Title Thumbnail

Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel Potter has been read, when it has been read at all, in the same way as college sophomores studying Shakespeare read Plutarch’s Lives, not for the moral homilies of a great biographer but rather as notes for the study of Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. In the case of Israel Potter’s Life, however, such an approach can at least be partially justified, since its primary significance remains as a source for Herman Melville’s “Revolutionary narrative of a beggar.” That Melville was unable to mold the source to fit his artistic conception becomes readily apparent when we read these memoirs for ourselves and then turn to his novel. Only after making such a comparison does one realize the truth of F. O. Matthiessen’s assertion that for Melville, by the time he wrote Israel Potter, tragedy “had become so real that it could not be written.” But despite his artistic failure, Melville’s choice of subject remains interesting, both for what it tells us about Melville’s deepening sense of despair and for what it tells us about individualism and democracy. For in these ghostwritten memoirs, a pensioner’s plea to the government by “one of the few survivors who fought and bled for American Independence,” Melville caught a striking reflection of his own state of mind. The real Israel Potter, like Melville’s “Revolutionary beggar,” was another name added to the long list of the world’s victims. And it is as a victim that this “plebian Lear” speaks to us, too. Not only is Israel a victim, he is—and for Melville’s purposes this was most significant—an American victim. It is this quality, this peculiarly “frontier” attempt to reconcile the promise of life with the actualities of existence, that stamps the real Israel Potter. Somehow, for the American, life is never as good, asennobling, or as fulfilling as he feels it was meant to be. For against his dream of selfhood the American is forced to measure the accidental evil of existence itself. It was as such a gauge that Melville attempted to make use of this short Life of an insignificant “native of Cranston, Rhode Island.” Despite his artistic failure, his instinct was undoubtedly sound. For Israel Potter is not merely another good man adrift in a world devoid of goodness: he is, above all, an American, whose ideals and aims are derived from that same self-reliant democratic ethos which Whitman and Emerson were later to celebrate. Hired laborer, farmer, chain bearer, hunter, trapper, Indian trader, merchant sailor, whaler, soldier, courier, spy, carpenter, and beggar, through it all, Israel remains the American, the man who, even in the hardships of exile, insists that all will be well once he can again walk “on American ground.”