Redburn (1849) tells the story of young Wellingborough Redburn's journey across the Atlantic to England and back on a merchantship. Going to sea more or less on a romantic whim, our hero signs up as a hand on a ship bound for Liverpool. Told in the first person, Redburn describes his education on board, his experiences with seasickness, his abuse at the hands of the other sailors as a greenhorn landlubber. Arriving in Liverpool, Redburn sets out to explore as much of the city as he can, with the help of a guidebook bequeathed to him by his late father, who had also made the same journey a generation before. After an adventurous trip to London with a pal, Redburn returns to his ship and crosses the Atlantic again, this time as a more seasoned sailor.
The book is structured in such a way as to illuminate its themes: land sea, land sea, in four alternating panels. The book blends several genres: the memoire, the sentimental education, the bildunsgroman, the sea novel, and travel journal. There are shades of Smollet. The writing is magnificent, especially when Redburn is describing ships: It was of a clear sunny afternoon, and she came bearing down upon us, a most beautiful sight, with all her sails spread wide. She came very near, and passed under our stern; and as she leaned over to the breeze, showed her decks fore and aft; and I saw the strange sailors grouped upon the forecastle, and the cook looking out of the cook-house with a ladle in his hand, and the captain in a green jacket sitting on the taffrail with a speaking-trumpet. And here had this vessel come out of the infinite blue ocean, with all these human beings on board, and the smoke tranquilly mounting up into the sea-air from the cook's funnel as if it were a chimney in a city; and every thing looking so cool, and calm, and of-course, in the midst of what to me, at least, seemed a superlative marvel. (15)
The book explores a number of familiar Melvillian themes, including poverty, the journey from innocence to experience, and the difference between book-learning and practical experience.
The economic motive for Redburn's voyage is that he cannot find work at home. Great attention is given to the difficulties Redburn has raising money to buy the equipment he needs for his voyage: clothes, eating utensils, the basic things of life. We see the inside of a pawnshop, and learn how Redburn is cheated by the captain. The poverty of Victorian Britain is described in a harrowing incident on the streets of Liverpool, an incident which could have come straight from the pages of Dickens or Gaskell. Poverty, poverty, poverty, in almost endless vistas: and want and woe staggered arm in arm along these miserable streets. (41)
The economic plight of the migrants on the return voyage is depicted, and the financial status of sailors is emphasised. The poverty Redburn experiences and sees everywhere on his adventures gives rise to a meditation (Melville's? Redburn's?) on the structural nature of that poverty: There are classes of men in the world, who bear the same relation to society at large, that the wheels do to a coach: and are just as indispensable. But however easy and delectable the springs upon which the insiders pleasantly vibrate: however sumptuous the hammer-cloth, and glossy the door-panels; yet, for all this, the wheels must still revolve in dusty, or muddy revolutions. No contrivance, no sagacity can lift them out of the mire; for upon something the coach must be bottomed; on something the insiders must roll. (29)
Redburn is also aware how the maintenance of poverty operates to perpetuate the social order, on observing how the conditions on board ship are designed to keep the migrants from uniting to better those conditions: But thus it is, that the very hardships to which such beings are subjected, instead of uniting them, only tends, by imbittering their tempers, to set them against each other; and thus they themselves drive the strongest rivet into the chain, by which their social superiors hold them subject. (52). The description of the migrants contains some of the most moving pages in all of Melville, and provide a fascinating view of the terrible hardships endured by those crossing the Atlantic to make a new life in the middle of the 19th century.
The journey from innocence to experience
The two sea panels describe the education of the hero, the first emphasising his innocence, the second emphasising his experience. The book starts as a ripping yarn, the kind of thing ones 11 year old nephew would enjoy, but gradually becomes more complex and literary, as the gap between the young Redburn, whose adventures are being described, and the old Redburn, who is describing them, opens up and becomes more pronounced. This distance is signalled wittily especially in the chapter titles, which are in the third person, while the narrative is in the first person. At times, the mature Redburn expresses fond exasperation with the folly of the young Redburn: Chapter 30: Redburn Grows Intolerably Flat And Stupid Over Some Outlandish Old Guide Books; Chapter 31: With His Prosy Old Guide Book, He Takes A Prosy Stroll Through The Town.
Book-learning vs practical experience.
One of the key concerns throughout Melville's career was the difference between various modes of knowledge, especially between knowledge as book-learning, and knowledge as practical experience, a theme that finds its fullest expression in Moby Dick, but which is also articulated in Redburn.
The young hero lying on his bunk in a lull on his voyage reads a book he borrowed from his father's friend on shore: Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Of it Redburn remarks: So I read on and on, about "wages and profits of labor," without getting any profits myself for my pains in perusing it. Dryer and dryer; the very leaves smelt of saw-dust; till at last I drank some water, and went at it again. But soon I had to give it up for lost work... (18) Smith's complacent, theoretical liberalism is undermined by the reality of the terrible poverty Redburn sees and experiences on his voyage.
When in Liverpool, Redburn visits the sights with the aid of his father's old guidebook, but he soon comes to the realisation that the guidebook is not accurate, out-dated, wrong. One of the problems with book learning is that it cannot take account of the main characteristic of reality, that is, change: This world, my boy, is a moving world, (31) and any attempt to describe the world is also an attempt, doomed from the start, to fix the world into a final form. This applies to knowledge of things of the world, and also to knowledge of ideas, of morality. The symbol for this is the guidebook, which is both a guide to things and a guide to behaviour and morality: As your father's guidebook is no guide for you, neither would yours (could you afford to buy a modern one to-day) be a true guide to those who come after you. Guide-books, Wellingborough, are the least reliable books in all literature; and nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guide-books. (31) The rules of the past are inadequate for the reality of the present, and the only recourse is to leave the books behind and rely on ones own experience, and those of other practical men: If you want to learn romance, or gain an insight into things quaint, curious, and marvelous, drop your books of travel, and take a stroll along the docks of a great commercial port. (34)
Another aspect of this exploration into different modes of knowledge is the importance given to naming. On his first voyage, the young greenhorn Redburn has to learn all the names of the ropes, which means also their uses. Without a knowledge of these names, he cannot fathom their uses: For my own part, I could do but little to help the rest, not knowing the name of any thing, or the proper way to go about aught. (13). The text displays great curiosity about marine jargon and sailors' slang, and we are treated to examples and meditations on the significance of naming.
In this novel, written two years before Moby Dick, we get a glimpse of that later novel's obsessions with the Lockean activities of naming and classifying: I think it would not be a bad plan to have a grand new naming of a ship's ropes, as I have read, they once had a simplifying of the classes of plants in Botany. It is really wonderful how many names there are in the world. There is no counting the names, that surgeons and anatomists give to the various parts of the human body; which, indeed, is something like a ship; its bones being the stiff standing-rigging, and the sinews the small running ropes, that manage all the motions. (13)
Redburn, due to his practical experience on board and in Liverpool, is aware of the difference between knowledge as book learning, and knowledge as practical experience, and, like Locke, warns about confusing the two: But people seem to have a great love for names; for to know a great many names, seems to look like knowing a good many things; though I should not be surprised, if there were a great many more names than things in the world. (13) Throughout, the quest for complete knowledge is called into question, while practical knowledge is privileged, symbolised by the knowledge of seafaring and the practical knowledge of the sailor: he must be a sort of Jack of all trades, in order to master his own. And this, perhaps, in a greater or less degree, is pretty much the case with all things else; for you know nothing till you know all; which is the reason we never know anything. (26)
Another Melvillian theme which appears in the novel is that unspoken phenomenon of seagoing life: gay sex. The book affords a fascinating glimpse into the realities of 19th century seagoing life in this regard, and at the same time it also acts as a compendium of the techniques 19th century writers evolved to deal with this topic, to both reveal it and hide it simultaneously, to encrypt it, to use Graham Robb's word. This encryption works by paying close attention to what the text foregrounds, and to what it ignores, and placing these in the balance.
The chapter describing Redburn's introduction to Captain Riga, and his signing on as ship's boy is permeated with the feeling that an innocent boy is being pimped to an older man. "I merely called to see whether you want a fine young lad to go to sea with you," says Redburn's friend and mentor, Mr Jones. "Ah indeed," said the captain blandly, and looking where I stood. "He's a fine fellow, I like him..." The customer interested, the terms are broached: "How much do you generally pay a handsome young fellow like this?" "Well," said the captain, looking grave and profound, "We are not so particular about beauty, and we never give more than three dollars to a green lad..." (3) Throughout, the boy's youth and beauty are emphasized, as if that were the most important of his economic qualities (surely the least important for an extra hand), and emphasis is placed on the funny looks exchanged between the steward and the captain throughout the interview. The whole scene is permeated with a kind of wink wink nudge nudge atmosphere, which is only ostensibly directed at the fact that the boy is being conned financially.
In the early part of the outward voyage, Redburn, made miserable by the hard work and the teasing of the sailors, resolves to beseech the captain for protection. He dresses himself in his finest clothes, and washes carefully. The other sailors smirk when they realise what is going on, and Jackson, the boys chief tormentor, remarks knowingly: Let him go, let him go, he's a nice boy. Let him go, the captain has some nice nuts and raisins for him. The alert reader, Jackson, the other sailors all know what is going on, and there is a series of ironies and careful word placement (nuts) and puns (raisin) which is characteristic of this kind of encryption. The boy is not so much seeking protection as offering himself in exchange for it. At the end of the chapter, on being rejected by the captain, Redburn remarks Yes, Captain Riga, you are no gentleman, and you know it. (14), and one is reminded of the wronged virgins of Smollett and Richardson, who protest in the same terms.
But the clearest and most significant example of gay life in the novel is the appearance of Harry Bolton, another in c'ette parade of beautiful boys who appear again and again in the pages of Melville. From the beginning, the description of his appearance feminizes him, turning him thus into an object of male desire: He was one of those small, but perfectly formed beings, with curling hair, and silken muscles, who seem to have been born in cocoons. His complexion was a mantling brunette, feminine as a girl's; his feet were small; his hands were white; and his eyes were large, black, and womanly; and, poetry aside, his voice was as the sound of a harp.(44) He is described as a 'courtly youth', 'out of place' in the streets of Liverpool, 'a delicate exotic' hanging around in doorways after dark, in effect, a rent boy. Harry wants to emigrate to America, but lacks the funds to do so. Redburn befriends him, and offers to pimp him to his captain.
Then follows a repeat, a mirroring, of the same pimping scene that Redburn had undergone, in which Redburn plays the part of pimp and Harry the part of boy. The same funny looks are exchanged, the captain's face wears the bland, benevolent and bewitchingly merry expression that had so charmed but deceived Redburn (44) when he was being 'sold'. This time, the captain is described as 'a gallant gay deceiver', a 'Lothario', disambiguating his role as a seducer. This time, marking his growth from innocence to experience, Redburn knows what is going on, and warns Harry about the Captain's duplicity. Harry, however, is a boy with a mysterious past, and knows all about the captain's game.
Then follows one of the most extraordinary chapters in Melville's career. Harry and Redburn go to London on a jaunt connected with some incident in Harry's dim past, and the two boys spend the night in a homosexual brothel. The game of encryption reaches a climax in this chapter, and it's worth looking at in more detail, as it's perhaps the only scene in such a setting in the whole of 19th century canonical literature, and because its real meaning is so open.
They arrive in front of a house with a purple lamp, described as a semi-public place of opulent entertainment. (46) The description of this place is full encoded references to gay culture: Reni's Apollo, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, Greek culture, Tiberius, Alexander. The walls are decorated with male-on-male pornography of the kind you might have beheld in an arched recess, leading from the left hand of the secret side-gallery of the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth. There is a total absence of women, while the text emphasizes groups of gentlemen.
Harry disappears after speaking to the male Madame (The Duke who keeps the house), and Redburn is left alone at a table, drinking champagne, eyeing the clientele, and being eyed. He overhears the words 'rouge' and 'loo', which, while terms used in card games, are also slang words for 'makeup' and 'toilet'. The waiter eyes him 'queerly' and Redburn is conscious of his blushes. We note again the deliberate word choice and emphasis.
Harry returns and the two boys adjourn to a private apartment, where Harry reveals that he has to leave Redburn to go on a secret mission, and Redburn is left alone again (Or is he? Is perhaps something elided by the mature narrator?), in a sumptuously decorated apartment. He overhears strange sounds outside in the passage, and glimpses an anguished customer wringing his hands and rushing along the corridor. Harry returns, evidently his mission has been a failure, and overwrought, he swears Redburn to an oath that he will not reveal what has passed that night, nor question Harry as to its meaning: "Swear it, I say, as you love me, Redburn." Eventually, the emotional tempest subsides and the two boys sleep, returning to Liverpool and the ship the next day.
The whole chapter is extraordinary, in that it both looks back to the Regency dramas of the early 19th century, and forward to the Yellow Book and the feverish symbolism of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsly. It's as if Redburn has suddenly encountered Jack Saul, Teleny and Lord Henry Wotton all in the same night. It is unique in Melville's sea novels, and nothing so far in the book prepares us for its strangeness. It prefigures many of the themes of Henry James: the naive, democratic American lost in a dangerous and decadent, aristocratic Europe; and has many of the same preoccupations of fin de siecle literature: the fear of the Other, the weakening of the blood, emasculation and feminisation.
The homosexual theme is subtly unlocked by the key use of the word 'bland', as if to smooth over the highly subversive, taboo nature of the theme by masking it with the appearance of innocousness. Every time the theme appears, so does the word 'bland', as we have seen in the extracts quoted above. In the brothel scene, the attendant blandly bowed. When the ship finally docks in its home port, the entire crew, as an insulting token of respect for the hated Captain Riga, all line up on the bulwarks and moon the captain, whose response to this display of the homosexual erogenous zone, is a 'bland' smile.
Written at speed and to order, Redburn is a much more disciplined work than the fateful self-indulgence of its predecessor Mardi and at moments even approaches the greatness of Moby Dick.