- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 7 hours and 44 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Audible Studios
- Audible.com Release Date: September 20, 2010
- Whispersync for Voice: Ready
- Language: English
- ASIN: B0043PF38M
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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Israel Potter Audiobook – Unabridged
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The book is the "real" (and imagined) biography of Israel Potter, a farmer's son who serves in the Revolutionary Army and is wounded at Bunker Hill. Potter is captured by the British and is sent on his way to England for prison, but he escapes and spends the next several years both trying to avoid further imprisonment and aiding the U.S. cause while in Europe. That's how he acts as a courier for secret messages to Franklin in Paris, gets into the privateer service of Jones on the high seas, and sees Allen imprisoned.
Potter's escapes are improbable but not impossible, as Melville goes into his typically great detail about how something could happen, In one example, Potter mistakenly jumps onto a British privateering ship, and he has to try to avoid being identified as an intruder and an American. He gets away with it for a night because it's dark and because everyone is dirty and hard to recognize immediately. When exposed at daylight as unfamiliar to everyone, he feigns insanity convincingly enough that the captain decides to let him assist the crew, and when he shows he's adept, the questions about his background are forgotten. It could happen...maybe.
The humor comes from the historical figures. Franklin is crafty, thrifty and full of advice -- just like you'd think. He also takes away every luxury from Potter on the premise that they will cost Potter money, though we suspect Franklin is keeping them for himself. Jones is an utterly fearless fighter on the seas, but in such a crazy way that it's funny as much as it's inspirational. Allen is shackled, but his Monty Python-esque insults of the British are so outrageous that he intimidates them nonetheless.
Being Melville, the book isn't fully happy. Israel Potter is exiled in England for nearly 50 years after the war. He iives in poverty, unable to get back to his beloved America and the green, wide open spaces of Massachusetts. Though he seems to have had a happy marriage, 10 of his 11 kids die before him, as does his wife. There's small redemption for him at the end, but, basically, life is cruel to him though he doesn't deserve it.
But not just any adventure story. Melville drew on a little-known autobiography published 30 years earlier and called the "Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter," which recounted the extraordinary career of a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill who delivered secret wartime letters to Benjamin Franklin, who found himself stranded in Europe, and who ended up a pauper in London. (The original Northwestern-Newberry edition reprints a facsimile copy of this source, keyed to passages in Melville's text. More remarkably, this edition notes the recent discovery of an unrelated text by a British author who included a brief account of Potter's days as a nomadic street-trader in London, along with a portrait of the man himself.)
Yet Melville's book is not merely a biographical novel. Instead, he greatly embellishes Potter's account, incorporating a farcical portrait of Franklin and adding equally comic accounts of John Paul Jones, King George, Ethan Allen, and several other historical figures whom Potter never actually met. In Melville's hands, Franklin becomes a miserly, philandering "tanned Machiavelli in tents" and "not less a lady's man, than a man's man, a wise man, and an old man"; Allen is transformed into a larger-than-life Paul Bunyan figure; King George is a kindly dolt; and Jones turns into a tattooed, flirtatious, vainglorious rake. And poor Israel Potter himself is alternately drafted, imprisoned, released, and press-ganged.
The result is not only Melville's most accessible work but also an over-the-top spoof of the heroic amateurs running the Revolution and (more subtly) an acidic indictment of the abandonment of the early American dream. While it lacks the depth or the "weight" of his other late works, "Israel Potter" makes up for its shortcomings with charm and mirth.