White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War

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White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War:

Publishing History

First British edition published January 23, 1850 by Richard Bentley, London. First American edition published March 21, 1850 by Harper & Brothers, New York.

White-Jacket, like the preceding Redburn, was written in a mere two months in a desperate attempt to bring some badly needed cash to the Melville household. Though Melville was unhappy with these two "cakes and ale" adventures, considering them to be superficial potboilers, they were among his more popular novels and, in fact, sold better than any of his subsequent productions.

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It was not a very white jacket, but white enough, in all conscience, as the sequel will show.
The way I came by it was this.
When our frigate lay in Callao, on the coast of Peru -- her last harbor in the Pacific -- I found myself without a grego, or sailor's surtout; and as, toward the end of a three years' cruise, no pea-jackets could be had from the purser's steward; and being bound for Cape Horn, some sort of a substitute was indispensable; I employed myself, for several days, in manufacturing an outlandish garment of my own devising, to shelter me from the boisterous weather we were so soon to encounter. --opening paragraphs

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Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

The sketches of which this work is composed are worked up with the skill and power of a practised pen; but, nevertheless, the want of continuity of interest is painfully felt as the reader proceeds from one chapter to another. Mr. Melville, while exhibiting all the phases of sea life during a long voyage, exhibits, too, something of its monotony.... Unless he changes his style, his popularity, at least with those who read for amusement, will not survive the issue of another White Jacket. --London Britannia, February 2 1850

It were the height of injustice to deny that Mr. Herman Melville is an improving and a vastly improved writer. He is no longer the wanton boy that used to give the rein to his wit and fancy, indulging in refined licentiousness of description, more seductive and mischievous than open violations of decorum, and in that smart dare-devil style of remark which perverts, while it dazzles, the mind, inducing habits of levity and irreverence of thought.... [T]he rattling youngster has grown into a thoughtful man, who, without any abatement of his rich and ever sparkling wit, has obtained the mastery of his own fancy, and fills life's log with sober entries, instead of defacing it with broad caricatures and sketches of still more questionable propriety. --London John Bull, February 2 1850

Mr. Melville has performed an excellent service in revealing the secrets of his prison-house, and calling the public attention to the indescribable abominations of the naval life, reeking with the rankest corruption, cruelty, and blood.
He writes without ill-temper, or prejudice, with no distempered, sentimental philanthropy, but vividly portraying scenes of which he was the constant witness, and in many instances suggesting a judicious remedy for the evils which he exhibits. His remarks on the discipline of our public vessels, are entitled to great consideration, and coincide with the prevailing tendencies of the public mind. It is not often that an observer of his shrewdness and penetration is admitted behind the scenes, and still less often that the results of personal experience are presented in such high-wrought pictures. A man of Melville's brain and pen is a dangerous character in the presence of a gigantic humbug, and those who are interested in the preservation of rotten abuses had better stop that "chiel from taking notes." --George Ripley, in New York Tribune, April 5 1850

White-Jacket assumes to be a didactic rather than an ornamental book -- a description of fact rather than a romance of fiction.... [I]t will be perceived that although such a book may be well written in all the points whereon the man of genius and talent -- the writer of sea-novels -- may properly stand, its didactic portions may be marked by crudities and puerilities that would disgrace a school-boy. For it is unfortunately true, that because a man produces a spirited and beautiful romance like Typee, or an autobiography like Redburn, running over with a Defoe naturalness and verisimilitude, it does not follow that he is competent to discuss the fitness or unfitness of the "Articles of War," the propriety or impropriety of "Flogging in the Navy," or the whole system of government and ceremonials of our "National Marine." The discussion of these great practical subjects requires practical men -- men of character, wisdom and experience -- not men of theories, fancies, and enthusiasm....
... This constant attempt to be smart, witty and entertaining on no capital, becomes dreadfully tedious.... A little of it is very well, but as poured out by Mr. Melville, in his stupid invention of a white-jacket, it appears to be a stream of egotism, vapidness and affectation, with, here and there, a fragment of amber on its waters. --Charles Gordon Greene, in Boston Post, April 10 1850

Well, we are glad to find the author of Typee on the right ground at last. When we read his Mardi, or rather tried to read it, for we never could get quite through it, we feared that the author had mistaken his bent.... Redburn reassured us; and now comes White-Jacket, to reinstate the author in the best good-graces of the reading public. Not a page of this last work has escaped us; and so strong was the continuous interest which it excited, a quality not always encountered even in the most popular works of our time, that we accomplished its perusal in two "sittings," unavoidably protracted, we may remark, for we could not leave the work, while there was yet a page unread. --Frederick Swartwout Cozzens, in New York Knickerbocker, May 1850.

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