Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.”