Magazine article Melville Society Extracts

White-Jacket after the Millennium: Reading Melville's Novel in Time of War

Magazine article Melville Society Extracts

White-Jacket after the Millennium: Reading Melville's Novel in Time of War

Article excerpt

Herman Melville begins Chapter 68 of White-Jacket with the questions, "Who knows that this humble narrative may not hereafter prove the history of an obsolete barbarism? Who knows that, when men-of-war shall be no more, 'White-Jacket' may not be quoted to show to the people in the Millennium what a man-of-war was? God hasten the time! Lo! ye years, escort it hither, and bless our eyes ere we die." The man-of-war is not only a frigate, an armed ship, but as in Moby-Dick a picture of the world, here a world that has not only fallen but become diabolical, a world that makes diabolic those who must enforce its rules. The spring of 2004 has been an eerie time to re-read this often funny, often devastating book. The daily news, with its exposure of war's barbarism, has helped us to appreciate Melville's exploration of "the ancestry and posterity of grief."

In his own time, pacifists in the American Peace Society and New England Non-Resistance Society both opposed war on Christian grounds, and Millennialists worked to create the conditions for peace and brotherly love. Melville uses Christian arguments, but his position is closest to that of the Religious Society of Friends. Melville knew Quakers, of course, from whaling and New Bedford. Like George Fox, who argued peace with Oliver Cromwell, and John Woolman, who saw the roots of war in inequality, especially slavery, Melville blames evil on the extreme difference in conditions between sailors and the officers. So it is not surprising to find, on the first page of Melville's novel, that the narrator' s white jacket has a "Quakerish amplitude about the skirts," that he puts in a footnote for the "Quaker reader" to explain a cannonade, nor that he creates a consciously self-contained world in which he follows Quaker arguments as he moves to the concluding assertion that "each man must be his own savior"--must have, in other words, an Inner Light or divinity that for Quakers is the basis of their social testimonies. …

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