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Melville'sWhite-Jacket: Sovereignty in the American Polity ofDisplacement Stephen de Paul HermanMelville the man was a democrat given to patrician nostalgia for an Americanaristocracy. Melville the writer entered into a grammar of the Americanpolitical culture which disclosed the structural origins of these mixedaspirations. White-Jacket (1850), his allegorical documentary fiction chroniclingthe abuses committed aboard ships of the U.S. Navy, uses the metaphorof the ship of state as a means to uncover the hidden structures of America's complex relationship to the Old World. The novel illustrates, better thanany other fiction Melville wrote, how the America of 1850, though independent,was still ensnared in a historical process belonging to European culture.Melville's narrator-protagonist, White-Jacket, becomes the hybrid representativeof a nation which was itself a liminalized political space caught betweenthe historical traditions of the Old World and the typological destiny oftheNew.Beneath the surface of Melville's allegory lie the deep structures ofanAmerica expressing itself in discordant languages of self-realization. 1·Evert Duyckinck, among Mellville's early readers, struck closest to the underlyingconcern of White-Jacket in his review for The Literary World.He sawin the metaphorical thrust of the "world in a man-of-war" an underlying principleof fragmentation'. Beyond the separation of the ship's all-male crew fromwomen, Duyckinck perceived in Melville's new novel a "divorce" of greaterimplication: "The man-of-war is divorced from civilization,-and we will not repeat the stale phrase, from the progress of humanity,-but from CanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 1986, 267-283 268 Stephen dePaul humanity itself. How thus divorced, through all t.hewindings and intricacies of the artificial system White-Jacket willshow."2 Both Duyckinck's observation and Melville'smetaphor of the ship of state are acutely American. For precisely what constitutes the divorce, the break-away from "civilization," and howit occurs in history are factors that inspired Melville to construct a versionof the American polis. The Neversink is the political anatomy of a culture which in 1850 retained at its center the paradoxical tension between a historical society of severed ties and a typological destiny of restored human harmony. Two events of exclusion render Melville's allegory of historical processan "artificial system." First, the transformation of the American City on the Hill into "a city on the sea" blocks out an interior region of civilization from the "indefinite, infinite background" 3 of nature and its metaphysical extension into the preternatural. Even when that ocean background becomes suddenly very definite with the appearance of dry land, White-Jacket "must againforbear ; for in this book [he has] nothing to do with the shore further than to glance at it, now and then, from the water; [his] man-of-war world alone must supply [him] with the staple of [his] matter" (p. 226). The spiritual rover's life-"sailing in heaven's blue as we do on the azure main"-can encourage a kind of Transcendentalist reflection which gives a man "a very fine feeling, and one that fuses us into the universe of things, and makes us part of the All" (p. 76). There is, however, no room for a spiritual rover aboard the nation-state of the Neversink. Dreams and idylls have no place there, given that "life in a man-of-war, with its martial formalities and thousand vices, stabs to the heart the soul of all free-and-easy honorable rovers" (p. 77). Secondly, the walls of the civilized American state separate it from two human realms: the European world of American origins and the primitive world of all human origins are removed from the social compact of the Neversink's crew. The ship encloses a cell of humanity and prevents the inhabitants from direct converse with the European historical surround from which their civilization has evolved. Even though the Neversink is an autonomous community, the European world threatens to encroach uponit in the form of the Articles of War. The encroachment of that anterior European world, symbolized in the American navy's observance of the British Articles of War,like the landless horizon, "hoops you in" (p. 295). American autonomy becomes an ironic isolation when coupled with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 267-283
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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