Herman Melville, “Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile” (1855)

“In view of this battle one may well ask—What separates the enlightened man from the savage? Is civilization a thing distinct, or is it an advanced stage of barbarism?” (573)

After the failure of Pierre, or the Ambiguities, Herman Melville entered a troubled period in his life. Most of his works had been commercial failures. He faced depression and poverty. His family tried to get him appointed a consul without any luck. He published works in magazines over the next few years, including the serialization of Israel Potter and the works that would be included in the Piazza Tales. Melville, by the way, is 36 at this time. Melville was not a fan of Israel Potter and deemed it a money-making effort.

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The book is apparently based on a real story from a pamphlet that Melville acquired about a Revolutionary War soldier, captured at sea, and exiled to Europe for fifty years. The novel that results is full of clichés and dubious encounters. In the course of his travels Potter meets King George III, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones. Apparently some of these encounters were real, according to the original autobiography. Dramatized, they take on the character of American jingoism, hitting home—again and again—the belief that America was young, free, and practical while Europe was corrupted by excess, wealth, privilege, and aristocratic hierarchies. Just a few of these examples include Potter working for a knight who accepts that he will never get the American to address him as “Sir,” Benjamin Franklin praising Potter’s wisdom at not knowing what cologne is and reciting some of his maxims on thrift, and the King of England learning he will be unable to defeat the United States just by looking at the rebel Potter. Much of it seems wasted coming from the pen of Melville.

Potter engages in various schemes pushed forward by Franklin and Jones. He even serves under Jones for a while, giving the tale a some of the feel of the sea fiction that Melville is known for. Most of the later half of the novel is spent at sea, with Potter serving under Jones.Through this, he is able to play pivotal roles in the Revolution despite being far from the frontline battles that he started with (and even farther from the fields he left to engage the British at Bunker Hill). He even meets Ethan Allen during Allen’s imprisonment in England, which turns into another attempt by Melville to juxtapose the solidarity, patriotism, and equality of America with the pretension of England. The period after the Revolution is rushed. Most of Potter’s life is crammed into one chapter titled “Forty-Five Years.” He spends that wandering about London, pining for home and dwelling on the decadence of the world he was stuck in. “And so, Israel, now an old man, was bewitched by the mirage of vapors; he had dreamed himself home into the mists of the Housatonic mountains; the flat, apathetic, dead, London fog had not seemed from those agile mists, which goat-like, climbed the purple peaks, or in routed armies of phantoms, broke down, pell-mell, dispersed in flight upon the plain. . . . all kinds of labor were overstocked. Beggars, too, lighted on the walls like locusts.” (610) The first chapter foreshadows the mists of London as a sharp contrast to the mists of New England. Eventually he returns home to die.

One message is that Potter was able to sustain his American patriotism and, more importantly, his American identity remains despite his long period of exile. Melville is also revisiting some of his ideas from Omoo about the relationship between wandering and freedom. While Potter would was nothing better than to return home, making him quite different from the deserting soldiers who seem to not have a clear goal in their wanderings except to avoid cruel masters or poor conditions, he becomes a wanderer. His name is highlighted here. While born of Puritan stock and named out of Puritan religious commitments, he ends his life closer to the Wandering Jew (right from the text, page 610). Was it this wandering and rootlessness that was the true reason he was able to hold onto his Americanism. Had he been settled onto land, married into an English family, and raised English children would he have remained the patriot to his death? It does not seem likely to me. Is this a tragic component of American identity? They are constantly on the move, constantly discontent, but always longing for a home.

If this was the fate of Americans at the time of Melville’s writing, the entire world has been Americanized now. Not in the silly cultural symbols—indeed universal around the world now—but in the frustrating liquidity of life. The most tragic part of the tale comes when Potter returns to his beloved home to find everything different and decayed. It is not a Rip Van Winkle story. He does not return to a world of industry. He finds instead a burnt out homestead. “Ere long, on the mountain side, he passed into an ancient natural wood, which seemed some way familiar, and midway in it, paused to contemplate a strange mouldy pile, resting at one end against a sturdy beech. Though wherever touched by his staff, however lightly, this pile would crumble, yet here and there, even in powder, it preserved the exact look, each irregularly defined line, of what it has originally been.” (614) The conclusion is not how things have changed or how boldly America progressed. It was the much more pathetic “[f]ew things remain.” With this, Melville predicted the real horror of late capitalism’s endless projections into the future as it clamors for immortality. It can no longer leave much of value behind.

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