Alexander Keyssar’s study focuses on Melville’s treatment of the social and existential condition of the American common man—his inability to realize the happiness promised by the American dream and the impurity of democracy in a society with marked economic classes. The author discusses the literary coherence—thematic rather than narrative—of Melville’s work as illustrated by Israel Potter and as representative of the novelist’s writing during the 1853–1856 period. He includes a brief analysis of Melville’s conception of literary “truth” and a discussion of the peculiar role of comedy in the sad story of Israel Potter. Melville’s insights into the political and social flaws of America “contain remarkable relevance for the contemporary reader.”
Alexander Keyssar is the author of numerous books including The Right to Vote, which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association. He is Matthew W. Stirling, Jr., Professor of History and Social Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.