Melville’s White Jacket and the question of justice

In a comment on a prior post, Fiddler’s Green, Redwing mentioned White Jacket, or The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville. I had never read the novel. I am now doing so and enjoying it very much. (It can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.)

White Jacket and Redburn were apparently each written in two months when Melville was strapped for cash. He was said to have never liked either book, thinking of them as “cakes and ale potboilers”.  Melville would say of them that they were “two jobs which I have done for money—being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood”.  Ironically, they were both among his most popular books and sold better during his lifetime than any of his later books, including Moby Dick.

White Jacket, which contains scenes of flogging and cruelty, was also, perhaps unintentionally, political. “Because 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.”  White Jacket

White Jacket is still framing political discussions to this day. Scott Horton, writing in Harpers, discusses the points made by Melville in White Jacket in the context of Abu Ghraib and the ongoing war on terror.

Melville, ‘White-Jacket’ and Military Justice

The Unfinished Story of Abu Ghraib

“In American literature, one writer, Herman Melville, was captivated with the subject of military justice. He wrote about it frequently. Billy Budd of course turns on a court-martial. But an earlier novel, White-Jacket is an extended tirade against the military justice system. In both novels, Melville makes a point which I consider-for all the advancements in military justice today compared to the Articles of War regime that Melville knew from his days at sea-still absolutely true. Military justice operates to reinforce command authority. It is, as it were, a command authority adjunct. Therefore we should never consider military justice to be about the ultimate, namely, justice. It may be about justice on the periphery, but concerns for justice fade when they clash with the authority of the administering command.”

The questions of justice and equality under the law raised in White Jacket still have not been fully answered.  The discussions go one.  Not bad for a “cakes and ale potboiler.”

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10 Responses to Melville’s White Jacket and the question of justice

  1. Redwing says:

    Great pre-review! I’m looking forward to your thoughts when you finish!

    Have you read Moby Dick? If you read a chapter a day you can read the book twice over in one year. I love Melville. The first chapter of MD is so great.

  2. Redwing says:

    Great pre-review! I’m looking forward to your thoughts when you finish!

    Have you read Moby Dick? If you read a chapter a day you can read the book twice over in one year. I love Melville. The first chapter of MD is so great.

  3. admin says:

    It was funny. Years ago I was doing a leisurely read of Moby Dick and a faster read of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. I was struck by how directly Benchely borrowed characters and events from the climax of Moby Dick for Jaws. The last half of Jaws tracks directly with Moby Dick.

    Benchely got it right. If you are going to borrow from anyone, borrow from the best.

  4. admin says:

    It was funny. Years ago I was doing a leisurely read of Moby Dick and a faster read of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. I was struck by how directly Benchely borrowed characters and events from the climax of Moby Dick for Jaws. The last half of Jaws tracks directly with Moby Dick.

    Benchely got it right. If you are going to borrow from anyone, borrow from the best.

  5. Redwing says:

    That’s very interesting. I’ll investigate that for sure.

    I’m taking a class on Melville next fall and can’t wait.

    Do you read much Joseph Conrad? I strongly recommend Victory; it’s not so much a sea tale but it is damn good.

  6. Redwing says:

    That’s very interesting. I’ll investigate that for sure.

    I’m taking a class on Melville next fall and can’t wait.

    Do you read much Joseph Conrad? I strongly recommend Victory; it’s not so much a sea tale but it is damn good.

  7. admin says:

    I like Conrad a lot, particularly his novellas. Narcissus is probably my favorite piece of writing about ships, sailors and the sea. I have never read Victory. I’ll have to add it to my list.

  8. Pingback: An American, a Sailor, and a Jew : Old Salt Blog - a virtual port of call for all those who love the sea

  9. I never made it all the way through White Jacket (attempted it too young)- but I loved the character, especially the circumstances behind the “white jacket” itself…I seem to remember that aspects of the book were very funny. I’ll definitely finish it one day.

  10. John Eastlund says:

    I enjoyed White Jacket because it so realistically reflected what it’s like living at sea. I especilly liked the observation where he ran into a shipmate he had never seen before even though they had sailed together 2 years. I had been on long cruises (2 months) and the same thing would always happen to me.