Redburn: His First Voyage Herman Melville
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.
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 inappropriate, as he attempts to make a social call upon the captain in his cabin—as one gentleman to another. Redburn's first days on board ship consist of a series of unfortunate incidents designed to show the boy as a friendless outcast, ill-suited to the hard labor of a sailor, but at the same time lacking the means to be a gentleman. While the crew of the Highlander treats Redburn cruelly, it is only their leader, Jackson, who is truly depraved and evil, apparently brutalized by his own victimization over the years. He is the most skilled sailor on board and deliberately takes on the most dangerous tasks, ruling the men through a combination of awe and fear.
Once in Liverpool, Redburn attempts to retrace the footsteps of his father, who had traveled to the city on business thirty years earlier. His father's guidebook is outdated, however, and the hotel where the senior Redburn had stayed no longer exists. Disillusioned, the boy becomes despondent as a result of his encounters with poverty, debauchery, and crime throughout Liverpool. Redburn eventually meets Harry Bolton, a gentlemanly type who invites him to London where the pair spend the night in a gambling house. They return to Liverpool in time to find the Highlander about to embark on the return trip to America, with a cargo of impoverished Irish immigrants in steerage, exposing Redburn once again to inhumanity and squalor. Bolton, having gambled away his money, signs on for the return trip as a common seaman, although he is as poorly prepared for the dangerous tasks of a sailor as Redburn had been on the initial voyage. He, too, wears completely inappropriate clothing on deck—a brocade dressing gown and embroidered slippers—which makes him the laughingstock of the ship, just as Redburn had been earlier in the novel. When they return to New York, Redburn abandons Bolton to the care of a friend while he dashes off to tend to a family matter upstate. The inexperienced Bolton, unable to fend for himself in his new surroundings, takes a job on a whaling ship and is crushed to death.
The most prominent theme of Redburn is the confrontation between innocence and corruption, as the inexperienced Redburn faces first the depraved evil embodied by Jackson and then the institutionalized evil responsible for the poverty and destitution the boy encounters in Liverpool and on the return voyage. Redburn must come to terms with both, according to Michael Davitt Bell, who summarizes one of the novel's central problems: “If Redburn's naive moral and religious scruples are challenged by the depravity of Jackson, so his naive reverence for authority, his identification with the ruling class, finally succumbs to his discovery of the evil perpetrated upon the masses in the name of authority.”
Another important theme in Redburn involves the loss of the father. Charles Haberstroh insists that “the prevailing psychological patterns in Melville's fiction” reveal the author's “almost bottomless sadness over being cut adrift from his father.” Redburn's futile efforts to retrace his father's steps in Liverpool appear to be part of that longing for the comfort and safety he felt when his father was still alive.
Christian brotherhood is also a thematic concern in the novel. Elmer R. Pry has explored this feature of Redburn, claiming that the novel's meaning inheres in the main character's failure to honor his brotherly obligations to Harry Bolton. By linking the two characters through the many parallels in their lives, Pry states, “Melville creates them as counterparts, as ‘brothers’ in a figurative and a Christian sense, then shows us Redburn's rejection of his brother.”
There are a number of important symbols in the novel, including the miniature glass ship in the family sitting room that apparently inspired Redburn as a child to seek a life at sea. Significantly, several of the little glass ropes and spars have broken and the tiny glass sailor that serves as a figurehead has fallen off the ship. Redburn's sisters reveal that this last mishap occurred on the day their brother began his first voyage. Another symbol is Redburn's clothing, particularly his elegant moleskin shooting jacket, initially a mark of his status as a gentleman's son. As it becomes smaller and smaller each time it gets wet, the jacket becomes more and more inappropriate as protection from the elements aboard ship. It then serves as an emblem not only of Redburn's lost status as a member of the privileged class but also as a symbol of his poor preparation for a life of manual labor at sea. A third significant symbol is his father's guidebook to Liverpool, which is hopelessly outdated and leads Redburn to buildings that have been demolished, suggesting the inability of the absent father to provide guidance and direction.
Critics have generally been less harsh in their assessments of Redburn than its author. Until the mid-twentieth century, critical interpretation centered on the novel's autobiographical elements. William Gilman, for example, compares the early experiences of Melville with those of his title character: “Both enjoyed happiness, comfort, and great expectations as the sons of well-to-do gentlemen. Both suffered spiritually and physically as a result of the bankruptcies and early deaths of their fathers.” Other critics suggest Redburn is a bildungsroman, portraying a young man's initiation into the world of work and/or an innocent's introduction to worldly evil. But while many scholars, concentrating on the corruption encountered by Redburn, consider the work gloomy and pessimistic, others, such as James Schroeter, assert that such an assessment ignores the humorous elements throughout the text. Redburn's exposure to the rough habits of seamen, which include smoking, drinking, and swearing, provides one such instance, “in which the vices of men are … reflected with comic irony through the eyes of a naive boy.” Pry reports that many critics “have found this novel of initiation notable for its comfortably comic tone, as the more mature Redburn looks back upon and gently mocks his younger self setting out upon the ‘first voyage.’” Harold T. McCarthy, however, addresses Melville's inconsistency in the presentation of Redburn's point of view, claiming that the first-person narration by a boy cannot be sustained within the retrospective of the mature Redburn. McCarthy suggests that Melville was unable to continue the narrative according to his original plan. Thus, even before the first part of the voyage is complete, “Redburn's voice deepened, the character Jackson was introduced, and Liverpool was observed, not through the eyes of a naive country boy, but through the eyes of a man …” Jonathan L. Hall contends that such criticism really involves more than simply formal concerns about shifting points of view and reveals instead the deeper problem of the formation of the self. Hall suggests that “Melville calls into question basic assumptions … about the process through which a boy is supposed, by progressive stages, to become a ‘mature’ man, and about the way in which a ‘mature’ man looks back on the events of his childhood and adolescence.” Judging from the extent and variety of modern critical discourse surrounding Redburn, particularly within the last fifty years, the work appears to be far more complicated than the simple “nursery tale” its author claimed to have produced in order to provide himself with tobacco money.