Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review: Israel Potter

Israel Potter originally appeared in serialized format, and is a simple story that Melville more or less "phoned in" to generate a bit of cash in a difficult time. His critics were thinking he had gone mad in writing Pierre: or the Ambiguities, and Melville tossed them off an unambiguous bit of patriotism. It is the story of a revolutionary soldier impressed and brought to England, where he thanklessly serves the cause while also falling deep into poverty, ultimately returning to New England in his final days with his son.

Despite Melville's best efforts to make the book unexceptional, he sometimes cannot help himself. We see him playing with some of the same themes that obsessed him in Pierre, including questions of what it is to be an American and what our relation to western and broader cultures is. Here and there, he recognizes the fecundity of exile as a theme, and begins to surface some thoughts of physicial poverty and spiritual impoverishment. There are moments where he comes alive -- some good lines where the wit shows through, some moments when he steps back to ruminate on a scene, some occassional surfacing of the great doubter and his chuckling despair over God's inability to contain his sense of irony.

Overall, Melville keeps the flashes of brilliance (and the dark humor) under control in the interests of pleasing the public, something the book still failed to do. Perhaps, as in Typee, they really needed a few tweaks of the authorities, a few little bits of maliciousness toward the church, to keep their interest.

The book is a good straightforward read, quickly digested in an afternoon (in my case, on a plane). The material compiled in the Scholarly Edition has a tendancy to veer off and focus on the books and stories surrounding Israel Potter (Pierre, The Confidence-Man, some of the Piazza Tales), revealing the editors general inability to deeply engage with this work.

No comments:

Post a Comment