Goodreads Review of White Jacket
Melville never made it as a novelist--really: Moby Dick and his other "novels" failed, with a failure that still echoes. Possibly that's because he could never shape himself quite to the novel pattern. He enjoyed the facts too much--small wonder, with his own life constructed of facts almost too exotic to believe. He was one of a very few of his time strong enough to visit the far shores and talented enough to paint them, a very rugged, and very American, sort of genius.
But this is too much praise to the America of that age, I think. Melville's allusions, his offhand references, presume a base of classical knowledge rare in his generation and non-existent in ours. Expounding upon those allusions could fill a large book--and indeed that book exists. Its study would make a decent education all by itself.
Yet we continue to treat books like White Jacket as novels, possibly because we have no name for the genre Melville invented, and occupied all alone for a very long time. It was a kind of adventure anthropology, the explication of the unfamiliar through a sharp and thorough eye, told with humor and poetry. No one did it before, and no one has done it since. Maybe no one ever will do it again.
Students of American maritime history should consider themselves lucky that this eye dwelt so long on an American warship of 1841--as it happens, one of the original six frigates signed into being by George Washington. Here, far more thoroughly and acutely than I have seen anywhere else, is the picture of life aboard an American warship in active service during formative years of the mid-19th century.
We meet the people, learn the usages, hear the rolling of the drums to quarters--almost feel the lash. We get more than the flavor of the officers' insolence, and feel the injustice of an essentially British system of discipline imposed on an American democratic ethos. We also see something of Melville the reformist crusader, whose stated objective it was to make known the horrors of flogging to a wide audience. In this, even if the book sold poorly, he succeeded.
As an historical document alone this book is extremely worthwhile. When you add the fact of Melville's authorship, you have a very strong recommendation indeed.