Places Discussed

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Highlander. Ship on which the young sailor Wellingborough Redburn travels between Liverpool and New York City; based on the actual ship, the St. Lawrence, in which Melville made a similar trip in 1839. As with his depiction of Liverpool, Melville’s description of the ship serves different purposes at different times. At first the ship is simply a dose of reality counteracting Redburn’s fantasies. Before actually going to sea, Redburn has an idealized notion of sailor life. Once aboard ship, he discovers the hardships of being a sailor but also finds things to enjoy, such as the thrill of the ship plunging through the waves and the mastery he feels in fixing the sails. Like life ashore, life aboard the ship is a mixture of good and bad.

On Redburn’s return voyage, Melville switches the focus to emphasize the horrible conditions of the Irish emigrants in the ship’s unsanitary steerage quarters, which contrast markedly with the much better conditions of the rich cabin passengers, who seem selfishly intent on keeping the poor away by means of ropes rather than providing them with any assistance.


*Liverpool. Major seaport of western England. Redburn, who likes to indulge in fantasy, tries to imagine what Liverpool will be like before he gets there, but instead of the marvels he expects, all he finds are disappointingly dingy warehouses—a demonstration of how a young boy’s idealized fantasies about the world may have nothing to do with reality. As Redburn explores Liverpool using an old guidebook, Melville introduces a second, related theme: that life does not stand still. Redburn expects Liverpool to look as it does in the guidebook, but his father’s book is fifty years out of date. For example, the city’s old fort has disappeared and been replaced by the Old Fort Tavern; Riddough’s Hotel, where his father stayed, has been torn down; and the Old Dock in the center of town has been covered over and turned into the customs house.

As Redburn continues to explore the city, another, somewhat different theme emerges: that Liverpool is in some ways horrifying. Redburn encounters numerous beggars and other poor people, most notably a family starving to death in a cellar on a street called Launcelott’s-Hey. He also notes the crime, vice, pestilence, and sooty buildings in the city. The point here seems to be to indict the new industrial age for producing a society full of starving beggars, criminals, and quacks, along with uncaring people who simply ignore the misery around them.

*Bedloe’s Island

*Bedloe’s Island. Island in New York Harbor whose fort the Highlander passes on the way out to sea. Redburn’s sight of the fort causes him to remember his visit there and how he had stumbled in its dark vaults but eventually had emerged into sunshine to see cows grazing and calves frolicking. He remembers being happy then and wishes he could live there.

*Nelson Memorial

*Nelson Memorial. Memorial to the great British naval hero Horatio Nelson in Liverpool that Redburn visits. Redburn is moved by the four bronze statues of chained captives in the memorial. Although the figures are supposed to represent Nelson’s victories, their despondent appearance reminds Redburn of the former African slave trade. The memorial also contains statues depicting Victory and Death, and Nelson himself is shown dying. This scene enables Melville to denounce the slave trade and praise those who fought to abolish it, while contributing to the melancholy atmosphere pervading the novel that reflects Redburn’s mood.


*Ireland. First European land that Redburn encounters. It disappoints him because it seems an ordinary sight, not the...

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place of wonders he expects.


*Wales. Region of western Britain that the Highlander passes immediately before reaching Liverpool. Its purple mountains at first make Redburn think, characteristically, of the Prince of Wales. However, he then realizes that they do not look different from the Catskill Mountains back home.

*United States

*United States. Though disillusioned with Europe, Redburn is not cured of his tendency to fantasize when he reaches Liverpool, where he rhapsodizes about the Paradise that is to come in America as a result of the equality of nationalities there. Later, however, he notes how much more equality there is in Liverpool among black and white people than there is in America.


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Branch, Watson G., ed. Melville: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Contemporary reviews of Redburn in British and American periodicals. Interesting for comparison with later Melville scholarship. The novel was widely praised at its publication, but praised for its qualities as an adventure story rather than as serious fiction.

Bredahl, Carl A., Jr. Melville’s Angles of Vision. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972. Emphasizes Melville’s concern with characters in their environment. Discusses Redburn as first-person narrator adjusting to the psychological implications of life at sea.

Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. Boston: Twayne, 1963. Excellent analysis of Melville’s characterization, particularly in the degree to which it improved since the publication of his earlier novels. Particular attention given in this regard to the tragic contradictions in the character of Harry Bolton.

Kirby, David. Herman Melville. New York: Continuum, 1993. Treats the relationship between Melville’s creative imagination and his life. Offers an engaging contrast between the fanciful Mardi and Redburn, which reveals Melville’s personal experience.

Rosenberry, Edward H. Melville. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Places particular emphasis on Redburn as an initiation novel in which personal experience is paramount in the development of the character of the mature adult. Rosenberry makes an interesting distinction between lust for life and a talent for living in Redburn.


Critical Essays