“Israel Potter”; or, the Excrescence

By Colin DayanDecember 19, 2017

“Israel Potter”; or, the Excrescence
WHY SHOULD I try to resurrect from academic disregard Melville’s novel Israel Potter? Why celebrate this sometimes plodding, apparently clunky historical fiction instead of the degenerate pastoral of Pierre, the mad pursuit of Moby Dick, or any of the later tales that recast in such startling ways the expectations of fiction and the order of nature? Of course, it is tempting to approach this novel on something like a dare. Though written about — usually favorably — when it was published in 1855, contemporary scholars of Melville have generally ignored Israel Potter. News from recent Melville conferences, however, suggests a resurgence of interest. Though once considered a minor literary achievement — lacking the complexity, ambiguity, or philosophical depth of his other writings — or dismissed as mere capitulation to a fastidious and polite reading public, it now seems a trove of untapped possibilities for interpretation.

Melville’s book is Israel Potter’s second edition: a preservation of the story “forlornly published on sleazy gray papers” and now “out of print.” The “editor” describes his rescue of the “tattered copy” from the “rag-pickers” but claims that his near “reprint” ought to be regarded as nothing grander than “a dilapidated old tombstone retouched.” Melville gathers up the tattered pages of Israel’s autobiography, the rags that both clothe Israel’s body and compose the matter of the book, and the “useless scrolls” Israel produces in the brick kilns, in order to reweave them with other fragments of history — not only Henry Trumbull’s Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter (1824), but also fragments of Robert C. Sand’s Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones (1830), James Fenimore Cooper’s History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), Ethan Allen’s A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity (1779), and Jared Sparks’s Works of Benjamin Franklin; with Notes and a Life of the Author (1836–’40).

Melville turns away from the monumental — not, as some critics have suggested, toward a re-valorization of the common man, but toward the living relics that serve as American democracy’s ballast. Israel’s dispossession, established early in the book following his luckless rebellion against a tyrannical father, turns this story into mere backdrop for the real action: a narrative where things become more spiritual, or more filled with spirit than the characters we encounter. The residue, pieces of clothing, fragments of history, what St. Paul called “the off-scouring of all things,” matter more than anything human. Character becomes irrelevant as everything disposable or discarded throbs with animate life.

If we consider this work Melville’s desperate attempt to be accepted, then we might take the patriotic story of a forgotten hero, his effort to give life to Trumbull’s Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter and other books, as nothing more than what one of my students called “a monumental hodge-podge.” Instead, let us take it as his most radical work. In it, he recovers all the details that have been silenced in standard histories, while using the frame of conventional history to eat it out from within.

Of all his works, Israel Potter is the most derivative, the one that grapples not only with the recalcitrant givens — the remains of the already done — but also with the unsaid, what Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) described as “unthinkable” history, the “non-event.” For Melville, this impossible past is everything that has been concealed from the story of the American Revolution and the myths associated with the birth of the nation. The detritus or slime of civilization that washed up as mud in Pierre’s final dream, heralding the climax of pistols, ebon hair, and death, is nothing more in Israel Potter than dregs.

In order to exhume and literally put back in the things that were removed from the official story, Melville must surrender his prose to the excrescence. It is not just a matter of accumulating the shards and detritus found in the path of an insignificant life, but something more risky. Melville decides not merely to chronicle the process of decay and loss, but to surrender the plot to what denies it: not just the wayward outgrowths of nature, but an unwanted pile-up or accretion of the remains of poverty, dispossession, and everyday cruelty.

In the writing itself, Melville’s real drama occurs. Not even the perfect sentence can hold the dirt back. In writing through his rage, Melville lets dirt seep through the cracks of the literary — or, as is the case with Israel Potter, through the pages of history. Describing the ship that will become the Bon Homme Richard, Melville prompts our double vision through a description that is at once bumbling and razor sharp:

As for the ships, that commanded by Paul in person will be a good example of the fleet. She was an old Indiaman, clumsy and crank, smelling strongly of the savor of tea, cloves, and arrack, the cargoes of former voyages. […] She was originally a single-decked ship; that is, carried her armament on one gun-deck. But cutting ports below, in her after part, Paul rammed out there six old eighteen pounders, whose rusty muzzles peered just above the waterline, like a parcel of dirty mulattoes from a cellar-way.

It is in this final simile, this pocket of something extraneous, that the meaning lies. Here Melville keeps alive a secret history of slavery. Intimating a region of indiscernibility between (generally speaking) the ship of John Paul Jones and the hold of a slaver — or more exactly, the barrels of guns and the muzzles of faces — Melville entangles myths of heroism with the wastes of empire. The products of trade in tea, cloves, and arrack intermingle with the after-effects of trade in humans. That is what peers up from beneath the realities of trade, the catalog of cargo. Beneath such unseemly traffic there always lies hidden, waiting to be noticed, peering out from below, the physiognomy of misalliance, the fact of mixture.

Whatever is superfluous counts most. That these details are also consistently ignored makes their retrieval even more significant. What suffers oblivion matters tremendously, and Melville knows that better than most of his fellow writers. So Melville’s secret history comes into play as an aside, housed in the simile. In this epic of the piecemeal, he takes things considered unimportant or vile and makes literature their receptacle.

When Israel Potter becomes most matter-of-fact, it is most spectral. What is shocking about this book that Melville presents as nothing out of the ordinary, nothing but a retelling — at most a parody — of a story that had already been written, is that it shows us how extreme is Melville’s inability to tell a story straight, how impossible it is for him to let the proverbial sleeping dogs lie.


Numerous critics have reflected on Melville’s “restraint” or “indifference” in writing Israel Potter, as if the writing had worn itself out. Newton Arvin calls it “creative enervation” or “fatigue”: “emblems of decay and death,” he writes, “meet our gaze at every turn.” I want to make a case for this novel as a radical and intensely composed work. In a singular way, it exposes the mutations in an “order of things” haunted by its own excess. Indeed, what is particularly disturbing is the inter-traffic between humanity and humaneness as it becomes a potently charged vehicle for the destruction of personhood, property, and — far from the least — living beings, on the basis of criteria that drift from the realm of human sociality into what we call “nature” and back again. What happens when writing itself churns out the degraded and despised excess of its own operation?

Rather than seeing Israel Potter as structurally flawed, I believe that its turgid prose, its difficulty, its failure or diminishment, is intentional. Melville refused the solace of patriotic myths and artistic ideals. That is obvious. But less obvious, perhaps, is his disavowal of the meaning of what we might call human treatment. To think again about persons was his aim. Not just the nature of personhood as applied to humans. Instead, both human and nonhuman persons are seen against the threat of things or thinglikeness: the lure of the inanimate or insensate.

The task Melville takes on is formidable. Throughout his work he teaches us that there is no such thing as an apolitical natural history. He lays out a terrain that amounts to nothing less than an alternative reality in which the unlikely or the extraordinary is always part and parcel of the commonplace or quotidian. Even his ghosts are not quite right: they are too palpable, too real, to be cordoned off as “spiritual” somewhere in the beyond. But in this novel, he uses someone else’s story about a real character as the frame within which he must work. In the process, we are prompted to question: What is real? What counts as reality?

In the most critically ignored passage in Israel Potter, Melville portrays Israel, the disabled and dispossessed beggar, as nothing more than a stray wandering through the streets of London. No longer depending on the biography that had given shape and structure to most of the novel, Melville envisions another kind of history that taxes our habits of awareness and discrimination. As readers we are asked not only to engage with the nonhuman realm but also to experience the quotidian messiness and unpredictability of interspecies encounters.

London is the city. And Melville sets upon his description as if mounting an attack on hierarchical thinking. Here all kinds of criss-crossings of species are possible. His fantasy and the description itself I take to be the origins of his peculiarly supernatural terrain. Categorical boundaries are trundled, for they are the sources of the suffering that he writes about. Ostensibly describing the “mud and mire” of brick-making, after recalling a drowned slave at the bottom of the Dismal Swamp in tidewater Virginia, he portrays a crowd streaming “like an endless shoal of herring, over London Bridge,” laborers trudging over the flagging of London streets as if on “the vitreous rocks in the cursed Gallipagos, over which the convict tortoises crawl.”

In the final chapter, titled simply “Forty-five Years,” Melville condenses Israel’s long wandering in the “London deserts” into a few pages, as if the sufferings he endured were so great that only a handful of images and scenes could be recounted: the smoke-darkened pits, the earthly dungeons of the brick kilns, the rag-picking and poverty. Then Israel is granted a reprieve, if only for a moment. He roams into a patch of green, an enclosure in St. James’s Park: “a little oval, fenced in with iron palings, between whose bars the imprisoned verdure peered forth, as some wild captive creature of the woods from its cage.” This is the scene for what Melville, with impressive understatement, calls “a sort of hallucination.”

As with so much of Melville’s writing, there is no escape from the torment of confinement, the disgrace of barbarous treatment, whether inflicted on animals or humans. He invites connections between animals, slaves, Indians, prisoners, or laborers, on the one hand, and the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of polite society, on the other. How does Melville describe “alien Israel there,” looking around him as if in a dream? He seems “like some amazed runaway steer, or trespassing Pequod Indian, impounded on the shores of Narragansett Bay, long ago.”

The dream is a lesson in history, not just a nostalgic interlude, with Israel’s thoughts of Old Huckleberry the horse, now dead and “long surfeited with clover.” Then, picking up on the simile of the fugitive steer, Melville presents another vision. Israel wanders in the fog toward Barbican. In the obscurity, houses turn into shadows on “midnight hills.” Suddenly, he hears “a confused pastoral sort of sounds: tramplings, lowings, halloos,” and he is called upon to “head off certain cattle, bound to Smithfield, bewildered and unruly in the fog.” After the sight of cattle headed for slaughter, he sees a lovely image through the haze. It is a strange apotheosis: “the white face — white as an orange blossom — of a black-bodied steer in advance of the drove, gleaming ghost-like through the vapors.” Through this onomastics of color, Melville summons the vile stratagem of white supremacy: the attempt to racially distinguish the products of colonial mixing — those who are neither black nor white — by naming nuances of skin color. In presenting a white face that is white “as an orange blossom,” he recalls the spectral mulattoes peering from the hold of John Paul Jones’s flagship, evoking the blood taint that lurks in not-quite-right white skin.

Both body and spirit, the steer is an icon of matter that is also a ghost. A composite apparition, the white-faced, black-bodied steer looms before Israel. Startled into action, Israel starts driving the “riotous cattle” to the right, away from Smithfield Market and into the barnyard of his memories. He dreams himself back home to the Berkshires, “into the mists of the Housatonic mountains; ruddy boy on the upland pastures again.” And, alone against the horizon, as singular and noteworthy as the not-quite-white, orange-blossom face of the black-bodied steer, the cattle-boy appears “clear-cut as a balloon against the sky.”

This phantom scene would have brought other very meaty and not exactly pleasant reminiscences to the minds of Melville’s readers. Violations of the natural world were rampant in 19th-century London, whether horses starved and worked to exhaustion or cows driven from their rural pastures to Smithfield, to be bound and slaughtered. The blood and stink, the cries of cows being killed and the sound of horses being beaten could not be ignored. They came to Smithfield from all over England. Beasts and butchery intermingled with women shoppers and gangs of boys. Smithfield was known for “live” meat.

Once in London, Potter seems prone to hallucinations. But instead of explaining what happens in this confrontation with assorted cows and the horse he thinks is Old Huckleberry as a sign of madness, let us examine what has happened to his memory. For this case of mistaken identity holds the key to the story: the entanglement of the human with other selves. Such a novel anthropology is as much a part of Melville’s fiction as law or philosophy. On the one hand, he gives readers a different sense of what it means to live — or, more precisely, to be alive and not dead. On the other hand, he creates an ontology that echoes the racist discourses of the time and the natural histories spawned by them.

In pursuit of details that give a new meaning to this novel and exact a reading that transfigures our notions of character, metaphor, and motive, I take this final vision as a way to read back through to the beginning. This ending was already presaged in the first chapter. Everything is predestined: the anonymity of death and its inevitability. In the dense fog of the Berkshires, a young boy Israel rides his horse through a “menacing scene,” when he “sees some ghost-like object looming through the mist at the roadside.” As he comes closer he sees, in epic prolepsis, “a rude white stone, uncouthly inscribed,” the tomb of “some farmer […] upset in his wood-sled” that “perished beneath the load.” This sequence of phenomena commits us to a strange form of subjectivity. Melville forces us to attend to the provisional in every attempt at communication, where what should be most certain becomes highly tenuous. We learn what writing might look like if it were to become a perspectival phenomenon, a means of seeing otherwise or crosswise. A new kind of anthropology is possible when a writer like Melville gives what is distinctive to humans — language, culture, sociality — to other bodies, sometimes more or less disembodied.


What if I say that Melville wants to make us see like a dog? We find in the intensity of his similes an extraordinary compression. Instead of defining action, they sharpen our appetite for seeing and knowing, while suggesting something unseen behind what is seen and heard. Mood replaces certainty. Again, there is no action for the simile to reflect. But there is an all but unintelligible feeling to suggest. Or is it another kind of intelligibility — a feeling so intense that it exacts another kind of cognizance?

We are, to put it mildly, in the regime of metamorphosis, where entities, whether animate or inanimate, occupy a terrain of indiscernibility. But more than these ventures into another kind of depth and reach, Melville gives us details that matter more than any large monument or precious abstraction. On the scent of the insignificant, then, we readers, moving through an unexpected terrain, learn to be attentive. We have the chance to learn what it means to know with the body, to see adamantly, to comprehend so fully with the flesh that it is nothing other than mind — in other words, to be animal, not human: to become animal.


Some portions of this essay previously appeared in the author’s The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton University Press, 2011).


Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and professor of law at Vanderbilt University. She is the author most recently of With Dogs at the Edge of Life (2015). Her other books include The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011), The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007), and Haiti, History, and the Gods (1998).

LARB Contributor

Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her recent books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake PersonsThe Story of Cruel and Unusual, and, most recently, With Dogs at the Edge of Life. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!