Semi-autobiographical novel by Melville, based on his service on the man-of-war United States (Aug. 1843–Oct. 1844), published in 1850.
The narrator, a young seaman nearing the end of a three-year cruise on the U.S. frigate Neversink, is nicknamed “White-Jacket” after he buys a white pea jacket in Callao, Peru. On the voyage around Cape Horn and up the Atlantic coast, it protects him in rough weather, distinguishes him among the crew, and nearly causes his death when it wraps about his head in a storm, so that he falls from a yardarm into the sea. There are few other catastrophes, for the interest of the tale derives not from plot but from character and observed detail. The most striking characters include Jack Chase, “our noble first captain of the top,” handsome, cultured, “incomparable” young officer who wins the love and admiration of White-Jacket and all the crew; Captain Claret, “a large, portly man, a Harry the Eighth afloat, bluff and hearty”; Mr. Pert, the youthful midshipman; and Surgeon Cuticle, whose indifference to suffering and human values is shown in his unnecessary amputation of the leg of a seaman, which results in the patient's death. During the long voyage from Peru to Virginia, these officers and the diverse crew are depicted in their daily activities, including scenes of ferocious punishment for minor misdeeds, and other malpractices; and the author discusses other evils inherent in the autocratic system, the inhumane regimentation, and the degrading effects of the prevailing living conditions, partly counteracted by the exuberant joys of sea life.