickly abandoned that principle.) But the vast majority of the book focuses on the minute details of life aboard a frigate during the age of sail. Several hundred (500?) souls are packed into the space of a single wooden vessel for months on end. How the ship is organized and the rituals of life aboard ship are the mainstay of the book. Melville describes in factual detail the actual work (trimming sails, cleaning decks, etc.), the daily routines (meals on deck, standing watches, playing cards in secret, sleeping in the crew's quarters), the professions (sailor, waistman, quartermaster, boatswain, carpenter, surgeon, captain, commodore, purser, midshipmen, chaplain, pharmacist, cook, cockswain, gunner, and yeoman), the less usual events (floggings, making a port of call, receiving official dignitaries aboard ship, rounding Cape Horn, the order of Neptune initiation rites, rumors of war), and all the underlying social structure and tensions ever-present. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in life aboard naval ships in the days of sail. With the rise of modern wireless communication, captains no longer enjoy such an absolute despotism as in times previous, but he still remains the unchallenged master aboard US navy vessels. While much of life aboard ship has changed, probably half of the book would still be quite familiar to modern-day sailors.