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Redburn: His First Voyage Herman Melville

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The following entry presents criticism of Melville's novel Redburn: His First Voyage (1849). See also, "Benito Cereno" Criticism and Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism.

Melville's fourth novel and most overtly autobiographical work, Redburn was disparaged by its author as a hastily written “nursery tale” produced for profit. A fictionalized account of Melville's voyage to Liverpool in 1839, the novel parallels Melville's own life in its replication of not only incidents aboard ship and in port, but also of emotional experiences involving the financial ruin and early death of the fathers of the author and his title character.

Biographical Information

The third child of eight, Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City, to Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. Mellville's father was an importer whose ineptitude at business, disguised by years of borrowing from family members, eventually plunged his wife and children into financial ruin. In 1830, pursued by creditors, Melvill and young Herman fled the city in the middle of the night to join the rest of the family in Albany. Until that time, Melville had enjoyed a comfortable childhood and a good education, attending New York Male High School from 1825 to 1829, and then the Grammar School of Columbia College for a year. In Albany he and his older brother attended school sporadically, based on the fluctuating family income. His father's death in 1832 at the age of forty-nine ended Melville's formal education, and Melville began working to help support his family. He worked in the family fur business, as a bank clerk, and then taught at various schools until 1839 when he sailed for Liverpool as a cabin boy aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence—the voyage that inspired Redburn. Melville's later experiences on a whaling vessel, his captivity in the South Seas, and his participation in a mutiny provided material for his first two novels: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), as well as his later, highly acclaimed work, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). The failure of his third novel, Mardi (1849), a more complicated metaphysical work, prompted the financially strapped author to return to writing travel adventures, and he quickly produced Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850). Melville referred to the novels disparagingly in his correspondence, calling them “two jobs, which I have done for money,” and more specifically claiming that Redburn was a “nursery tale.” Nonetheless, the novel was more successful than its author's assessment suggests. His forays into metaphysical and psychological fiction were less popular with the reading public: both Moby-Dick and Pierre (1852) were failures by critical and popular standards. Although Melville continued to write novels, short stories, and poetry, he was, at the time of his death in 1891, relatively unknown and unappreciated. In the twentieth century, however, a renewed interest in his work has led to the current assessment of Melville as one of America's most favored authors.

Plot and Major Characters

Redburn is narrated in the first person by the mature Wellingborough Redburn, recalling his first ocean voyage to Liverpool when he was a young, inexperienced boy. Raised as a gentleman's son, Redburn—like Melville—experienced the financial failure and death of his businessman father, and went to sea determined to make something of himself. Redburn is aided by his brother's friend, Mr. Jones, whose unfortunate representation of the boy to Captain Riga as a person of means results in his being denied a much-needed advance on his wages. Thus he boards ship without the necessities, wearing torn and inappropriate clothes that make him the object of the crew's ridicule. His behavior is likewise...

(The entire section contains 90047 words.)

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Critical Evaluation