Places Discussed

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*Berkshire. Range in western Massachusetts that is the birthplace of the fictional Israel Potter. Herman Melville describes this region as a nearly empty land of rocks and difficult soil—a physical image that suggests the desert regions inhabited by the ancient Hebrews, as well as the hardiness of the American pioneers. Many abandoned farmhouses are enormous, and the land is crisscrossed with walls built of enormous stones. Israel Potter comes from a land of Titans.

*Bunker Hill

*Bunker Hill. Prominent hill in Charleston, Massachusetts, that was the site of the first major battle of the American Revolution in 1775. Historically, it is important because the poorly trained and poorly armed colonial volunteers were inflicting serious damage on an army of British regulars before a shortage of ammunition and superior British numbers resulted in a costly British victory. Israel Potter suffers severe wounds in the front line at Bunker Hill, which firmly establishes his credentials as an American hero.

*Kew Gardens

*Kew Gardens. Royal gardens at Kew, a suburb of London, where Israel becomes a gardener after escaping from a British naval prison hulk at Spithead. There, he has an improbable and nearly incomprehensible conversation with King George III. Although he is an escaped rebel prisoner, Israel cannot, as an American patriot, bring himself to kneel to the king. Like the ancient Israelites—particularly Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, thrown into the furnace by Nebuchednezzar—Israel Potter cannot worship a “false god.” Like Joseph, he enjoys the favor of the king.

Franklin’s office

Franklin’s office. Parisian embassy office of Benjamin Franklin, who served as American ambassador to France during the American Revolution. The room reveals the powerful and eclectic intellect of America’s greatest Enlightenment thinker; it is full of books on a wide variety of subjects and in many different languages. It also has models and drawings of new inventions, barometers, charts, and maps. The windows are open for cooling, and the room is full of flies, but Franklin’s powers of concentration allow him to ignore the insects and continue with his work. Perhaps the most interesting detail is his map of the New World with the word “Desert” spanning much of the American West. Franklin has crossed the word out, Melville says, “in summary repeal” of it, as if he believes he can reclaim the deserts. This tiny detail suggests Franklin’s—and the Enlightenment’s—firm belief in the power of reason and science to change the world.

Potter’s cell

Potter’s cell. Hiding place on the estate of Squire Woodcock, a nobleman sympathetic to the American cause, in Brentford, England. There Israel, now a spy carrying messages between the squire and Franklin, hides. The cell was originally built the size and shape of a coffin by the holy order of Knights Templars, who used it to punish impenitent members of their order. Like Jesus, Israel leaves the tomb after three days.


*Whitehaven. British coastal town that was the boyhood home of future American naval hero John Paul Jones. Israel ships with Jones during the captain’s daring raids on England, including an attack on Whitehaven. The ground under the town is honeycombed with coal mines, and abandoned mines occasionally collapse, destroying the homes and warehouses above. Melville’s description suggests the town’s relation to Jones, who had, in a sense, been discarded by his country: Despite his extraordinary worth as a sea captain, he was barred from the British merchant service after the accidental death of a seaman under his command, and now, like the disused mines, he destroys part of the town with a surprise attack. In a larger sense, Whitehaven and Jones represent the American revolutionaries reared on English values, exploited, and provoked into rebellion.

*Latin Quarter

*Latin Quarter. Bohemian section of Paris and the home of the Sorbonne, the famous college of the University of Paris. The Latin Quarter was so named because many of the students who lived there studied Latin. In the novel, Franklin maintains a home there and also installs Israel in a hotel room. As Israel represents the simple purity of America, his room in the Latin Quarter represents the decadence of Europe: it is equipped with brandy, sugar, cologne, expensive fragrant soap, and a chambermaid who moonlights as a prostitute. The vigilant, pragmatic Franklin rescues Israel from these ruinous temptations.


*England. As America is the Promised Land in the novel, England and her seas—which Israel sails with the famous John Paul Jones—represents Israel Potter’s Egypt, his wilderness, and later his Babylon. Similar to the ancient Israelites in Egypt, Israel Potter suffers virtual enslavement as a brick maker. Later, a wildly comic accident of war brings him again to England, but not as a slave. Like the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity of the first century b.c.e. Israel mingles freely with the English and even marries an English woman. Also like the Israelites, when he finally returns to the Promised Land, he finds himself forgotten and displaced.


Brickyard. Near the end of the novel, a destitute Israel finds work making bricks a few miles from London. Another biblical allusion, the brickyard strengthens the correspondence between Israel and the ancient Israelites, who were compelled to work as brick-makers in Egypt.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 227

Dillingham, William B. Melville’s Later Novels. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. Focuses on poverty and liberty in the novel. Sees Potter as a kind of Christ figure, a “sacrificial victim,” with whom Melville identifies.

Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Briefly treats the work as an example of Melville’s awareness of “man’s ingratitude to man,” of “tragic inconsistencies” “in human conduct,” and of the “emptiness of worldly fame.”

Karcher, Carolyn L. Shadow over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Calls the novel a reconstruction of the American Revolution as seen by what she calls “the forgotten common man.” Demonstrates that the book shows Melville’s sympathy for the oppressed.

Melville, Herman. Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. The Writings of Herman Melville 8. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1982. In addition to containing the authoritative text of the novel, this volume has the full text of Henry Trumbull’s book, an excellent introduction, useful notes, and an excellent historical essay about the writing and publication of the book.

Samson, John. White Lies: Melville’s Narratives of Facts. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. Treats Melville’s novel as an ironic narrative of the American Revolution that “breaks narrative conventions” and “frustrates audience expectations.”

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Critical Essays