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

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

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.

A number of critics have justly become suspicious of such an approach, allowing that Melville may have but “affected to despise” his creation (Thorp 1146), urging us to consider that a statement such as the one quoted above was not only voiced months after the work had been completed, but that it “served a specific rhetorical purpose” since it was directed toward a man “economically important” to Melville (Post-Lauria 81).  Should the performance of a letter receive closer attention than the one with which the artist chose to appear before his audience? As David S. Reynolds remarks, both Redburn and White-Jacket

suggest that they were indeed “two jobs” written for money but at the same time were quite sincere, since they give vent to powerful subversive forces surging upward from popular culture through Melville’s unrepressed pen.  (144)

What precisely does “suggest” Melville’s attitude toward his work, and toward those he envisioned as its readers? “How does the writer give body to the audience for whom he writes?” Walter J. Ong once asked, arguing that while it “would be fatuous to think that the writer addressing a so-called ‘general audience’ tries to imagine his readers individually,” writers

under the insistent urging of editors and publishers, [do nonetheless] have to take into consideration the real social, economic, and psychological state of possible readers.  [The writer] has to write a book that real persons will buy and read.  (57)

Yet Ong was more interested in tracing in a writer’s work the “‘audience’ that fires the writer’s imagination” (57).  Can such an “audience” be found on the pages of Redburn, a book to whose production Melville allegedly turned in “disgust” (Ziff 288), a book whose bitterness “adumbrates the bitterness and misanthropy to be found in Pierre and The Confidence Man (Gilman (205)?

According to Daniel H. Borus, the sense of a “commodification of literature” that “drained the human element from writing,” that “dictated that the consumption of the text be made smooth and easy,” and that “reduced all truth to a bland sameness,” led to a “dissatisfaction” among writers like Melville, a dissatisfaction that “can be directly observed in the texts of the American Renaissance” (35).  Did Melville, after the relative failure of Mardi, a romance that “was not much of a success at the bookstores” (Hetherington 131), conceive of his audience primarily as an inspiration or an obligation? Or, to suggest it with a dram of the melodramatic, does Melville’s Redburn—the tale of a friendless, firearm-carrying Ishmael venturing out into a harsh and hostile world among strangers seemingly eager to humiliate and corrupt him—come before us as an amiable companion of our leisure hours or as a truculent adversary of our novelistic conventions? It is this we wish to explore in the sequel.

Friendly Fire

Published in England and America but a few weeks after the above quoted remarks to Lemuel Shaw were penned, Redburnwas indeed “accounted dull” by a number of reviewers, who held that “the staple of the book is so coarse and horrible, mingled, however, with much that is tediously minute, as to leave anything rather than an agreeable impression on the mind” (Branch 190), that there “is nothing very striking in the incidents of Redburn” (192), that it “has not the holiday look or joyous blitheness of Dana” (195), and that, while being a “clever book,” it “certainly lacks the spontaneous flow and racy originality of the author’s South Sea narration” (199).1 George Ripley of the New York Tribune opined that the tale

has something about it which savours more of the bookmaker by profession, and shows that it is not the product of an innate necessity.  The writer never seems to be entirely at his ease, never so much lost in the reality of his story as to be indifferent to the effect of his readers.  (Branch 210-11)

It strikes us as quite remarkable that such early reviews of Redburn, based upon more or perhaps rather less thorough perusals of the book by busy journalists, generally agree with Melville’s self-assessment, as well as the view of many twentieth-century scholars, namely that the work is at heart a calculated business venture, rather than a creative adventure from the heart.  Ripley’s statement, however motivated, captures a duality within Redburn that several critics have sensed, a duality that stems not so much from the author’s inability to reconcile the need to both teach and delight as from an apparent desire to attract and repulse an audience it refuses to respect.  And while the term “subversive” has been used so indiscriminately in recent years that it has become all but platitudinous, Redburn’s noticeable ambivalence toward the reader certainly warrants its application.

A work of literature may be said to respect its readers if it allows them to enter into the ludic performance that is the text by setting up a certain règle du jeu, namely by providing reading instructions that afford the reader to assume the role of what Walker Gibson once termed the “mock-reader,” a reader persona “the individual takes on in order to experience the language” (2).  Yet the guidelines furnished by Melville’s text are so contradictory as to leave its readers in doubt about the position they are to take in—or toward—Redburn’s rôle d’équipage.  The conflicting messages are already foregrounded on the very title page of Melville’s book, which proclaims Redburn: His First Voyage to be at once “Sailor-boy Confessions” and “Reminiscences of the Son-of-a Gentleman, in the Merchant Service” (1).  Both “Confession” and “Reminiscences” suggest an autobiographical project, notwithstanding the distinction the reader will make between the clearly identified author and Redburn’s eponymous narrator.  After all, autobiography, as De Man suggests,

is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts.  The autobiographical moment happens as an alignment between the two subjects involved in the process of reading in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive substitution.  (921)

Despite its first-person narration, however, Redburn’s“autobiographical moment” does not quite come about, since the alignment between reader and autodiegetic narrator is complicated from the start.  Whereas “Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman” suggests a pleasant yarn of past voyages told by a respectable trader (by one of us, returning home) around whom we are encouraged to crowd in anticipation of intrigue and adventure, “Sailor-boy Confessions,” while drawing us nearer still as intimate spectators, at once distances us as it implies a life marked by sin, a story that somehow precludes our identification, lest we should implicate ourselves in the process.  Besides, ought not, perhaps, the “Son-of-a-Gentleman” do the confessing as he returns from a seafaring life about which sailors reminisce without much remorse?

The contradictions are not so much based upon the notion that nautical “Reminiscences,” a protean literary genre in which “[b]y 1849 the reading public was thoroughly steeped” (Gilman 171), promise all delight, the very “cakes & ale” Melville purported Redburn to be in his letter to his publisher Richard Bentley (Davis and Gilman 86), while “Confessions,” a term appropriated by writers of similarly popular temperance novels, implies—and for propriety’s sake demands—all the teachings of a cautionary tale. To the fact that the sobering physic is commonly administered in the form of palatable confectionery Redburn’s initial readership may very well have been accustomed, since the express goals of both 19th-century realist and romantic fiction, prodesse and delectare, are rarely perceived as being mutually exclusive. 

Melville’s contemporary Herrman S. Saroni, for instance, undoubtedly meant to bestow upon Redburn the highest praise conceivable to the pragmatist by declaring the book’s portrayal of seafaring life to be “full as instructive as it is amusing” (Branch 210).  Instead, the realism of “Confessions” and the retrospective romanticizing of  “Reminiscences” are at odds here primarily because they announce two conflicting autobiographical projects, presupposing two quite discrete approaches of the listener toward the truth-teller as divulger of singular secrets or purveyor of common tales.  What is the movens governing this performance? This is precisely the question a reader like Ripley asks of Redburn.

The reading instructions become more complicated still, since both autobiographical projects are being subverted by the paradoxical coupling of the naiveté-evoking “Sailor-boy” with the guilt-insinuating term “Confessions.”  Although the narrative later explains that aboard ship, “boy” does not necessarily denote youth (for a “boy” may very well be “old enough to be a grandfather”), it nevertheless connotes innocence, since “boymeans a green-hand, a landsman on his first voyage” (Redburn70).  Does our author introduce us thus to a rodomontading hobbledehoy, a builder of forecastles in the air pretentious enough to call himself a gentleman’s son, even though his father was but a man of business? Arguably, when flowing from the pen of a mere green-hand, both “Confessions” and “Reminiscences” become divested of their dignity and gravity, and the title, thus regarded, suggests neither romance nor realism, but instead a parody of both.  Charles F. Briggs, critic of Holden’s Dollar Magazine, complained in his unsigned review (published in January 1850) that “in Redburn we have neither a romance, a satire nor a narrative of actual events, but a hodge podge of all three different kinds of literary composition” (Branch 213).

What is mocked then in Redburn is the notion of genre: the expectations it produces in the reader, and the demands the fulfillment of such expectations impose upon the writer.  A passage to Liverpool does not seem to warrant the grandiloquence of “Reminiscences”; a sailor-boy breaching the bond with his “fellow-members of the Temperance Society” in order to battle sea-sickness (Redburn 92) does not quite call for “Confessions.”  By answering audience’s desire for panoramic seascapes with miniature painting, by applying the frame of a Bildungsroman to a significantly reduced canvas, Redburnappears to be sneering at—rather than yielding to—the dictate of the marketplace.  It would constitute an unconscionable perversion of evidence on our part to claim that Melville’s contemporaries dismissed Redburn outright; yet it should be noted that reviewers frequently tempered their approval of the book’s “Daguerreotype fidelity”3 with disappointment about its mediocrity.  As Blackwood’s critic Frederick Hardman put it in his November 1849 review of the book:

[I]n Redburn, Mr Melville comes not up to the mark he himself has made.  It is evident that, on his debut, he threw off the rich cream of his experiences, and he must not marvel if readers have thereby been rendered dainty, and grumble a little when served with the skim-milk.  (Branch 198-99)

Is Melville milking us for money instead of nursing our desires?

While Redburn may very well be, as Jonathan L. Hall argues, “the closest Melville had ever come—or ever would come—to obeying the formal conventions of the mid-nineteenth-century novel” (259), the conventions are subverted, rather than faithfully employed.4  Hall cannot but conclude that Redburn “shares with Melville’s more radical reconstructions of the form of the novel a preoccupation with the relation between writing and selfhood” (269-70):

Redburn looks very much like a nautical novel of education, but the model of self-development usually assumed by such productions, the gradual process of an artist . . . coming into his full mature powers, is interrupted to a degree.  At the end of Redburn we are given not a young man poised on the brink of a successful adulthood but an arrested adolescent doomed to failure, to eternal circular repetition of his worst mistakes.  (267; emphasis added)

Not unlike Redburn, who realizes, at midpoint, that since he merely signed up for a short, single voyage, “it was not worth while to teach [him] any thing, the fruit of which instruction could be only reaped by the next ship [he] might belong to” (Melville, Redburn 183), readers may sense being bamboozled and abused by an author who refuses to provide them with useful knowledge with which they might have hoped hereafter to approach the craft of some popular novelist or travel writer.  Not unlike Redburn, who realizes, as John J. Gross suggests, “that the guide for the father was valueless to the son,” who learns, “[w]ith Emerson, . . . that each generation must write its own books, must provide its own guides” (593), readers may find their prior novelistic and autobiographical schooling to be ineffectual when applied to Melville’s narrative.  Not unlike Redburn, whose hopes of finding the romance of “old abbeys” and “coronations” and “fox-hunters . . . which, from all [his] reading, [he] had been in the habit of associating with England” are dashed by the ordinary, readers may come to the conclusion that, in Redburn, their

prospects of seeing the world as a sailor were, after all, but very doubtful; for sailors only go round the world, without going into it; and their reminiscences of travel are only a dim recollection of a chain of tap-rooms surrounding the globe, parallel with the Equator.  They but touch the perimeter of the circle; hover about the edges of terra-firma; and only land upon wharves and pier-heads.  They would dream as little of traveling inland to see Kenilworth, or Blenheim Castle, as they would of sending a card overland to the Pope, when they touched at Naples.  (Redburn 197)

Whereas Sheila Post-Lauria claims Melville to be in keeping with certain novelistic traditions by arguing that the “practice of exploiting the naiveté of the adolescent narrator, the focal point in the stories by [Frederick] Marryat and [Charles Frederick] Briggs, is employed by Melville to stress one of his major themes—the growth of the narrator’s insight into the importance of home and family, a theme likewise central to domestic novels by women authors” (85), readers noticing such reverberations may find themselves weaned instead from the familiar voices of conventional family-fare, since they are forced to leave Redburn, a narrative with a decidedly “unresolved Bildungsroman structure” (Justus 42), without having been permitted to experience any of the potential pleasures of home or home-coming.

Redburn’s birthplace, we recall, is described as a museum filled with books, paintings, imported furniture, and “an old-fashioned glass ship” in a “square glass case” (Redburn 46-48), rather than a nursery overflowing with compassion; the deceased father is literally a marginalized figure (found on the pages of  an outdated guidebook); and the mother is not only refused a speaking part, but also not deemed significant enough to feature prominently in a reunion scene: “I pass over the reception I met with at home; how I plunged into embraces, long and loving:—I pass over this,” Redburn remarks when recollecting his being “detained” at home by “[c]ircumstances beyond [his] control” (404).  Instead, subverting the traditional success story of the prodigal son coming round, each “main division of the book concludes with a scene of major disillusion or disappointment in the hero’s expectations” (Gilman 207), and the circular narrative ends, as Mathewson reminds us, “with Bolton and Redburn cheated out of their wages by Captain Riga: like Melville after Mardi, they are again broke, repeating the financial states that prompted their sailings” (319-20).

Thus, familiar quest patterns and their resolution are promised, but noticeably withheld; and far more prominent than any themes of communion or “home and family” is a systematic dismantling of such comforting patterns and unifying themes as the narrative “moves from anticlimax to anticlimax” (Beaver 13).  When critics like Gross find it “not unlikely that some of the dissatisfaction which Melville himself felt with this book grew from his recognition that it was not an esthetic whole” (590-91), they rather express their own discontent with a novel in which “themes are realized intermittently,” in which “[a]uthor digressions are to some degree responsible” for a “less satisfactory total impression” (591).  “In a novel so concerned with the theme of brotherhood,” Robert K. Martin exclaims, “it is striking that so little real brotherhood exists” (46).  It is less than surprising, therefore, that a number of reviewers were reluctant to call Redburn a novel at all, since “there is neither plot nor love in it” (Branch 194).5 Our hopes and expectations—promoted by our prior reading experiences, and heightened by the narrative’s application of conventional material—are crushed so effectively that the only pattern sustained throughout the book appears to be the one Terrence G. Lish identifies in “Melville’s Redburn: A Study in Dualism,” namely “that every entity consists of itself and its opposite” (116).

Indeed, the concepts of innocence and guilt, respectability and impropriety, realism and romance, middle-class leisure and working-class labor, as well as vraisemblance and duplicity are yoked together with such violence in Redburn that the reader, rejecting the work for want of plot and resolution, may be troubled by a lack of consistency in the narrative voice as well.  As London’s Daily News reviewer has it:

There is discrepancy felt at first between the author and the biographer.  Herman Melville and Redburn are two distinct personages; thus when Redburn does a silly action, which he does frequently, though he knows better afterwards, we find him enveloping it with rich thought and keen observation.  How can we admit the fool in action with “the wit in mind”? (Branch 195)

Once again, the book’s title page, if carefully read, already signals as much.  After all, whereas the manuscript of Redburn still bears the less equivocal subtitle “My First Voyage” (Gilman 174), the published work is announced as “His First Voyage,” resulting in an incongruous interweaving of first-person narration and third-person commentary that further undermines the verisimilitude of the “Sailor-boy Confessions,” achieving instead a Verfremdungseffekt by drawing the reader’s attention to the narrative’s construction and mediation by a controlling author.

Dillingham argues that while there “have to be three Redburns in the story,” namely “the older narrator, the very naive boy, and the more experienced youngster at the end,” Melville does “not quite bring it off,” since there are “four rather than three Redburns in the book, this last one an intruder which careful revision would have disposed of” (33).  Yet, as the revised title indicates, Melville was not disposed to do so.  On the contrary, the intrusive fourth narrator foregrounded in both title and chapter headings, appears to be another attempt at undermining the narrative conventions of both novel and autobiography, the acceptance of which the reader is provoked to question as well.  As Heather Kirk Thomas reminds us, “[b]y the time [Melville] began to write Redburn, he had faced charges of inventing his travel narratives and even of pirating another writer’s work” (17).  Considered in light of this debate over the autobiographical truthfulness of both Typee and Omoo, the slight but significant change in the book’s title—and the peculiar distancing effect it achieves, an effect sustained not only in the chapter headings of the narrative, but in the aforementioned fissure between Redburn’s narrating and experiencing selves—is particularly suggestive.  John Paul Tassoni suggests that the

[C]hapter headings throughout a good portion of the work, and most notably those announcing the guide-book sections, extend the margins of the text beyond those generally implied by first-person narration.  At times expressly sarcastic, the titles refer to the young Wellingborough (by whom I mean the protagonist of the tale) and at other times to Redburn himself (the narrator) in the third person and thus indicate a gap between the writer of the initiation story and yet another narrator, or presenter, existent in its margins.  (Tassoni 51)

Redburn “forgets his part at times,” a reviewer of the Southern Quarterly Review complained (Branch 215); yet the multiplicity of “Redburn” (as experiencer, narrator, and commentator) and the plurality of Redburn (as empathy-encouraging portrayal of a middle-class boy’s struggles and a schadenfreude-provoking caricature thereof ) may also compel readers to doubt their own part in the narrative production (that is, in the production of narrative), as well as the inadequacies inherent in concepts of genre, concepts they cannot but remember from past reading experiences.

Whereas Michael T. Gilmore argues that Melville, “[r]egarding the literary text as a commodity, . . . vacillates between seeing his books as affirmations of democratic community and as alienated objects expressing little or nothing of himself,” that he “accepts concealment and estrangement as unavoidable in exchange relations yet strives to overcome them, endeavoring to restore the face-to-face intimacy of storytelling by inserting himself into the artwork and reaching out toward his audience” (61-62), Melville’s interlacing of seemingly irreconcilable genres may also be read as the author’s lashing-out at the narrow-minded quidnuncs among his reviewers who were unable to accept—and unwilling to recommend—either the fictive realism of Typee and Omoo, or the allegorical romance of Mardi.  That the original title page of Bentley’s edition of Redburn declared the work to be “by Herman Melville, Author of ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Mardi’” (Redburn 1) hardly made it easier for readers to determine just what to make of this “salty seabag comprising literal rambles and metaphysical meanders” (Thomas 17).

To be sure, not every prospective reader of Redburn is likely to scrutinize such contradictions under the close-reading glass once favored by the followers of new criticism.  Yet those among us eager to glean from the introductory pages of a new volume the promises it holds of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic emolument will realize the intrigue of Melville’s enigmatic titles, a charm well captured by Blackwood’s critic John Wilson in his June 1847 review of Omoo:

We were much puzzled [. . .] by a tantalising and unintelligible paragraph, pertinaciously reiterated in the London newspapers.  Its brevity equalled its mystery; it consisted but of five words, the first and last in imposing majuscules.  Thus it ran:—

OMOO, by the author of TYPEE.

With Trinculo we exclaimed, “What have we here? a man or a fish? dead or alive?” Who or what were Typee and Omoo? [. . .]  The outlandish title that had perplexed us was intended to perplex; it was a bait thrown out to that wide-mouthed fish, the public; a specimen of what is theatrically styled gag.  (Branch 114-15)

It is telling that Redburn opens with young Wellingborough “poring over old New York papers, delightedly perusing the long columns of ship advertisements, all of which possessed a strange, romantic charm to [him]” (43), a scene recalling Melville’s earlier romance with the marketplace without rekindling it.  It is not so much that the eponymous adventurer, who seems to expect the spirit of Otranto to haunt the forecastle, is lured by false claims and hollow promises.  Instead, when attempting to step into a strange world by trans-lating the gap afforded by the printed words, he winds up walking the plank of his own imaginings.  “A brig! The very word summoned up the idea of a black sea-worn craft, with high, cozy bulwarks, and rakish masts and yards” (44).  Redburn’s opening scene thus problematizes reader expectations, the reader’s response to the title, “every word” of which “announcements” may “suggest[ ] volumes of thought” (43-44).  Throughout the narrative, Redburn is a reader who pays dearly for his romantic schooling without being compensated for his disillusionment.  It appears to be the very itinerary to which the readers of Redburn find themselves entitled.

Compared to Redburn, the titles of Melville’s south sea narratives—titles whose “uncouth dissyllables from Polynesia” Blackwood’sHardman dismissed as but “convenient . . . for the purposes of the puff provocative” (Branch 197)—signal a rather uncomplicated author-reader relationship.  They appear to betoken primarily an author’s catering to the public, an ingenious—but far from disingenuous—sales technique.  If sales figures are to be believed, the public, despite the controversy over the truthfulness of the events related, found in Typee and Omoo the intrigue and mystery evoked by their “uncouth,” but alluring disyllables.  That these earlier titles are meant to provoke interest, rather than confound readers, is underscored by the fact that both are accompanied not only by an explanatory subtitle (“A Peep at Polynesian Life” and “A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas,” respectively), but also by a friendly Preface: “Sailors are the only class of men who now-a-days see anything like stirring adventure; and many things which to fire-side people appear strange and romantic, to them seem as common-place as a jacket out at elbows,” the Preface to Typeedirectly addresses its intended audience (9):

There are some things related in the narrative which will be sure to appear strange, or perhaps entirely incomprehensible to the reader; but they cannot appear more so to him than they did to the author at the time.  He has stated such matters just as they occurred, and leaves every one to form his own opinion concerning them; trusting that his anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth will gain for him the confidence of his readers.  (10)

This polite gesture of a literary green-hand, who even begs to excuse certain “deficiencies” and “omissions” in the narrative (9), establishes a cordial relationship between author and audience—upon whose urging the book’s second edition even manages to supply a brief “Sequel” to the narrative without diminishing the verisimilitude of the performance.  The amiable guide reappears in Omoo, explaining not only the title of the work as being “borrowed from the dialect of the Marquesas Islands” (326), but also its connections to Typee by providing a Preface, as well as an Introduction designed for the benefit of “the reader [. . .] who has not read ‘Typee’” (326).

Such cordially extended reading instructions notwithstanding, both Typee and Omoo met, as we pointed out earlier, with skepticism as to their authenticity.  The very protestations that “a strict adherence to facts has, of course, been scrupulously observed,” and that “[n]othing but an earnest desire for truth and good has led [the author] to touch upon this subject at all” (Omoo325) have caused reviewers to question the veracity of the events narrated, rather than to accept the integrity of the artistic performance.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the terse Preface of Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (quoted here in its entirety), while still polite, signals the author’s dismay about the apparent lack of willingness among reviewers to accept his kindly proffered reading instructions:

Not long ago, having published two narratives of voyages in the Pacific, which, in many quarters, were received with incredulity, the thought occurred to me, of indeed writing a romance of Polynesian adventure, and publishing it as such; to see whether, the fiction might not, possibly received for a verity: in some degree the reverse of my previous experience.  

This thought was the germ of others, which have resulted in Mardi.  (661)

The “result,” however, was received neither for a verity nor favorably: “[W]e think the ‘man who read Mardi and liked it’ will be an unexampled product of the age,” Charles Gordon Greene sneered (Branch 156).  Its author, George Ripley declared, “has failed by leaving the sphere, which is that of graphic, poetical narration, and launching out into the dim, shadowy, spectral, Mardian region of mystic speculation and wizard fancies” (162).  “[E]very one who had read Typee and Omoo, anxiously expected a work of similar character,” William A. Jones reasoned.  “The man who expects and asks for loaf sugar will not be satisfied with marble, though it be built into a palace” (179).6  So, after having thrice demonstrated his respect for his readership in the prefaces of TypeeOmoo, and Mardi, after having catered to their demands and responded to their objections, Melville for once replied by shrouding himself in silence: Redburn: His First Voyage is the first of his books to appear without an explanatory Preface, forcing readers and reviewers to deduce their reading instructions from the book’s ambivalence-riddled title page.

Post-Lauria, who enters the debate whether or not Melville’s standing too close to the fire-side caused Redburn by expressing her dissatisfaction about the argument that the “marketplace . . . forced . . .‘alienated’ artists to preserve prevailing ideologies in their fiction against their personal wishes” (80), proposes the alternative argument that “[f]rom the reception of Mardi Melville learned that certain mixtures were unacceptable to particular groups of readers,” that in “Redburn and White-Jacket, he coordinated style with theme in an attempt to get along with the existing literary world” (79).  Regarded in the context of Melville’s ongoing debate with his critics, however—a debate that only culminated, but hardly originated, in the critics’ rejection of Mardi—, Redburn, whose eponymous adventurer is thrown out of an English reading room (Redburn 284-85), emerges as antagonistic, rather than all-embracing, a defiance celebrated in the narrative’s most prominent coordinating conjunction—”but” (with which over 135 paragraphs of the book begin), and in its admonishing apostrophes (“Now you must not think” [80]; “But you must not think” [111; 112]).  In Melville’s Redburn we may thus discover a businessman’s “Reminiscences” about the lost fortunes of his first voyage and an artist’s “Confessions” about his refusal to recoup such losses by revisiting a past he has outgrown.

“[W]ith whatever motive, playful or profound, Nathaniel Hawthorne has chosen to entitle his pieces in the manner he has, it is certain, that some of them are directly calculated to deceive—egregiously deceive—the superficial skimmer of pages,” Melville wrote in his 1850 review of Hawthorne’s tales:

To be downright and candid once more, let me cheerfully say, that two of these titles did dolefully dupe no less an eagle-eyed reader than myself; and that, too, after I had been impressed with a sense of the great depth and breadth of this American man.  “Who in the name of thunder” (as the country-people say in this neighborhood), “who in the name of thunder” would anticipate any marvel in a piece entitled “Young Goodman Brown”? You would of course suppose that it was a simple little tale, intended as a supplement to “Goody Two Shoes.”  Whereas, it is deep as Dante; nor can you finish it, without addressing the author in his own words—“It is yours to penetrate, in every bosom, the deep mystery of sin.”  (“Hawthorne and His Mosses” 549)

With Redburn: His First Voyage; Being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of a Son-of a Gentleman, in the Merchant Service, Melville challenges the “superficial skimmer of pages” among the members of his diminished audience.  Far more than mere advertisement, the title page foretells and encapsulates the entire design of the book by setting up its paradoxes, as well as its readers.  In keeping with the dualities of the work it announces, the title is honest about playing us false.  It takes a heavy-eyed critic like Nathaniel Parker Willis—who remarked in New York’s Home Journal, 24 November 1849, that Redburn “is just what its title indicates—a narrative of the events and feelings of a youth who has left a kind home for the hardships of a sailor’s life” (Branch 208)—to miss the conflicting messages of Melville’s fourth title; it takes an eagle-eyed critic to fully grasp its subversive cleverness; but it takes a starry-eyed reader to overlook its affront, once perceived.

Coda: The Fire Extinguished

In his 1841 essay “Friendship,” Emerson suggests that a writer’s 

intellectual and active powers increase with our affection.  The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend,—and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.  (341)

Perhaps, though, the story-teller, to whom the luxury of conceptualizing his audience with the scholarly detachment of the philosopher is not afforded, may find stimulation in seeing himself in opposition to his readership.  And whereas Hawthorne, in his introductory sketch to The Scarlet Letter, proposes that “as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience—it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind of apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk,” without ever entirely revealing the “inmost Me behind its veil” (1306), Melville appears to prefer the figure of a defiant Ishmael, who, as David Leverenz suggests about Moby-Dick’s narrator, “shares many of Thoreau’s traits.  He too relishes quarreling with his readers”; he too “implicitly characterizes his readers as people who want precise labels and time frames for self and story”; he too “teases the reader, anticipating responses and denying expectations” (25-26).  Said traits seem to define the performance that is Redburn.

The “De Foe of the Ocean” is not our friend.  He appears to have imagined an audience eager for a tale of adventure, a readership he did not respect.  This conflict of catering to an unloved audience is at the very core of the narrative, and, arguably, its failure.  Just as Redburn, who does not manage to befriend anyone for long—and who does betray someone who offers himself as a companion—Redburn draws us closer to Melville (by foregrounding his authorial stance) only to push us away from his eponymous creation (by interjecting distancing chapter titles).  Redburn, as Martin suggests, is “imbued with a sense of failure” (42); a tortured, at times tedious performance that gains in complexity when looked upon as an unloved brainchild.  Not unlike Redburn abandoning ship, Melville may be argued to have abandoned not merely his potential readership but the vehicle designed to convey him over troubled waters to a haven of economic stability.

In Redburn, we find expressed an ambivalence toward the audience only rivaled by Gertrude Stein’s apostrophe in The Making of American:

Bear it in your mind my reader, but truly I never feel that there ever can be for me any such a creature, no it is this scribbled and dirty and lined paper that is really to be to me always my receiver,—but anyhow reader, bear it in your mind—will there be for me ever any such a creature,—what I have said always before to you, that this that I write down a little each day here on my scraps of paper for you is not just an ordinary kind of novel with a plot and conversations to amuse you. . . . (33)

And even if “[b]y employing the traditional structure of the young seeker tale while departing from its traditional application, Melville hopes to force the reader into a reassessment of inherited views and values” (Lish 115), such lessons may be argued to have failed, since readers, more likely to blame the author than their prior schooling for their frustrated expectations, generally prefer being taken by the hand, rather than being led by the nose.


1. Above reviews appeared in October and November of 1849 in the English press, namely in Britannia, the Spectator, and Blackwood’s.

2. Two such temperance novels are Confessions of a Reformed Inebriate, published in 1844, and Confessions of a Rum-Seller, published in 1845 (Reynolds 68).

3. The London Daily News review (dated 29 October 1849) puts it thus (Branch 195), while Ripley likens Redburn’s “picture of life on the ocean” to “the fidelity of a Dutch painting” (211).

4. In a dissertation titled “The Improper Self: Identity and Writing in Melville’s Early Work,” Johanna Cornelia Kardux contends that “In writing Typee and Redburn, Melville rewrites the genres of, respectively, the travel and captivity narratives and the Bildungsroman”; yet both works do “not totally transcend the literary genres to which they formally belong, embodying at least to some extent the problems they explore” (2692A).

5. This verdict of a writer for London’s Morning Post was published on 29 October 1849; similar remarks can be found in the aforementioned reviews by Hardman and Saroni (Branch 200; 209). 

6. Above comments appeared in the Boston Globe, 18 April 1849; the New York Tribune, 10 May 1849; and the July 1849 issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review.

Works Cited

Beaver, Harold.  Introduction.  Redburn: His First Voyage.  1849.  Ed. Harold Beaver. Penguin, 1976, pp. 7-28.

Borus, Daniel H.  Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market.  U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Branch, Watson G.  Melville: The Critical Heritage.  Routledge, 1974.

Davis, Merrell R., and William H. Gilman, eds.  The Letters of Herman Melville.  Yale UP, 1960.

De Man, Paul.  “Autobiography as De-facement.”  MLN 94, Dec. 1979, pp. 919-30.

Dillingham, William B.  An Artist in the Rigging: The Early Work of Herman Melville. U of Georgia P, 1972.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Friendship.”  1841.  Essays and Lectures.  Ed. Joel Porte. Library of America, 1983.

Gibson, Walker.  “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers.”  Tompkins, Jane P., ed.  Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism.  Ed. Jane P. Tompkins.  Johns Hopkins UP, 1980, pp. 1-6.

Gilman, William H.  Melville’s Early Life and Redburn.  New York UP, 1951.

Gilmore, Michael T.  American Romanticism and the Marketplace.  U of Chicago P, 1985.

Gross, John J.  “The Rehearsal of Ishmael: Melville’s Redburn.” Virginia Quarterly 27, 1951, pp. 581-600.

Hall, Jonathan L.  “’Every Man of Them Almost Was a Volume of Voyages’: Writing the Self in Melville’s Redburn.”  American Transcendental Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 4, Dec. 1991, pp. 259-71.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  The Scarlet Letter.  The Norton Anthology of American Literature.  Vol. 1.  Ed.  Nina Baym, et. al.  5th ed.  Norton, 1997.  1306-447.

Hetherington, Hugh W.  Melville’s Reviewers: British and American, 1846-1891.  U of North Carolina P, 1961.

Justus, James H.  “Redburn and White-Jacket: Society and Sexuality in the Narrators of 1849.”  Herman Melville: Reassessments.  Ed. A. Robert Lee.  Barnes, 1984, pp.  41-67.

Kardux, Johanna Cornelia.  “The Improper Self: Identity and Writing in Melville’s Early Work.”  Phd dissertation, Cornell U, DAI 46:9, Mar. 1986, 2692A.

Leverenz, David.  Manhood and the American Renaissance.  Cornell UP, 1989.

Lish, Terrence G.  “Melville’s Redburn: A Study in Dualism.”  English Language Notes 5, Dec. 1967, pp. 113-20.

Martin, Robert K.  Hero, Captain and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. U of North Carolina P, 1986.

Mathewson, Stephen.  “‘To Tell over again the Story Just Told’: The Composition of Melville’s Redburn.”  ESQ 37, 1991, pp. 311-20.

Melville, Herman.  “Hawthorne and His Mosses.”  1850.  Moby-Dick.  Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.  Norton, 1967, pp. 535-51.

—.  Preface.  Mardi: and a Voyage Thither.  1849.  Tanselle 661.

—.  Preface.  Omoo: A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas. 1847.  Tanselle 325-26.

—.  Preface.  Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life.  1846.  

Tanselle 9-10.

—.  Redburn: His First Voyage.  1849.  Ed. Harold Beaver.  Penguin, 1976.

Ong, Walter J., S. J.  The Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture.  Cornell, 1977.

Post-Lauria, Sheila.  Correspondent Colorings: Melville in the Marketplace.  U of Massachusetts P, 1996.

Reynolds, David S.  Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville.  Knopf, 1988.

Stein, Gertrude.  The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress.  1925. Dalkey Archive P, 1995.

Tanselle, G. Thomas, ed.  Typee, Omoo, Mardi.  By Herman Melville.  Library of America, 1982.

Tassoni, John-Paul.  “Redburn’s Kunstlerroman: Nineteenth-Century Linguistics and Melville’s Signification of Delusion.”  Nineteenth-Century Studies 6, 1992, pp. 51-60.

Thomas, Heather Kirk.  “Melville’s Redburn.”  Explicator, vol. 50, no. 1, Fall  1991, pp. 16-18.

Thorp, Willard.  “Redburn’s Prosy Old Guidebook.”  PMLA 53, 1959, pp. 1146-56.

Ziff, Larzer.  Literary Democracy: The Declaration of Cultural Independence in America.  Viking, 1981.

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