The authoritative edition of Melville's only historical novel
Based on the life of an actual soldier who claimed to have fought at Bunker Hill, Israel Potter is unique among Herman Melville's books: a novel in the guise of a biography. In telling the story of Israel Potter's fall from Revolutionary War hero to peddler on the streets of London, where he obtained a livelihood by crying "Old Chairs to Mend," Melville alternated between invented scenes and historical episodes, granting cameos to such famous men of the era as Benjamin Franklin (Potter may have been his secret courier) and John Paul Jones, and providing a portrait of the American Revolution as the rollicking adventure and violent series of events that it really was.
This edition of Israel Potter, which reproduces the definitive text, includes selections from Potter's autobiography, Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter, the basis for Melville's novel.
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Melville's eighth book was begun as a simple rewrite of an obscure little narrative entitled Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter, in which Israel tells the story of his sad fall from Revolutionary hero to London peddler. Following its opening chapter Melville's novel retells that tale, with close adherence to the language and events of the Life, and then, shaking free of the original narrative, alternately moves between invented episodes and historical sources unrelated to the Life. Israel Potter is unique among Melville's books. It is the only one to be offered in the guise of literal biography, the tale presuming to offer an accurate life history of the man Israel Potter who did in fact fight at Bunker Hill. It is also Melville's only historical novel: it presents famous men of the American Revolution - Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, Ethan Allen, and others - in situations that are a matter of historical record.About the Author:
Herman Melville was born in August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of a merchant. Only twelve when his father died bankrupt, young Herman tried work as a bank clerk, as a cabin-boy on a trip to Liverpool, and as an elementary schoolteacher, before shipping in January 1841 on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. Deserting ship the following year in the Marquesas, he made his way to Tahiti and Honolulu, returning as ordinary seaman on the frigate United States to Boston, where he was discharged in October 1844. Books based on these adventures won him immediate success. By 1850 he was married, had acquired a farm near Pittsfield, Massachussetts (where he was the impetuous friend and neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and was hard at work on his masterpiece Moby-Dick. Literary success soon faded; his complexity increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City, where from 1866-1885 he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and where, in 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollated, packed tidily away by his widow, where it remained until its rediscovery and publication in 1924.
Robert S. Levine (introducer) is Professor of English and a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland.
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