Essays and Appreciations in Honor of Michael J. Colacurcio’s 50 Years of Teaching
Pro-Americans, Proto-Americans, and Un-Americans in Melville’s Israel Potter
As an historical novel of the American Revolution set predominantly in the European theatre of that conflict, Melville’s Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (1855) offered unusual gratifications for antebellum audiences interested in what Henry James would later describe as a symptomatic national preoccupation, namely “the question of Americans appearing ‘to advantage’ or otherwise in Europe.”1 Through the hero’s eyes, with some elucidation by the narrator, readers may observe Benjamin Franklin receiving Dukes and Counts in his Paris apartment, for example, or John Paul Jones commanding the Bon Homme Richard in a sublime engagement with the Serapis “in view of thousands of distant spectators crowding the high cliffs of Yorkshire,”2 or Ethan Allen demanding his rights as a prisoner of “honorable war” and provoking sighs from “a bright squadron of fair ladies” at the gates of Pendennis Castle (145). And of course, overshadowed as he comes to be by these three better-known figures, Israel Potter himself accepts transatlantic compliments, first from a humane English baronet, then from a magnanimous George III, then from “Secret Friends of America,” whose obscurely and inconclusively conspiratorial communications with Franklin launch Israel on his ill-fated foreign service career. If lumping the feudal and monarchic instances together with the vaguely Masonic episode that follows them allows no differentiation between the kinds of recognition offered by gracious enemies and secret friends, that may well be Melville’s point. On the grounds that the Americans in this novel all make...
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