Critical Evaluation

Israel Potter is called Herman Melville’s one piece of historical fiction. In it, Melville pretends to be writing literal biography. In form, it is close to his Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), Redburn, His First Voyage (1849), and White-Jacket: Or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850). Israel Potter is basically an unadorned narrative rather than the kind of highly digressive, philosophical novel associated with Melville’s later years.

Melville wrote Israel Potter, according to his biographers, to make up for the financial and critical failure of Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852), and by far the majority of contemporary reviews were favorable. He received an initial $421.50. At first, the book sold fairly well. It quickly went into a third printing, but Melville’s royalties were small, ranging between $190 and $240. The money gave Melville what at the time was a fairly good income but only for a short while.

Melville’s main source for Israel Potter is Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter, (A Native of Cranston, Rhode Island.) Who Was a Soldier in the American Revolution (1824), by Henry Trumbull, a first-person narrative of the life of what Trumbull calls “one of the few survivors who fought and bled for American independence.” The narrative is a supposedly true account of the life of the real Israel Potter, who fought at Bunker Hill, served in the navy, and ironically led most of his adult life in exile in England. Melville also used as sources biographies of and narratives by Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and John Paul Jones.

Toward the end of the novel, Melville writes: “The gloomiest and truthfulest dramatist seldom chooses for his theme the calamities, however extraordinary, of inferior and private persons; least of all, the pauper’s,” for “few feel enticed to the shanty, where, like a pealed knucklebone, grins the unupholstered corpse of the beggar.” Nevertheless, it is precisely such a life that Melville recounts in Israel Potter. During the Revolutionary War, Potter worked with Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones and saw Ethan Allen...

(The entire section is 930 words.)