Wednesday, May 22, 2019
Spasms of virtue have been a curse in my life, sort of like the grand mal seizures suffered by epileptics, only we don’t call them grands bons. One came upon me a couple of weeks ago. It occurred to me that though the clock keeps ticking, I still had never read Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities. I was determined to read one or the other of them. I am prepared to allow that, as existential crises go, this one is pretty rarefied. I realize that there are probably many quite sensible people prepared to meet their Maker without having ever read Pierre, or the Ambiguities; but they may not be retired professors of English. So I metaphorically girded my loins and reached for the relevant volume of Library of America.
There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world. Not bad, I guess, but I still had 140,000 words to go. Then God sent me a message. I actually nodded in my easy chair, just for a millisecond, and the book fell from my grasp, closing as it dropped into my lap. When I reopened it, somewhere toward its thick middle, it was fortuitously at the title page of a completely different novel: Israel Potter, His Fifty Years of Exile. I am not sure that I had even heard of this title before, but as though responding to the command of some invisible power, I abandoned Pierre Glendenning in favor of Israel Potter.
Israel Potter is an historical novel—sort of. When it appears as a Netflix film it will be prefaced by the claim “Based on a True Story”. But modern sociology teaches us that the superstructures erected atop even firm foundations may be rather rickety. Here’s the story, the rudiments of which Melville found in an obscure autobiography, dictated by or ghosted for its author in the 1820s. Israel Potter was born into a pioneer colonial family in what is now Vermont somewhere around 1750. Youthful disappointment in love led him to flee his rustic family farm in favor of the life of the loner-adventurer. He first became a trapper, following the life of the Canadian mountain men. Later, he went to sea, a part of the burgeoning merchant marine industry that was a mainstay of the New England economy from early times. In June of 1775 he was conveniently in port in Boston when the Battle of Bunker Hill went down. If he didn’t personally fire the shot heard round the world, he still played no mean part in those famous early encounters with the Redcoats. As the Revolution got serious, the Continentals desperately needed a navy. They were facing the greatest naval power the world had ever known. So Potter, an experienced seaman, became an American sailor. Very soon his vessel was captured by the Brits, and the whole crew shipped as prisoners back to England. In England this was thought of as “military recruitment.” There were not all that many young men who truly volunteered for the life of a common sailor on a man-of-war in the service of King George. But Potter was a hard case, and thrown into chains.
This is where the possible historical part wanes, and the unquestionably novelistic part takes off. The rest of the book is the account of repeated escapes, recaptures, narrow scrapes, marvelous adventures with famous men, and decades of proletarian misery as a fugitive in the dark Satanic mills of industrial poverty. Potter was finally repatriated only in 1826, arriving in the Back Bay of Boston on the Fourth of July. Nobody remembered him, certainly not the American government, which denied him a pension “by certain caprices of the law.” No one ever knew (save Melville), the details of Potter’s service as a secret diplomatic courier between radical sympathizers in Britain and Ambassador Benjamin Franklin in Paris, that he had served as chief lieutenant to John Paul Jones in that madcap admiral’s most desperate exploits, including the combat with HMS Serapis in which a saber slash across Potter’s chest joined with the signs of an ancient wound at Bunker Hill to render him the “bescarred bearer of a cross,” or that he had witnessed the disgraceful treatment of the American hero Ethan Allen in his British captivity. So far as I know he never met the infant Abraham Lincoln or Sojourner Truth, but otherwise it was pretty much a clean sweep of our early notables. Particularly memorable is the “portrait” of Benjamin Franklin in his Paris rooms. His American contemporaries practically idolized the man, to whom they always gave the honorific “Doctor,” and whom they regarded as a combination of Rousseau, Kant, and the great naturalist, the Compte de Bouffon. Here is Israel’s account of his first glimpse of the great man: Wrapped in a rich dressing-gown—a fanciful present from an admiring Marchesa—curiously embroidered with algebraic figures like a conjuror’s robe, and with a skull-cap of black satin on his hive of a head, the man of gravity was seated at a huge claw-footed old table, round as the zodiac. It was covered with printed papers; files of documents; rolls of MSS.; stray bits of strange models in wood and metal; odd-looking pamphlets in various languages; all sorts of books; including many presentation-copies; embracing history, mechanics, diplomacy, agriculture, political economy, metaphysics, meteorology, and geometry….
Israel Potter is one of Melville’s minor works. The funny thing about minor works, though, is that you first have to have some major works against which they can be judged slighter. Everything about the great writer is here, especially his fastidiously researched details, his wit, his keen sense of narrative, and his boldness of symbolic conception (Israel in the brick factories of Egypt being one particularly brilliant touch). But the thing that struck me most is the book’s enthusiastic patriotism. Melville was no political patsy or company man. One of his themes is the unseemly haste with which Americans were already able by mid-century to forget their revolutionary origins. His sense of irony never grows dull from periods of long disengagement. But for him the American Revolution was irrevocably about human freedom, and those who won it were the champions of the whole human race. This was still the national consensus expressed in the Fourth of July celebrations of my own early years. You won’t find much like it in the editorial pages of our opinion-makers today. Of course there is still the minor problem of Pierre, or the Ambiguities.