Friday, January 31, 2014

Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile by Herman Melville

A minuteman’s odyssey
Israel Potter, originally published in 1855, is perhaps Herman Melville’s least-known novel, but it is wholly undeserving of the obscurity into which it has fallen. The story is based on the autobiography of an actual American Revolutionary veteran of the same name, though Melville took plenty of liberties in his adaptation. The title character is a farmer from the Berkshires of western Massachussetts who enlists as a minuteman in the colonial army and fights in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He then volunteers for duty with the newborn U.S. Navy, but his ship is captured by the British, and he is taken to England as a prisoner of war. Shortly after his arrival he escapes his captors, but must constantly elude further capture while he does his part to further the American cause on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

I must confess a predisposed fondness for fiction pertaining to the American Revolution. I can’t understand why so many novels about the Civil War are churned out every year while this fascinating conflict that gave birth to our nation is largely ignored. When it comes to literature about the American Revolution, the obvious works to compare this book to are the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper, for better or worse, would have taken this story and romanticized it into a heroic epic. While I would hesitate to call Melville a realist, he as usual scorns romantic clichés and pens the story in his own unconventional style. The first few chapters are tough to engage with. Though I’ve never read the source material, Melville’s adaptation feels like it may be a little too faithful to the original. It’s all “Israel went here; he did this; he went there; he saw that,” with little insight into the character or his thoughts and feelings. Early on there are about seven or eight successive instances of capture and escape, when two or three harrowing examples probably would have sufficed.

Beyond the first few chapters, however, the novel improves considerably. As the story goes on, Israel develops into a sort of 18th-century Forrest Gump. He drifts through the events of the plot like a leaf on a stream, coming into close association with several luminary historical personages of his day, whose identities I won’t reveal here. For much of the novel, it seems the purpose of the book is not to tell Israel’s story, but rather for Melville to present his personal take on these famous historic individuals, and also to recount classic naval battles that were perhaps household names for the readers of his day but are all but forgotten to today’s audience. His treatment of the historical characters is a fun mix of reverence and caricature. Although the subtitle of the novel is His Fifty Years of Exile, the story really only concentrates on the first few years of that fifty. Israel himself is a cipher for much of that time, merely a lens through which we view the events of the narrative. It isn’t until the last few chapters that the reader begins to truly identify with him as a man and sympathize with his plight. Melville’s purpose for writing the book was to draw attention to the forgotten contributions of those who fought for America’s independence. Several wars later, the relevance of such commemoration has been dulled by the distance of time, but by the novel’s close the reader does feel a profound pathos for this humble and dedicated soldier.

The main obstacle to enjoying this work may be Melville’s usual thesaurus-exhausting vocabulary, but that’s also part of the fun. After the first few chapters one becomes accustomed to his highfalutin word choices, his arcane analogies, and his somewhat Shakespearean cadence. Beneath the surface of this ornate prose, the author’s wry sense of humor is constantly bubbling. Israel Potter may not be Melville’s best novel, but it’s still a buried treasure worth digging for.

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