|William H. Myers|
Lately I've been reading White-Jacket, Herman Melville's fourth novel, whose publication in 1850 antedates that of his masterpiece Moby-Dick by one year. I'm really digging it so far—Melville's jaunty prose and his focus here are on par with what he brings to Moby-Dick, as is his knack for parabolic and metaphorical flourishes. Readers who enjoyed Moby-Dick's descriptions of the tools, practices, and procedures aboard a nineteenth-century whaling ship—bathed profusely in wry wit, corny jokes, social commentary, and philosophical rumination—you're in luck: that's all of White-Jacket (except here the topic is a US Navy frigate, not a whaling ship).
Obviously this makes White-Jacket a relative featherweight: you've got almost none of the man/nature dialectic, no towering symbol of the unknowable and unconquerable, and no luciferous sea captain's quests for supernatural revenge, which together form Moby-Dick's supermassive barycenter. But you can see White-Jacket as a shuddering chrysalis, ready to tear. (You can also see it as a much brisker read than Moby-Dick.)
One of White-Jacket's claims to fame is its place on record as one of the last arguments in the public debate over corporal punishment in the US Navy. (The novel was published in March of 1850; Congress passed legislation abolishing flogging in the Navy in September of the same year.) Melville had spent more than a year overseas in the Navy around 1843; obviously he was outraged to witness more than once the punitive whipping of a fellow crew-member.
Today I think it would be fun to take a look at White-Jacket's chapters regarding flogging. (The text here is cadged from Project Gutenberg.) There's a lot of interesting stuff on the periphery here. Look for Melville making uncharacteristically overt political pronouncements; notice the passing allusions to the American South and slavery with nary a peep of criticism for that institution (possibly so as to conciliate southerners who might otherwise be on his side in the matter of corporal punishment in the military); observe the points of contact with the setting and context of Billy Budd, Melville's final story; witness how in the climate of 1850, a man as sensitive as the young Melville, who saw nuance like a mantis shrimp sees color, is compelled to strike up his own note in the chorus of Manifest Destiny.
If you begin the day with a laugh, you may, nevertheless, end it with a sob and a sigh.