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  • Introduction
  • Robert S. Levine

In the December 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books, an online journal with a wide readership, Colin Dayan published a much remarked upon essay (at least among Melvilleans) titled "'Israel Potter'; or, The Excrescence." She laments in the essay what she calls the "academic disregard" of Israel Potter, arguing that Melville's arch and often wildly funny historical novel about the American Revolution is a major achievement meriting at least as much critical attention as Pierre. Through his appropriations and transformations of the 1824 Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter and numerous other source texts, Dayan argues, Melville "recovers all the details that have been silenced in standard histories, while using the frame of conventional history to eat it out from within." It is a novel, she says, that reveals how "the myths of heroism" become entangled "with the wastes of empire." In that regard, it is a novel that helps to illuminate US history in a transnational context from the Revolution to our present moment. For good reason, then, Dayan hopes for "a resurgence of interest" in the novel, and in a piece that for the most part speaks to general readers, she pointedly remarks to those of us who regularly read Leviathan that Israel Potter "now seems a trove of untapped possibilities for interpretation."1

Dayan's essay appeared six months after the convening at King's College, London, of "Melville's Crossings," the Eleventh International Melville Conference. A conference devoted to such issues as Melville and England, the blurring of national boundaries, transatlantic texts and figures, the mutability of identity, and the dynamics of transgression provided the perfect occasion for a reconsideration of Israel Potter. With the help of conference co-organizer Edward Sugden, I set up a writing workshop on Israel Potter, and on June 27th ten of us met for a ninety-minute session to discuss the five-page drafts that each person had written for the workshop. That ninety-minute session became a three-hour meeting, as we wrestled with such issues as Melville's sense of audience, the politics of the novel, Melville's use of his sources, his attitude toward his major characters, his attitude in particular to John Paul Jones (the group was much divided about how to respond to Jones), and many other matters, including how [End Page 1] the major themes of the conference played out in Israel Potter. It was a lively and exhilarating conversation about a novel that some had read for the first time. At the end of the meeting, I proposed to the participants that they work on making their initial five-page drafts into short, punchy essays for a cluster on Israel Potter in Leviathan. My thanks to editors Samuel Otter and Brian Yothers for supporting this initiative, and my thanks to the five participants who decided to take up the challenge of producing the essays that make up this critical cluster.

The conversations in London are reflected in these essays, conveying the richness of our exchanges in June 2017 but more importantly the richness of Israel Potter itself. Carol Colatrella provides a helpful initial statement in the overall cluster by situating the novel in relation to US magazine culture of the 1850s as well as to Melville's efforts to reach out to both US and British readers. The novel, Colatrella suggests, has the paradoxical aim of both celebrating and critiquing the Revolutionary War. From the transatlantic perspective of audience, Melville's appeal to very different readerships creates a problem of readerly affiliation and identification with respect to the presentation of the Revolutionary War. But arguably that is the "problem" that energizes the novel's project of de-mythologizing the war and blurring national identities (a theme that is picked up in several of the other essays). Whereas Colatrella works with a broad canvas, Emilio Irigoyen focuses on one key aspect of the novel—exile—and one key scene involving Ben Franklin and his maps. For Irigoyen, the novel is an experiment in form that attempts to convey exile as the experience of "moving stasis." The novel, Irigoyen argues, works with temporal suspensions and spatial detours...


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