Herman Melville, “White-Jacket”: Power and Work

Like Redburn, White-jacket considers the working-class experience in America.  Through Redburn, Melville tells us about the diversity of the American working-class, its potential for solidarity and cooperation, its strong internal culture, and the trauma of someone moving out of the world of childhood into the world of work.  The internal workplace culture does not lack in oppression, particularly for the uninformed newcomer, but it also provides a source of strength and commonality in the face of the oppressions of capital.  The leaders of this system remain far away and vague.  Their use of power is limited.  Indeed, in Redburn, it was a fellow worker much more than the captain that Redburn feared.  White-Jacket gives us this window into the workings of power.  By setting the novel in an over-crowded military ship, Melville is able to explore with more intensity, brutality, and anger the uses of power by the ruling class and its consequences for working people.


I do not doubt that the novel portrays with some accuracy life on a man-0f-war.  Melville served on one for months as part of his life at sea.  The casual reader may be easily overwhelmed by the details of naval life.  Let me start by suggesting that this is not without its use, even if it lacks in efficiency.  Melville presents us with a microcosm of the division of labor in modern capitalism.  This division of labor divided the crew as well as dividing the labor.  Different jobs translated into slightly (and often radically) different lives.  Some crewmembers had the job of ideological control (the chaplain).  Power and status, it goes without saying, divided the crew into different lifestyles.  Even different eating schedules.   Normal crewmembers had to eat three meals within one watch, while officers eat normally, throughout the day.  This division is real and for the broader economy no less true in Melville’s day than in ours.

The crew’s hatred for the soldiers was one of the sharpest divides on the ship, only matched by class hierarchies of officers and crew.  This animosity seems to come from the soldier’s job as guard on the sailors, and their immunity from the normal work schedule.  “Surely, the crowd of sailors, who besides having so many sea-officers over them, are thus additionally guarded by soldiers, even when they quench their thirst — surely these man-of-war’s-men must be desperadoes indeed; or else the naval service must be so tyrannical that the worst is feared from their possible insubordination.  . . . But the mutual contempt, and even hatred, subsisting between these two bodies of men–both clinging to one keel, both lodged in one household — is held by most Navy officers as the height of the perfection of Navy discipline.  It is regarded as the button that caps the uttermost point on their main-thrust.” (742)  This division is also reflected in the attitude of the crew toward rumors of war.  For the officers and soldiers, it is a chance for glory.  For the crew, it bodes only death and sacrifice.

By staging these sharp divides (between the diverse crew and homogenous officers, between the libertarian tendencies of the crew and the guards assign to reign them in) Melville is describing the ongoing conflict between democracy and tyranny in capitalist societies.  The narrator takes to describing the crew as “the people.”  Every one of his numerous critiques of life in the U.S. Navy charged the military with its failure to sustain the democratic values of the nation, everything from enforced religion to punishment without a trial.  Freedom gives way for the need of the state and the requirements of work.  Whatever concessions that the officers give are merely to satisfy the needs of their power.  “Whenever, in the internals of mild benevolence, or yielding to mere politic dictates, Kings and Commanders relax the yoke of servitude, they should see to it well that the concession seem not too sudden or unqualified; for, the commoner’s estimation, that might argue feebleness or fear.” (584)

Melville advances a version of the Peter Principle in his critique of the ship hierarchy.  The “Peter Principle” suggests that in any institution people will be promoted until they are incompetent, but no further.   This is a result of nepotism and favoritism, also challenges to the principles of equality enshrined in the democratic republic of the early 19th century.

Other forms of control include the use of foreign laborers and the encouragement of internal spies.

Although we get pages of insight into the covert means for maintaining power on the naval ship, ultimately the system is sustained with brutal force.  White-Jacket is remembered most for its criticism of flogging.  The novel seems to have played a role in ending the practice.  When the chaplain, the jingoism, the force of tradition and authority all failed, even with the subtle threats from the armed guards failed, the commanders still had the ability to use force to bring the man to submission.  When flogging failed there was still “flogging throughout the fleet” and “keel-hauling” – the passing of a sailor under the ship’s hull.


With Redburn and White-Jacket, Melville moves from describing the world as it should be (as he does in his Pacific novels) to describing life as it is for the vast majority of people in industrial society.


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