Drawn from Melville's own adolescent experience aboard a merchant ship, Redburn charts the coming-of-age of Wellingborough Redburn, a young innocent who embarks on a crossing to Liverpool together with a roguish crew. Once in Liverpool, Redburn encounters the squalid conditions of the city and meets Harry Bolton, a bereft and damaged soul, who takes him on a tour of London that includes a scene of rococo decadence unlike anything else in Melville's fiction. In her Introduction, Elizabeth Hardwick writes, "Redburn is rich in masterful portraits--a gallery of wild colors, pretensions and falsehoods, fleeting associations of unexpected tenderness. . . . Redburn is not a document; it is a work of art by the unexpected genius of a sailor, Herman Melville." This Modern Library Paperback Classic is set from the text of the first American edition of 1849.
Why? For starters, you will see that magnum opus in its beta format. Redburn is a first person fictional account of Melville's first sea voyage...a round trip from New York to Liverpool. The narrator, Redburn Wellingborough, even refers to himself as Ishmael. There are two prototypes of Ahab. Captain Riga, a man with a split personality - deceptively charming to recruits, at port, and aloof as a Chinese emperor, at sea. And there's a crew member, Jackson, who bullies and dominates his crew mates by the sheer force of his irascible personality. Despite his terminal illness and average size, he is intimidation personified.
But Redburn is more than just a Two Years Before the Mast (Richard Dana's classic), replete though it is with sea lore. It is a glimpse inside young Melville's mind, revealing his analytic intelligence, his attention to detail, his compassion for the unfortunate, his sensitivity to social undercurrents, his wide ranging curiosity, and his wry humor.
A good percentage of the novel concerns Redburn's explorations, while on leave, of Liverpool. Melville writes with the clarity of journalist, and probes like an investigative reporter. In one section, he is heartrending in his description of Redburn's unsuccessful attempts to get aid for a starving, dying woman and her three children. In another section, he is compelling in his argument for changing shipping safety laws to protect immigrant steerage passengers on trans-Atlantic voyages. And in a chapter revealing his naivete - in relying on a fifty year old guidebook - he is charming with self deprecating humor.
I picked this book off a store shelf on a whim, partly intrigued by the Edward Gorey cover illustration, and partly because I recalled a quote from the movie Adventureland, to the effect that Melville died in obscurity and the New York Times misreported his first name. Having finished Redburn, I am inspired to read the rest of Melville's oeuvre. His personality, his halo, his soul flashes in Redburn, like - well OK then - St Elmo's fire in Moby Dick!
"There is no counting the names, that surgeons and anatomists give to the various parts of the human body; which, indeed, is something like a ship; its bones being the stiff standing-rigging, and the sinews the small running ropes, that manage all the motions."
Here is a passage about navigation that in the era of GPS gives me shivers, "The ship lay gently rolling in the soft, subdued ocean swell; while all around were faint white spots; and nearer to, broad, milky patches, betokening the vicinity of scores of ships, all bound to one common port, and tranced in one common calm. Here the long, devious wakes from Europe, Africa, India, and Peru converged to a line, which braided them all in one."