White-Jacket has its delights. Take this line from chapter 23:
“The Neversink had summered out her last Christmas on the Equator; she was now destined to winter out the Fourth of July not very far from the frigid latitudes of Cape Horn.”In my previous post about the book, I wrote about the heat. Melville also wrote about the cold:
“Here we lay forty-eight hours, during which the cold was intense. I wondered at the liquid sea, which refused to freeze in such a temperature. The clear, cold sky overhead looked like a steel-blue cymbal, that might ring, could you smite it. Our breath came and went like puffs' of smoke from pipe-bowls. At first there was a long gauky swell, that obliged us to furl most of the sails, and even send down t'-gallant-yards, for fear of pitching them overboard.
[…] He who possessed the largest stock of vitality, stood the best chance to escape freezing. It was horrifying. In such weather any man could have undergone amputation with great ease, and helped take up the arteries himself.”(Ch.25)
Such striking descriptions.
But overall, reading White-Jacket only makes me think of Moby Dick, and how much better Moby Dick is, which is never helpful. White-Jacket should be read as journalism, as an insight into the conditions and rules of American men-of-war, as well as Melville’s thoughts and fundamental values (democracy, liberty, equality, and human dignity). In that regard, it is an interesting read.
As a novel, there is hardly a story, and the book is full of rage. There is some humour, and now and then there is some light, but anger permeates the book, and would make it dry and unbearable if not for Melville’s prose and imagery.
A very good book, and Melville is great, but I don’t think this is a book I’d like to read again.