Wood for the Fire-side?: Melville’s Redburn and Its Sense of Audience

by Harry Heuser

Sawing Wood

Few remarks about Redburn: His First Voyage, Herman Melville’s fourth novel, have been quoted as frequently as Melville’s own assessments of it.  The following comment, for instance (dated 6 October 1849 and clipped from a letter our author wrote to his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw), is often relied upon in general studies of Melville and his “botches,” and especially in critical evaluations of Redburn and its relation to the fireside reader:

For Redburn I anticipate no particular reception of any kind.  It may be deemed a book of tolerable entertainment;—& may be accounted dull.  As for the other book [White-Jacket], it will be sure to be attacked in some quarters.  But no reputation that is gratifying to me, can possibly be achieved by either of these books.  They are two jobs, which I have done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.  And while I have felt obliged to refrain from writing the kind of book I would wish to; yet, in writing these books, I have not repressed myself much—so far as they are concerned; but have spoken pretty much as I feel.—Being books, then, written in this way, my only desire for their “success” (as it is called) springs from my pocket, & not from my heart.  So far as I am individually concerned, & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to “fail.”—Pardon this egotism.  (Davis and Gilman 91-92)

To be sure, above lines (often considerably trimmed and consequently distorted) are a veritable treasure to the literary historian and the studious biographer to whom a private comment on a public performance holds the very lure of the verisimilitudinous.  Arguably, however, critics like Stephen Mathewson, who surmises that Melville wrote Redburn “feverishly and rather joylessly” (311), and William B. Dillingham, who makes bold to proclaim that Melville saw the “task” of composition through “[w]ith almost gruesome determination” (31), somewhat overestimate the value of such autobiographical slivers from Melville’s personal correspondence, thereby reducing the block of wood an sich, the artistic performance that is Redburn, to a mere cultural artifact to be stored and stacked alongside the petrified remnants of our literary past.

Continue reading