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One of Melville’s most popular novels during his lifetime—and the subject of renewed interest in recent decades—White-Jacket is both a brisk sea adventure and a powerful social critique, which also contains some of Melville's best black humor (particularly the hilarious Surgeon of the Fleet episode). In 1843, after three years of voyaging in the South Seas, Melville signed up as an ordinary seaman on the man-of-war United States, and headed for home. What he observed on that trip formed the basis of White-Jacket, a success both as a story and as an expose of certain naval practices of which the public was only dimly aware. Because the publisher Harper & Bros. made sure the book got into the hands of every member of Congress, White-Jacket was instrumental in abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy forever.
It was not a very white jacket, but white enough, in all conscience, as the sequel will show.The way I came by it was this.When our frigate lay in Callao, on the coast of Peru—her last harbour in the Pacific—I found myself without a grego, or sailor’s surtout; and as, toward the end of a three years' cruise, no pea–jackets could be had from the purser’s steward: and being bound for Cape Horn, some sort of a substitute was indispensable; I employed myself, for several days, in manufacturing an outlandish garment of my own devising, to shelter me from the boisterous weather we were so soon to encounter.
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