Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930
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 while Allen was in captivity in England. As Melville depicts him, Potter is a true patriot, a fierce fighter, and may be the one most responsible for the defeat of the Serapis by the Bon Homme Richard, one of the most famous naval engagements in American history. It was during this battle that Jones uttered his famous words: “I have not yet begun to fight.” However, through various twists of fate, Potter was forgotten even during his own lifetime, while Franklin, Allen, and Jones won the admiration of all their countrymen and lasting fame.
Potter, however, ended his days in poverty working at extremely unpleasant jobs for very little reward. Melville describes Potter’s later life, especially his forty years in exile in England, in hellish terms. Before he enters the city of London, he works in a brickyard, a period that Melville refers to as Potter’s time in Egypt. Then, he enters London, a city Melville describes using Dantesque terms.
When Israel’s son finally manages to get passage for his father and himself back to America, Israel is in his eighties. When he enters Boston on July 4, he is almost run over by “a patriotic triumphal car” inscribed with the words, “Bunker Hill/1775/Glory to the heroes that fought!” The irony is clear: History forgets the modest man, so it often overlooks true heroes. The irony is extended when the reader learns that Potter cannot even get a pension from the nation to which he gave so much.
One of the main things that distinguishes Melville’s Potter from his more famous contemporaries is his modesty. Melville describes Franklin as a confidence man, always promoting his maxims, writings, and way of life. Melville treats John Paul Jones as an accomplished naval officer with tremendous energy but also as an incredible braggart absolutely sure of his extraordinary abilities. Melville’s Allen is a magnificent figure in captivity, but he also constantly brags and exaggerates. Jones and Allen exaggerate their accomplishments and abilities in the tall-tale tradition. Melville’s Potter, on the other hand, is content to let others take the glory while he does the kind of hard work that ultimately results in America’s independence from England. Unlike Melville’s Jones, who can be incredibly irresponsible, Melville’s Potter constantly tries to act responsibly toward others, so much so that he stays in England for forty years after the Revolution ends not only because of economic conditions but also because of loyalty to his wife and son.
Potter’s life as Melville recounts it also illustrates the fickleness of fate. As Jones and Potter sail back to America on the Ariel, they engage an English frigate class ship. The ship strikes its colors, and Potter boards it. Immediately, with Potter on board, the frigate sails away so that no one else can board it and with no one but Potter knowing how he got there. As a result, he begins his years in exile.
An additional theme Melville treats is the brutality that lies beneath the surface of civilization. He wonders whether humankind has made any progress, and his descriptions of battles, especially naval battles, indicate that it has not. He also comments that the French Revolution shows that in humankind “primeval savageness . . . slumbers.”
Israel Potter has been classified as one of Melville’s minor works. Still, critics praise it for its humor, its sympathy for the downtrodden, and its unusual view of some of the heroes of the American Revolution.