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.
“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.”