Our book today is Herman Melville’s 1849 novel Redburn, which he wrote at lightning-speed for a paying contract – a description that sounds so odd in connection with Melville that modern ears at first might not credit it. To the extent that’s true, it’s true because we tend to think of Melville’s writing career in reverse, letting the weird, otherworldly, decidedly non-commercial epic undertakings of his long final creative phase cast their shadows back over the stuff he wrote when he was an up-and-coming young maverick of an author, or an established literary man. In a way, this is understandable: after all, if an author goes to the bother of being both weird enough and powerful enough to write something like Moby-Dick, he’s likely to be judged by that work forever, even if he doesn’t want to be (many of you are familiar with my parallel rant about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). But it’s still a shame, especially since there’ve been quite a few readers over the last century who’ve thought “well, if I’m going to read just one Melville book, I’ll make it the Big One and forget about the small fry!” – and so the plain-and-simple novels Melville wrote get forgotten by the legendary Common Reader.
It’s entirely possible that Melville himself might have been OK with having his two most blatantly commercial works – Redburn and White Jacket – forgotten by the reading posterity. They were his forlorn and, one senses, largely uncomprehending grabs at recapturing the runaway sales of his earlier books and really making a go of the whole working-novelist thing, in this case by taking a chunk of his own youthful sea-voyages and once again transforming fact into fiction. The book tells the story of the first sea voyage of Melville’s young main character, Wellingborough Redburn, and it attempts – with only limited and very elephantine efficiency – to infuse that story with some light-hearted and fast-paced adventure, all the frivolous stuff Melville himself famously scorned as “nothing but cakes & ale.” Melville was hoping not only to pick up the old scent of his earlier books but to latch onto the same comet that made Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast a runaway bestseller.
It didn’t work – nothing runaway here. It probably couldn’t have worked, since the author’s heart wasn’t in it. True, we get standard apostrophes like: “Yes! Yes! give me this glorious ocean life, the salt-sea life, this briny, foamy life, when the sea neighs and snorts, and you breathe the very breath that the great whales respire!” – but just listen to the sheer involuntary begrudging tone underneath what’s supposed to be Redburn’s giddy launch into the great watery unknown:
As the steamer carried us further and further down the bay, we passed ships lying at anchor, with men gazing at us and waving their hats; and small boats with ladies in them waving their handkerchiefs; and passed the green shore of Staten Island, and caught sight of so many beautiful cottages all overrun with vines, and planted on the beautiful fresh mossy hill-sides; oh! then I would have given any thing if instead of sailing out of the bay, we were only coming into it; if we had crossed the ocean and returned, gone over and come back; and my heart leaped up in my like something alive when I thought of really entering that bay at the end of the voyage.
The character can tell us that a “wild bubbling bursting was at my heart, as if a hidden spring had just gushed out there; and my blood ran tingling along my frame, like mountain brooks in spring freshets,” but the narrative of Redburn almost never seems to rise to that level of exultation. Instead, one of the main amusements the book affords comes from just exactly the Melville-hindsight reflex already noted: what presentiments are there in these pages of the towering strangeness that was already percolating in our author? And such presentiments are everywhere, of course – most famously at the book’s end, when a much older Redburn learns the fate of his flamboyant former shipmate Harry Bolton: killed on a whaling vessel, crushed to death between the whale and the ship! Or the more subtle variety, as when our young hero thinks back on the peaceful village life he left behind:
And then, I thought of lying down at the bottom of the sea, stark alone, with the great waves rolling over me, and no one in the wide world knowing that I was there. And I thought how much better and sweeter it must be, to be buried under the pleasant hedge that bounded the sunny south side of our village grave-yard, where every Sunday I had used to walk after church in the afternoon; and I almost wished I was there now; yes, dead and buried in that church-yard.
That “stark alone” is pure Melville genius at its best, and that off-kilter parallel – Redburn isn’t daydreaming of being back at home, he’s daydreaming of being dead back at home – is pure Melville strangeness at its best. You encounter these things while slogging through a book like Redburn, and they keep you coming back, even when there are plenty of much better novels from Victorian America quietly clamoring for your time.