Friday, February 14, 2020

White-Jacket in Sleeper's Boston Journal

The Boston Journal, then edited by John Sherburne Sleeper, published this brief, favorable notice of Melville's White-Jacket on March 25, 1850. Not included in Gary Scharnhorst's 1988 inventory of discoveries, "Melville Bibliography 1846-1897: A Sheaf of Uncollected Excerpts, Notices, and Reviews" in Melville Society Extracts 74 (October 1988) pages 8-12; and 75 (November 1988) pages 3-8. Not transcribed or listed in Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1995; paperback 2009).

Boston Journal - March 25, 1850
Vol. 18 no. 5256, page 1, col. 4.

New Publications. 

... White-Jacket; or the World in a Man-of-War. By Herman Melville. New York: Harpers & Brothers.
The author in this volume gives a description of life on board a man of war, as seen from the forecastle. We have not yet had an opportunity to bestow more than a casual glance at the contents of this book, but judging from a perusal of one or two chapters and from the wide reputation which the author has acquired, we hazard little in predicting that the book will be read with great interest. In London, where the work was published some six or eight weeks since, it is very highly spoken of. The little which we have read in "White Jacket," has served to awaken a desire to read more, and we have laid the book aside for perusal at the earliest opportunity. It is for sale by Redding & Co.
Boston Daily Journal - May 23, 1850
Vol. 18 no. 5306, page 1, columns 4-5.
Two months later, a more substantial critique of White-Jacket appeared in the evening edition of Sleeper's Boston Journal over the pseudonym, "Johnny Raw." This item also is not counted in Scharnhorst's 1988 "Sheaf" or the 1995 edition of Contemporary Reviews. The pseudonymous reviewer in the Boston Journal argues that Melville's book is best regarded as fiction, taking pains to show specific ways that White-Jacket is unreliable as a "true narrative." According to "Johnny Raw," Melville actually belonged to the after-guard, never the maintop as claimed, "his duties seldom carrying him above the hammock netting." The writer takes pains to correct Melville on the legal basis for flogging in the U. S. Navy. Without saying how exactly, "Johnny Raw" appears to have some knowledge of the frigate United States during Melville's service, including what might be regarded as inside information about particular officers and crew members. 

Critique of Melville's White-Jacket by "Johnny Raw"
Boston Daily Journal - May 23, 1850
Melville's informed critic approves the portrayal of "Mad Jack" as "the most correct character in the book," but denies any factual basis for the caricatures of Selvagee and the amputation-crazy Dr. Cuticle. The critic exposes the real age of old Ushant ("about forty") and his lack of naval experience. Nevertheless, "Johnny Raw" acknowledges that Melville's Ushant had a real-life model whose "great peculiarity was his fondness for his bushy and Turk-like beard." In this case, the exercise of fact-checking nicely corroborates the main lines of the story as Melville told it in The Great Massacre of the Beards.

[For the Boston Journal]
The title of this work would lead its readers, generally, to believe it a correct statement of the routine and discipline of a man-of-war; at least, they would expect a true narrative of occurrences in the vessel, on board which its author--pretending to be a maintop-man--was the literary man of that body of men termed the After-Guard; (who, in his own language, are composed chiefly of landsmen, the least robust, least hardy, and least sailor-like of the crew). Such, however, is far from being the case; much of this volume is fiction, composed, I should judge, in a great measure, of yarns gathered from sailors--having about the same claim to reality as "Sinbad the Sailor," or the "Baron Munchausen." When the author condescends to treat his readers to a bit of reality, his facts are so much distorted, and represented in so incorrect a light, as to render them, under the circumstances, more blameable than fiction. Tending, as they do, to mislead the public, (who generally being wholly unacquainted with the subject, are entirely at the mercy of an author,) such want of faith in portraying events, cannot be too severely censured. As a work of fiction, the book may have its merits; but deeming it the intention of its author that it should not be considered such, I will point out some few of these misrepresentations and attempt to place them in their true position.
Commencing with the author's statement of the truth and fidelity of his picture, we find, in Chap. 12th, in speaking of the topmen-- 
"The reason of their lofty-mindedness was, that they were high lifted above the petty tumults, carping cares, and paltriness of the decks below. And I feel persuaded, in my inmost soul, that it is to the fact of my having been a maintop-man, and especially my particular post being on the loftiest yard of the frigate, the main-royal-yard, that I am now enabled to give such a free, broad, off-hand, birds-eye and , more than all, impartial account of our man-of-war world; withholding nothing, inventing nothing, nor flattering, nor scandalizing any, but meting out to all--Commodore and messenger-boy alike--their precise description and deserts." 
There is no knowing but such might have been the case, had the author been a maintop-man, and his station on the giddy heighth of the main-royal-yard of the frigate; but stationed as he was, among the landsmen of the After-Guard, his duties seldom carrying him above the hammock netting; it may have been "the petty tumults, carping cares, and paltriness of the decks below," together with a want of sufficient knowledge of sea service, which has caused him to view every thing through so incorrect and distempered a medium.
The characters introduced into this work, are in a great measure those of the imagination, and are made to speak and act to suit the author's pleasure. Captain "Claret," or rather the Captain's Claret, (there being no mention made by the author of the Captain Claret to whom he alludes having, during the latter part of the cruise, relinquished the command of the frigate to a commander, himself taking command of the squadron, owing to the death of the Commodore,) are officers of high standing both in their profession and among their fellow citizens. "Mad Jack" is the most correct character in the book. "Selvagee" is most outrageously caricatured; in reality he is a neat, gentlemanly man, intelligent and much above mediocrity in ability and acquirement, with a knowledge of his profession, which renders him competent to discharge all its duties. The venerable "Old Ushant," "the ancient captain of the forecastle," the seaman whose "back had bowed at the guns of the Constitution when she captured the Guerriere." In fact, with all this high sounding decoration, the author's Ushant was a seaman on the forecastle, who, so far from having been in the Constitution at the time of the capture of the Guerriere, from his own admission, had never served in a man-of-war previous to the cruise of this frigate; neither was he the venerable man, "the Nestor of the crew," as described, but a seaman of about forty years of age, whose great peculiarity was his fondness for his bushy and Turk-like beard. 
A few words now on the subject of flogging. The first case mentioned by the author, in chapter 33d, for the edification of his readers, is that of four men guilty of fighting; the description itself is tolerably fair, but something more is required to convey a correct idea of punishment in the naval service to general readers.
By law of Congress, the punishment in the naval service is flogging; the instrument and its material being designated. No officer has power to punish but the commanding officer, and that in presence of the officers and crew. The following are the regulations under which punishment is made:
"The President of the United States, believing that greater formality in the infliction of such corporeal punishments as are authorized by law, may be adopted in the Navy with beneficial consequences, directs that no such punishment shall be inflicted on any person in the service without sentence of a court-martial, when required bylaw, or the written order of the captain or commanding officer of the vessel, or commandant of the navy yard to which he is attached, where the authority to cause it to be inflicted rests with the commanding officer; specifying the offence or offences, and the extent of the punishment to be inflicted; which order shall be read, and the punishment inflicted in presence of the officers and seamen belonging to the vessel or navy yard.
All such orders for punishment shall be entered on the log-book, and a quarterly return made to the Secretary of the Navy, stating the names of the persons punished, their offences, and the extent of the punishment inflicted, together with such explanations or remarks as the commanding officer may deem necessary to a proper understanding of the case, &c.
Navy Department, May 29th, 1840." 
A list of all punishments taking place on board of all vessels of the Navy, containing the offence and number of lashes inflicted, is required to be kept and forwarded to Congress through the Secretary of the Navy.
"And be it further enacted, that the Secretary of the Navy be, and he is hereby directed to report to Congress at the commencement of the next session, the number of persons in the naval service flogged in each of the years eighteen hundred and forty-six, and eighteen hundred and forty-seven; specifying the name of the ship, the offence, the sentence, and the number of lashes inflicted; and it shall be his duty to make a similar report for each year thereafter." (Approved August 3, 1848.)
The regulations for the government of the Navy are laws of Congress, specifying the offences, and the punishment for such offences, leaving it only discretionary with the captain of a vessel to limit the punishment for such offences as are not subject for a court-martial, from one to twelve lashes (twelve lashes being the extent of the law); strictly, in all offences against the law, the captain has no power to remit punishment altogether, the law reading, "shall be punished," &c.
Chapter 34. "Some of the evil effects of flogging."-- "One of the arguments advanced by officers of the navy in favor of corporeal punishment is this: it can be inflicted in a moment; it consumes no valuable time; and when the prisoner's shirt is put on, that is the last of it, whereas if another punishment were substituted it would probably occasion a great waste of time and trouble; besides thereby begetting in the sailor an undue idea of his importance." 
I say with the author, "absurd, or worse than absurd," but beyond this I cannot go, and agree with him, that "all this is true," but decidedly deny its truth. That any such argument is advanced by officers of the Navy is altogether a misstatement. Not being aware that the opinions of officers (were they asked) would make any difference in the law, they having no part in their framing, being in no manner responsible for them, but being obliged to execute them to the best of their ability, whatever they may be. I will mention none of the arguments made use of by those in favor or against corporeal punishment:
"For besides the formal administering of the 'cat' at the gangway for petty offences, he is liable to the 'colt,' or rope's end, a bit of ratlin stuff, indiscriminately applied."
By referring back, it will be found in General Order from the Hon. J. K. Paulding, then Secretary of the Navy, that all punishment except in presence of the officers and crew, was prohibited in 1840, some three years previous to the author's serving on board the "Never-sink." 
"Nor was it a thing unknown for a Lieutenant in a sudden outburst of passion, perhaps inflamed by brandy, or smarting under the sense of being disliked or hated by the seamen, to order a whole watch of two hundred and fifty men, at dead of night, to undergo the indignity of the colt." 
Here again the author deals in the marvelous; such a scene cannot be proved to have been ever enacted in the navy of the United States. The laws in the naval service bind equally on all to whom they refer, officers as well as crew. Would not common sense teach any one, that an officer is not going to risk his position (which he most certainly would do) by acting directly at variance with the law, for the sake of gratifying such a paltry feeling of revenge, as the author imagines.
I would also mention here, that for illegal punishment, inflicted at any time during a cruise, every officer is aware that he would not only subject himself to a court-martial for violation of military law, but also to heavy penalty, at the expiration of the vessel's cruise, were the circumstances brought to a civil court; and there are ever a class in our sea port cities on the look out for such cases, on the return of both government and merchant vessels. 
"Flogging not lawful." Such is the title of chapter 35th. Is it not indeed wonderful that this should not have been found out an an earlier period, that the judgment of our members of Congress and heads of Department should have been thus obscured! that Congress, when legislating on this subject, should labor under the delusion that their acts were law! that no member of Congress has been sufficiently acute, when advocating the abolishment of corporeal punishment, to perceive that such punishment was unlawful! and that at last this discovery should be made by one whose talent seems by far better adapted to fiction, than to unravelling the substantial intricacies of the law. The laws for the government of the Navy are in themselves a sufficient comment upon this chapter. 
Although the seamen themselves, generally, are of opinion that flogging should not be done away with--and the only petition which I have heard of their sending to Congress for years, was a request that such punishment should not be abolished. Still I would say, make the trial--let Congress make the experiment in a few vessels--should they not deem it prudent to do so altogether--and indeed can I say that for one out of very many, most sincerely should I rejoice to see that order and discipline can be maintained, (on the high sea), among such a number, composed of every description of men, without the lash.
"Flogging not necessary." Chapter 36. Whether necessary or not, I should not presume to discuss, (although one-half of my life has been spent in sea service,) until a fair trial had been made without its use. 
"And as in this matter we cannot go further back than to Blake, so we cannot advance further than to our own time, which shows Commodore Stockton, during the recent war with Mexico, governing the American squadron in the Pacific, without employing the scourge." 
Having for authority those who served on board the U. S. frigate Congress, the flag-ship of Commodore Stockton, I can state that in this also the author is mistaken, and that as elsewhere corporeal punishment was inflicted for violation of the law; I should judge that the author might be equally if not more likely, misinformed with regard to the opinions of Blake, Collingwood and Nelson, on this subject, than of those of his contemporary whom he has mentioned. 
"Old Ushant at the gangway." Chapter 77. I will close this subject with a correct story of this incident, of the genuineness of the author's "Old Ushant," I have before spoken. General orders from the Secretary of the Navy, sent by circular to the Commodores of Squadrons, and from them to the commanders of vessels, are regulations which officers are obliged to obey and enforce equally with the laws.
"The hair of all persons belonging to the Navy, when in actual service, is to be kept short. No part of the beard is to be worn long excepting the whiskers; which shall not descend more than one inch below the tip of the ear, and thence in a line towards the corners of the mouth.
[Signed] BADGER."
In the instance before us, each order was given by Captain "Claret." The order being obeyed by the officers, it was passed among the crew, who, with the exception of some six to twelve, obeyed it--they being probably sufficiently acquainted with the naval service to be aware that such orders do not emanate from the Captain without authority. On being remonstrated with, all obeyed, with the exception of the author's venerable Ushant, and he, after being reasoned with by the Captain, and informed that he should be obliged to punish him, did he continue to set his authority at defiance--the Captain at the same time expressing his unwillingness to do so--still continued to defy the authority of a regulation of the naval service, which all his shipmates and officers had seen the necessity of complying with. For this, in accordance with the law, was he punished. Here I will leave it to the good sense of every individual to say how justly.
"A man-of-war's man shot at," Chapter 50th. Without quoting from the author in this chapter, it is sufficient to say that he relates as fact, that a top-man, a messmate of his own, having been prohibited going on shore at night, was fired upon by the sentry on post, and severely wounded in the right thigh. Strange to say! this occurrence, unusual as it is, and of such a serious nature, cannot be remembered by others who were on board; so far from it, they decidedly maintain that, neither did such a circumstance occur during the cruise of the frigate, nor did a man die from having a limb amputated, as related in the case of this imaginary man of the author, in Chap. 53d; and furthermore, that no amputation took place on board the "Neversink," during her cruise. 
Growing out of this creation of the fancy, the author presents to his readers three chapters equally devoid of fact; and at last destroys his phantom messmate, under the hands of the surgeon; the description of whom, in justice to an upright and estimable man, I cannot pass over. "The Surgeon of the Fleet," Chap. 51st.
"He was a small, withered man, nearly, perhaps quite, sixty years of age. His chest was shallow, his shoulders bent, his pantaloons hung round skeleton legs, and his face was singularly attenuated. In truth, the corporeal vitality of this man seemed, in a good degree, to have died out of him, &c.
Like most old physicians and surgeons who have seen much service, and have been promoted to high professional place for scientific attainments, this Cuticle was an enthusiast in his calling. In private, he had once been heard to say, confidentially, that he would rather cut off a man's arm than  dismember the wing of the most delicate pheasant, &c." 
What a walking study for an anatomist! what a hideously ugly looking varmint, has the author drawn in caricaturing you, "Cuticle,"--quite a demon, hardly possessing the form of humanity; how amazingly is the real appearance and disposition of "Cuticle" at variance with the author's picture. Slightly above the medium height, he is erect, and stout without being corpulent, of about forty-five years of age, his features fine and expressive of that mildness and benignity which characterizes him. I am told by those who have been under his treatment (in the sick bay,) several times during the cruise of the frigate, he was ever extremely kind and attentive, doing all that professional skill, aided by an excellent heart, could do to alleviate the suffering of those under his care.
Here I "wind up" for the present, what was only undertaken to show the public how much they have been imposed upon, if they have taken "White Jacket" for other than a work of fiction.
--Boston Daily Journal, Thursday Evening, May 23, 1850; vol. 18 no. 5306, page 1.
Boston Daily Journal - May 23, 1850
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