Saturday, October 4, 2014

Flashback, October 1839: Melville Ends First Sea Voyage

When the packet ship St. Lawrence pulled into its berth at sunrise on October 1, 1839, on New York’s South Street on its return from England, Herman Melville might have ended his first voyage out to sea, but was only beginning his restless journey as an adult. The novel he would write a decade later from this initial shipboard experience, Redburn, would constitute, according to critic Lewis Mumford, “the first bitter cry” of Melville’s maturity.

The future author of Moby-Dick, grandson of two Revolutionary War heroes, had shipped out four months before as a callow 19-year-old because his father had died in the wake of his import business going bankrupt. An attempt to rescue the firm, with Melville as clerk and oldest brother Gansevoort picking up the reins, had not succeeded, nor had an attempt to place the teen with an uncle on a farm relieved the pressure on family finances.

These circumstances, along with the savage disillusionment he experienced after watching the squalor and cruelty of life at sea, strongly influenced Redburn, a fictional counterpart to a bestselling memoir from earlier in the decade by another inexperienced scion of a prominent American family shocked by what he witnessed on the high seas, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. (See my earlier post about the latter.)

Melville wrote as obsessively about the sea as Joseph Conrad would, nearly a half-century later, in England. He would begin with Typee (1846), a somewhat conventional adventure story that made its author famous virtually overnight, and end with Billy Budd (1890), an allegory of innocence in conflict with evil. What he wrote in between represented, if you will, a sea change in creative ambition—and a shipwreck of a career that began with commercial success.

The sailor-turned-author had turned off public and critics with Mardi, a novel that began as one of his familiar South Seas adventures only to take diverge into more satiric and symbolic territory. With a growing family to support, he soon had reason to rue his departure from genre fiction, and he conceived Redburn and another 1849 novel, White-Jacket, as a return to realism. Given his vaulting new creative aspirations, he was inclined to dismiss these new projects, telling his father-in-law, Massachusetts judge Lemuel Shaw, that they were “two jobs which I have done for money—being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood.”

All that comment proves is that writers are not the best judges of their work. In Redburn, Melville began tentatively to try out settings, characterizations and themes that he would explore with greater artistry shortly. It would take exposure to the tragedies of William Shakespeare and a brief but intense friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne to turn him within two years to Moby-Dick, but he was already thinking, albeit in a limited way, in psychological and symbolic forms that were new to him:

*From the ocean to the city: Most of Redburn occurs on the Atlantic Ocean, but for the first time in Melville’s fiction he writes of urban settings: England’s Liverpool and London. They represent new forms of hell, as does the New York of his disastrous 1852 novel Pierre and his indelible novella about soul-stealing Wall Street, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

*Naming the outsider: Wellingborough Redburn, Melville's alter ego, regards himself as a “kind of Ishmael” because of abuse by his fellow shipmates. In the epic that followed, Moby-Dick, the famous opening line is “Call me Ishmael.” In the Book of Genesis, an angel predicts a troubling future for this son of Abraham and the Egyptian bondservant Hagar: “a wild man…[with] every man’s hand against him.”

*A depression that clings to a first-person narrator: The opening paragraph of Moby-Dick makes no bones about what influences Ishmael to go continually out to sea: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” In contrast, Redburn does not share Ishmael’s self-destructive streak. The new “boy” on board in Redburn is certainly despairing (“Cold, bitter cold as December, and bleak as its blasts, seemed the world then to me; there is no misanthrope like a boy disappointed”) but there is a discernible reason for his feelings: his family’s genteel poverty has, in effect, forced his expulsion from the paradise of his childhood.

*The chief mate as the crew in microcosm: The chief mate takes an immediate dislike to Wellingborough Redburn (even the first name sounds highfalutin') because of his social status, shouting at him, “You are very green, but I’ll ripen you.” Every time the young man thinks to alleviate his misery (e.g., avoiding a duty that day because of sickness), the mate disabuses him of any such notion. In this, the mate is no worse than the crew, who thrust Redburn out of a circle awaiting food. In contrast, the crew in Moby-Dick, in all their good-natured tolerance for the sea and each other, are no match for the obsessed Ahab—none more so than the religious, deeply kind mate Starbuck, who protests that the captain is hunting an unthinking creature, but eventually, against his better judgment, falls in with the mad quest for the white whale. 

*The crew as representative of American diversity: The sailors aboard Redburn’s ship might be a roguish lot, but they’re a motley one, too—tilted decidedly toward humble origins but with someone of higher status (Redburn) on board, and ranging in race and ethnicity from the black cook to a cockney and an Irishman. The ending of Moby-Dick is catastrophic in more ways than one: the crew not only dies because of Ahab’s mad pursuit, but its on-board experiment—sailors from multiple races living in harmony with each other—ends as well.

*The clash of freedom and authority: Redburn’s departure from his upstate New York home might be a symbolic expulsion from Eden, but, like that latter event, it also puts him face to face with the alternately exhilarating and terrifying prospect of exercising free world in a new environment. The use of that freedom also puts him at loggerheads with the ship’s captain, who lashes out at him for acting too familiarly with him. Proper submission to the authority of a captain poses even more crucial dilemmas—life-and-death stakes, in fact—in both Moby-Dick and Billy Budd.

*A young sailor who unwittingly provokes an older one’s malignity: Redburn provokes fellow sailor Jackson, ‘spontaneously an atheist and an infidel…a horrid desperado; and like a wild Indian, whom he resembled in his tawny skin and high cheek bones, he seemed to run a muck at heaven and earth.” He can think of no reason why the older man views him with such “malevolence,” except that Jackson is conscious of his “miserable, broken-down condition,” whereas “I was young and handsome, at least my mother so thought me, and as soon as I became a little used to the sea, and shook off my low spirits somewhat, I began to have my old color in my cheeks, and, in spite of misfortune, to appear well and hearty.” Redburn is not the only youngster to have excited strong feelings in Jackson—so had a six-year-old stowaway. But the stowaway’s instinctive recoil from Jackson only drives the sailor into further rage, making him one of Melville’s “isolatoes.” Similarly, John Claggart warms initially to the title character of Billy Budd, only to retreat when he realizes that friendship with a subordinate would not be appropriate. Claggart’s subsequent withdrawal and falsehood about the beloved, angelic-looking foretopman precipitates the tale’s tragedy. With main characters depicted as objects of an older man’s gaze, both Redburn and Billy Budd have been viewed as homoerotic fiction.

Melville had little time to rest once back on land. Later in October 1839, his mother had fallen into such dire straits that he felt compelled to take a job as a schoolteacher—a job that was likely ill-fitting, as he found himself wandering again in 1840—and a short time after that, he had shipped out to sea again, on a voyage that provided the raw material for Typee.

Like another adopted New Yorker with illustrious ancestral ties, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Melville began by writing with the authority of success and ended with the authority of failure. And he was as wrong as the latter to disparage work he churned out under financial pressure as being of little if any value.  

Redburn can still be read, with great interest, as a novel of youthful initiation, a genre that may be more popular now than in Melville’s time.  While not as epic in scope as Moby-Dick, it is taut and leaner and is filled with vivid descriptions. The miasma of depression and defeat that hangs over the book assures, despite its author’s misgivings, that it could never really be a concession to public taste.


Peter Quinn said...

Great piece, as usual. But I'm surprised you make no mention of the Irish immigrants that fill the hole of the ship on the way back from Liverpool. It's one of the few places in American literature that describe the punishing conditions experienced by the immigrant poor.

MikeT said...

You are absolutely correct, Peter. For the benefit of anyone reading this from this point on, there's a passage that seems appropriate given contemporary debates about immigration--an issue about as controversial in our time, one would think from listening to conservative talk radio, as Melville's: "Let us waive that agitated national topic, as to whether such multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores; let us waive it, with the one only thought, that if they can get here, they have God's right to come; though they bring Ireland and all the world's miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world; there is no telling who does not own a stone in the Great Wall of China. But we waive all this; and will only consider how best the emigrants can come hither, since come they do, and come they must and will."