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NOTES FACTUAL ERRORS AND FICTIONAL AIMS IN WHITE-JACKET Dennis Berthold Texas A&M University From its first appearance in 1849, White-Jacket has been admired for its authentic descriptions of nautical life, The World in a Man-ofWar , as its subtitle says. Early reviewers praised the book's "novel and vivid depiction of shipboard life and considered it more accurate than the novels of Cooper and Marryat. ' More recently, in the only booklength study of the novel, Howard P. Vincent says flatly: White-Jacket is a solidly realistic book. As an account of a nineteenthcentury man-of-war under sail it is the classic book on the subject, just as Moby-Dick is the Bible for students of whales and whaling, authentic in its facts and vivid in its historic realism. It is an informed and not merely a studied realism, achieved by Melville's memories of the thing and by his reading to corroborate or to correct those memories .2 Even the author himself argues for the novel's veracity. In the preface to the English edition, Herman Melville wrote, "allusion is sometimes made to events or facts in the past history of Navies. In these cases, no statement is presented unless supported by the best authorities" (p. 487). Given this general view of White-Jacket as "solidly realistic," almost documentary in its representation of nautical life and history, it is strange that in one of the book's most famous sections—the chilling description of Cape Horn—several serious factual errors occur, errors which raise questions about authorial control, persona, and narrative purpose. The errors occur in three paragraphs near the end of Chapter XXIV, "Introductory to Cape Horn," and involve both history and geography. The thumbnail historical sketch of the region begins correctly enough, stating that "Le Mair and Schouten, two Dutchmen, were the first navigators who weathered Cape Horn." But a later assertion is dead wrong: "Schouten's vessel, the Home, which gave its name to the Cape, was almost lost in weathering it" (p. 98). The Hoorn was one of two vessels in the Schouten-le Maire expedition that discovered Cape Horn in 1616; it accidentally burned in Patagonia just before the Cape was found, so it never weathered the Horn as the narrator maintains. Nor was the Cape named exclusively in the ship's honor; the prior source and authority for both names was Schouten's native village, Hoorn.3 A second error is more serious. The narrator says that "the next navigator round the Cape was Sir Francis Drake," when in fact Drake never doubled the Cape, perhaps did not even know of its existence, voyaged 234Notes into the Pacific nearly forty years before Schouten, and died twenty-one years before the Horn was discovered. Finally, the narrator moves ahead a century to declare that "the greatest hardships on record, in making this celebrated passage, were those experienced by Lord Anson's squadron in 1736"; but in fact, Anson set sail in 1740 and arrived at Cape Horn in 1741.4 The geographical error is less obvious but is equally incorrect. The text says, "a few leagues southward from Terra Del Fuego is a cluster of small islands, the Diegoes; between which and the former island are the Straits of Le Mair ..." (p. 98). Actually, as any map of the region shows, the Strait of Le Maire lies 150 miles northeast of the Diegoes, between Tierra del Fuego and Staten Island. The area described in White-Jacket is the Drake Passage, a wide expanse of ocean between Cape Horn and Antarctica. Factual errors, while not uncommon in Melville's fiction, seldom occur in so short a space and on such a presumably familiar subject. When G. Thomas Tanselle, one of the editors of the NorthwesternNewberry edition of White-Jacket, considered "External Fact as an Editorial Problem," he illustrated his article with the variant spellings, inexact quotations, misattributions, and internal inconsistencies in MobyDick , especially the "Extracts. "5 In White-Jacket, with the possible exception of the date, there are more than compositorial "slips" or errors in the transmission of the text; clearly, the information about Cape Horn is a rather involved distortion of historical and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 233-239
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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