The narrator of Herman Melville’s White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850) is a sailor aboard the American naval vessel Neversink. His observation comes in the novel’s twenty-third chapter, “Theatricals in a Man-Of-War,” in which the ship’s crew stages a production of The Old Wagon Paid Off. I remembered it Monday afternoon when a technician born in Rumania administered my echocardiogram, a cardiologist from Syria examined me and a Mexican-born mechanic give me a lift home from his garage. The narrator, White-Jacket, reports:
“It is sometimes the custom in the American Navy to celebrate this national holiday by doubling the allowance of spirits to the men; that is, if the ship happen to be lying in harbour. The effects of this patriotic plan may be easily imagined: the whole ship is converted into a dram-shop; and the intoxicated sailors reel about, on all three decks, singing, howling, and fighting.”
The Neversink, however, has exhausted its supply of grog. It is, in effect, a ship in dry-dock, “an obstacle altogether insuperable, even had the Captain felt disposed to indulge his man-of-war's-men by the most copious libations.” The observation about foreign-born citizens quoted above follows this exchange among the ship’s crew:
“`No grog on de day dat tried men's souls!’ blubbered Sunshine, the galley-cook.
“`Who would be a Jankee now?’ roared a Hollander of the fore-top, more Dutch than sour-crout.
“`Is this the riglar fruits of liberty?’ touchingly inquired an Irish waister of an old Spanish sheet-anchor-man.”
White-Jacket was prelude to Moby-Dick, published the following year. The novel has a documentary and autobiographical feel rooted in Melville’s experience at sea. The material is generally unformed and the tone is an uneasy mixture of earnestness and farce. The novel’s descriptions of flogging (prelude to Billy Budd) have been credited with influencing Congress to outlaw the practice on American ships later in 1850. Chapter 23 is written in a broadly farcical manner. Witness this interpolated playbill, designed by “Lemsford, the gun-deck poet”:
CAPE HORN THEATRE.
* * * * * * * *
Grand Celebration of the Fourth of July.
THE OLD WAGON PAID OFF!
JACK CHASE. . . . PERCY ROYAL-MAST.
STARS OF THE FIRST MAGNITUDE.
For this time only.
THE TRUE YANKEE SAILOR.
The managers of the Cape Horn Theatre beg leave to inform the inhabitants of the Pacific and Southern Oceans that, on the afternoon of the Fourth of July, 184--, they will have the honour to present the admired drama of
THE OLD WAGON PAID OFF!
The shipboard production, though unfueled by alcohol, is a rousing success. Officers and men fraternize. Discipline relaxes. The holiday theatrical, though absurd, reminds the narrator of Independence Day:
“And here White-jacket must moralize a bit. The unwonted spectacle of the row of gun-room officers mingling with `the people’ in applauding a mere seaman like Jack Chase, filled me at the time with the most pleasurable emotions. It is a sweet thing, thought I, to see these officers confess a human brotherhood with us, after all; a sweet thing to mark their cordial appreciation of the manly merits of my matchless Jack. Ah! they are noble fellows all round, and I do not know but I have wronged them sometimes in my thoughts.”
In 1850, the year of White-Jacket, Melville met Hawthorne, born on the Fourth of July in 1804, and moved into Arrowhead, the house in Pittsfield, Mass., where he lived for thirteen years and wrote most of Moby-Dick. Every Fourth of July for almost a decade I attended the holiday parade in Pittsfield, first held in 1824. This year, I see, Melville and one of his creations earn a float of their own.