Here’s another installation of Jimmy Abbott’s wide-read and erudite Wednesday book review!
Right now, I’m reading Herman Melville’s “White Jacket,” also known as “The World in a Man-of-War.” This is Melville’s second greatest and second most popular work, falling in line behind “Moby-Dick.” Like his ultimate work about the infamous white whale, “White Jacket” is also set at sea during the middle of the 19th century. Unlike “Moby-Dick,” the man with the titular white jacket is aboard a U.S. naval frigate.
Few artists of the literary genre are gifted with keen insight into social problems: Melville is one such author. Although his appeals are not subtle (he will often end a chapter making a directly appeal to the U.S. Congress) they are powerful and motivating. He decries the unfair treatment of American sailors: their sleeping conditions, hours for eating, and most egregious of all, the brutal punishment meted out by uncompromising officers. In this sense, Melville stands with Upton Sinclair of “The Jungle” and Arthur Miller of “The Crucible” as artistic critics of society.
And the great thing about “White Jacket” isn’t the historical insights into the naval problems from two centuries ago. The great thing about this novel is Melville’s clear love for words and for the English language. Puns lurk through every nook and cranny of this sea adventure aboard the USS Neversink. Melville’s bread and butter is biting humor coupled with articulate descriptions. Fortunately, for the reader, his bread and butter is our delight.