James Holmes

Sea Power in Literature: Melville’s White-Jacket

“Melville’s storytelling speaks volumes about why navies are the tradition-bound services they are.”

James R. Holmes

Somehow Herman Melville's epic Moby-Dick, among the greatest of American novels, managed to make zero impression on me in high school. None. Maybe my teacher committed the cardinal and all-too-common sin of force-feeding the class a Cliff's Notes account of the book. It's easy to furnish generic takeaways, hard to get a bunch of sullen yoots to debate the big themes at play in great literature. Maybe it's because the world Melville presents — ranging from 19th-century Massachusetts seaports like New Bedford and Nantucket to the vasty Pacific whaling grounds — was too alien surly teenagers growing up alongside the Gulf of Mexico during the Carter administration to connect with.

Whatever the case, it wasn't until a few years back that I picked up a paperback copy in (if memory serves) Atlanta Airport and read it on some overseas trip or another. Some combination of age and having made a home in New England helped me grok Moby-Dick at long last. What a book!

Nor does Melville's body of work stop there. Narrower in scope but no less engrossing — particularly for anyone with naval service — is White-Jacket. In 1843, Melville shipped aboard a U.S. Navy frigate in the Pacific, serving a year as an ordinary seaman before leaving the service when the ship returned home. The book is a quasi-autobiographical yarn about life on board a U.S. Navy frigate during the age of sail. For example, Melville gives a dramatic account of how the fictional USS Neversink rounds Cape Horn, one of the world's more fearsome passages for sail-driven vessels.

What startled me most about White-Jacket, though, is how contemporary his descriptions of sea life sound. Many of the Neversink crewmen will be instantly familiar to anyone who's served in modern U.S. Navy surface ships, the passage of time and advances in technology notwithstanding. There's the captain, "almost supreme … in the internal affairs of his ship." Ship captains are the last absolute monarchs this side of Pyongyang. The Neversink skipper, writes Melville, was "a Harry the Eighth afloat, bluff and hearty; and as kingly in his cabin as Harry on his throne. For a ship is a bit of terra firma cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king." His realm is "almost a despotism like the Grand Turk's." There his "word is law," and "he absolutely commands as far as eye can reach. Only the moon and stars are beyond his jurisdiction. He is lord and master of the sun," with the power to determine — for the ship's deck log, or official record, at any rate — when noon strikes.

And there's the first lieutenant, or second in command, a personage known as the executive officer, or XO, these days. Notes Melville, the post of first lieutenant "demands a good disciplinarian, and, every way, an energetic man. By the captain he is held responsible for everything; by that magnate, indeed, he is supposed to be omnipresent; down in the hold, and up aloft, at one and the same time." He's the detail guy, the administrator, and the skipper's omnipresent hatchet man. Every American sailor has at least one blood-curdling XO tale to tell.

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Melville explains disparities in temperament among the enlisted crewmen by their jobs (or "ratings"), and in particular by the part of the ship where they do those jobs. Sailors who worked aloft, handling spars, tackle, and sails, were upbeat because of the fresh air and the grand maritime vistas, and because, up in the rigging, they were physically removed from the petty rivalries and cruelties that typified life on the main and lower decks. That remains largely true of sailors who ply their trades in topside spaces. Denizens of the lower decks, such as those who maintained and fired the Neversink's great guns, exhibited more taciturn attitudes toward life for the reciprocal reasons. The gunners were like today's steam engineers, who inhabit hot spaces, work grinding hours, and seldom glimpse the light of day.

The contemporary feel to Melville's storytelling speaks volumes about why navies are the tradition-bound services they are. White-Jacket makes a great read, both for old salts indulging their nostalgia and for landlubbers who want to catch sight of life on the raging foam.