White Jacket

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


In 1843, after three years of voyaging in the South Seas, Melville signed up as an ordinary seaman on the man-of-war United States, and headed for home. What he observed on that trip formed the basis of White-Jacket, a success both as a story and as an expose of certain naval practices of which the public was only dimly aware. Melville’s subtitle, ‘The World in a Man-of-War’, points to its broad theme: the autocratic, male regime aboard the Neversink is perhaps no more than a microcosm of pre-Civil War America. But under his scandalized liberalism, his desire to expose and to reform a barbaric system which reflects badly on the Declaration of Independence, runs an unspoken connection. The treatment meted out to the white men on the man-of-war is the same as that experienced by black slaves in every state. With hindsight, Melville’s novel is double-edged.

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