Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In

Latest edition published by Allison & Busby, 1985

This is James celebrated study of Herman Melville and a highly accessible, thrilling read. James began writing the book in June 1952 after immigration officials removed him to Ellis Island where he was detained for the next six months. He was detained under the McCarren-Walter act as a ‘foreign subversive’.

As David Roediger has written, there can be no doubt that that Mariners is a minor classic and a great read. It concentrates upon a sustained and brilliant explication of two books, Moby Dick and Pierre, with brief asides treating other of Melville’s famous works. The central thesis of Mariners, is that Melville was the first great critic of capitalism and totalitarianism on a world scale.

The account of his internment and attitude to Communist Party activists in prison James appended as a last chapter, chapter 7. Yet the version of Mariners published as the Detroit Bewick edition in 1978 lacked this final chapter. In fact ‘chapter 7’ has caused some argument. Some argue it was written to appease anti-communist McCarthyite witch hunters as a get out of jail free card and suggest James’ criticism of Communist party prisoners who he was made to share a cell with was as bad as testifying against them. Yet reading this book and understanding James life-long critique of Stalinism and questioning of the state, it is not hard to read here why he would distrust Communist party cellmates and prefer not to share a cell with them. The omission of chapter 7 in some versions could be seen as reflective of the mind-set of the publishers.

The book with Chapter 7 is available to purchase here