Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reflections on Redburn

Melville, Pennsylvania Project – Book II

Redburn: His First Voyage follows Mardi chronologically in the Melville canon, which is why I moved on to it from the previous novel; otherwise, they don’t have much to do in relation with one another. In Mardi, as I mentioned in my reflections on that book, the themes are far more philosophical and ambitious than they are in the novel that followed. If you can say that Melville pulled out all the stops for Mardi, he seemed to deliberately keep his focus much narrower for Redburn, and that seems to be, by all accounts, because he wanted to attract more readers.

It seems clear that Redburn isn’t really the book he was pining to write. He did so for financial reasons, as his own writings and comments have shown. When one learns that he was recently married and had a new baby boy, and that he had no other profession than his writing career because of the success of his first two novels, it’s easy to see why he would go this route.

It’s because of these things – the smaller degree of ambition and the fact that Melville himself seemed to divorce himself from it – that you don’t hear Redburn spoken of as one of Melville’s finest achievements. Indeed, he discounted the novel, and the one that followed, called White Jacket, within a short time after they were published, saying they were written “for tobacco”. But I have to say here that Redburn is among my own personal favorites of his writings – given, of course, that I am still making my way through most of them. I would recommend it to those who wanted to read something shorter by Melville or wanted to follow-up Moby-Dick with another novel of his. (Though my general idea is that if you’re going to read only one Melville book, and it’s not going to be Moby-Dick¸ you may as well not even bother.)

Redburn is relatively short (compared to other Melville novels), it’s amusing, colorful, interesting, and written in a straight-forward but still expressive manner. It’s a well-executed coming-of-age story that, while maybe not reaching anywhere near the heights of the subsequent masterpiece Moby-Dick, still provides plenty of pleasures, even to modern readers.

For me personally, Redburn resonated for other reasons. I found myself able to relate rather profoundly to the experience of the protagonist who gives the novel its title, the young first-time sailor Wellingborough Redburn. Not much more than a boy, Redburn is thrust into an environment aboard the frigate Highlander that he has absolutely no comprehension of. I went through a very similar experience in my own life, between 1992 and 1993, when I graduated from college and went straight into the U.S. Army as an Infantry officer. There’s only one way to get past this kind of crucible, and that’s to ram straight through, accepting all the lumps that come along with it.

Sailors, and soldiers for that matter, don’t change much over time; this novel certainly makes that clear. When a “newbie” comes around in a military unit (or ship’s crew), the ones who are already serving and know something of what they are doing can smell them coming about a hundred miles off. And they are ready and waiting to pounce. When I arrived at Fort Benning’s 24th Infantry Division as a Second Lieutenant to take over a mechanized infantry platoon in January 1993 at age 22, I experienced this in living color. You don’t forget it. One would never want to go through that experience a second time. But if you make it through, at least you can carry forward knowing that things can always get worse.

Thus I both laughed and winced my way through the early chapters of Redburn in which the young protagonist takes more than his share of abuse at the hands of the rest of the crew. The high point of this was a hilarious moment when the young lad decides to take it upon himself to pay his personal respects to the Captain of the vessel in his cabin, unaware of the tremendous faux pas in terms of protocol that such a gesture amounts to. Mere cabin boys do not go to “visit” the captain of a ship any more than a private wanders into a general’s field headquarters to say hello. Such meetings occur by invitation only.

Poor Reburn dresses in his best clothes and sets off, and of course is spotted by the rest of the crew, who force out his intentions. Many of the sailors immediately set to with abuse and laughter. But there is always one particularly sadistic trouble-maker in a crowd like this who will shush everyone up so that the greenhorn can willingly make a spectacle of himself. In this case, it is a grizzled, bitter sailor called Jackson, who announces to his mates: “No, let him go – he’s a nice boy – the captain has some nuts and raisins for him.” I both howled and cringed at this. I know exactly how this feels.

Redburn moves on from that moment, and so too does the novel. This story basically has three settings: onboard the Highlander in the Atlantic Ocean, traveling between England and the United States in both directions; Liverpool, England, where the ship docks for a few weeks before returning to the United States; and, briefly, London, where Redburn travels with Harry Bolton, a curious, somewhat effeminate “sailor” who hustles his way into the crew while the ship is in Liverpool. In each of these settings Melville chronicles the young man’s eye-opening experiences, which are of a somewhat complex and unexpected character in each place.

As mentioned above, the novel does a vivid job of cataloguing the difficulties this inexperienced young man had to overcome to even survive the outward journey, being subject to constant ridicule from the rest of the crew – particularly from the crusty, doomed Jackson, who is suffering from unnamed illnesses that Melville implies are the result of a kind of moral bankruptcy. Once they arrive in Liverpool, however, the crew more or less dissipates, and fades from the story. Redburn is left on his own to explore, and here the book takes on a Charles Dickens-like aspect as he wanders around the rather squalid streets of the town and observes rampant hunger, poverty, and general depravity.

The apex of this portion of the book can be found in Redburn’s shattering discovery of a small alcove in a secluded alleyway from which he hears feeble wailing; upon further investigation, he finds a poor, suffering mother with two clearly starving little daughters, crying out for help. He dashes out on to the main street to seek assistance, but no one will give him any; he tries to get a pitcher full of water from a tavern, but has no money, and cannot convince any establishment to give it to him without him paying. Finally he returns to the harbor and fills a cloth with sea-water, like a makeshift wineskin. When he returns to give it to the woman and her children, he discovers that she is also squeezing to her body a baby that has been dead for some time. Again he goes off in search of food, and has a hard time finding any. By the time he returns to the site where he found the starving family, they are gone, and he finds the alcove “glistening with lime” instead. The descriptions here are powerful, and they rival Dickens at his best.

Later, while in Liverpool, Redburn meets Harry Bolton, a mysterious young man who seems rather refined and almost feminine. He obviously entrances Redburn, but also fills him with misgivings, as Melville makes clear on numerous ooccasions. He seems to be hanging around to try to get on board the Highlander for passage to America, where he has no prospects. First, however, he coerces Redburn to go with him to London, which the protagonist is eager to do because he is fascinated by the prospect of seeing this grand old city. He imagines Bolton will take him on a whimsical tour of London, but what actually happens is not quite what Redburn expects. Instead Bolton takes him to what amounts to a male brothel, where he basically sits around waiting while Bolton conducts his “business”. Reburn is disappointed and chagrined, but returns with Bolton to Liverpool, where they both join up again with the crew for the return passage home.

While traveling to America again, a famine overcomes the ship, and there are scenes of great suffering and panic; and Jackson, the grizzled, doomed overlord of all the sailors (by sheer force of bitter will), meets a dramatic end. Many critics see Jackson, one of Melville’s most vividly described villains, as a precursor to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick. After arriving in America, Redburn and Bolton have high hopes for being paid for their service and for making something of themselves. But instead, they are hoodwinked by the corrupt Captain Riga, receive nothing for pay, and are left to face their futures no better off than before. Bolton vanishes, never to be seen again; at the end of the novel Redburn learns that he ended up sailing on a whale ship, and drowning in an accident far away from American shores. The novel concludes with more of the bitter lessons that have characterized the rest of the story; the entire book is almost one long rude awakening, a trial by fire for a young man who chooses to live the life of a sailor.

Melville dismissed this book almost immediately, as I stated above; some people feel that he exposed some of his latent homosexual leanings in the novel, and was quick to discount the work for the sake of his reputation. Whether he was a closet homosexual or not I don’t know enough to comment on. Nor is it of much interest to this writer if he was or not. What resonates with me is the vivid depiction of hard experiences and their galvanizing effects on a young man who was so ill-prepared by life to handle them. In the end, Redburn, though beaten down repeatedly, survives his ordeal. His resiliency is not commented on much by the author, but it stands for itself. In many other of Melville’s sea novels, the main character deserts the ship in some way, often as a means of triggering the book’s primary action. Here the young man rides out the storm, and that shows that there is something to be said for the character of Wellingborough Redburn.

Further, as with all of his work, Melville’s genius, education, compassion and progressive thinking are on display here. Although this novel was an obvious attempt to eschew the broader philosophical and sometimes moral themes he was interested in and had written about in Mardi – so poorly received – it’s not so easy for a man of his intelligence and passion to completely disguise his brilliance and foresight. What amounts to side-commentaries in Redburn on issues as diverse as racism, immigration, and the multi-faceted nature of American identity still surge with Melville’s prescience and lyricism and are well worth discovering and reflecting upon, even in the 21st century.

And lest you think the 19th century is all fuss and bother with no fun at all, Redburn still exhibits a latent sense of humor. One of my favorite moments in the whole novel, which made me laugh aloud, comes when the young protagonist, while ashore in Liverpool, is invited to partake in a picnic luncheon with an older man and his three daughters, whom Redburn describes as “charmers” – i.e., hotties. Redburn waxes lyrical in recollection of their visual splendor, and goes to some length to poeticize their every action, even while they are doing something as simple as eating buttered muffins. Enthralled, he can’t help but write down what many men, witnessing the same thing, might be inclined to think: “I wished I was a buttered muffin myself.”

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Reflections on Mardi

The "Melville, Pennsylvania" Project, Book I

Here begins an occasional series, taking place during 2010 as I conduct my year-long sabbatical in “Melville, Pennsylvania”, reading and attempting to make some sense out of the works of Herman Melville. The central premise, once again, is to read books either by or about Melville exclusively throughout the entire year. The first book in the series, which I just completed, is Mardi, Melville’s third novel, published in 1849.

The reason I started with Mardi is because just last year I read Melville’s first book, 1846’s Typee, and at first I was unable to locate even a used copy of his second, Omoo, which seems as though it was a kind of sequel to the first (I finally found a copy, which is en route). So I decided to take the Melville books that I did have on hand and read them in the order they were published. I will almost certainly read Typee over again, especially if I run out of material to read before the end of this year; but I thought it would be interesting to return to that first novel again only after having experienced his later works.

Here’s what I know about what led to Mardi in Melville’s canon, and it isn’t a whole lot. He had done some sailing as a crewman on whale boats and other vessels as a young man. His first two novels, mentioned above, were both set in the South Pacific, and were thinly-veiled autobiographical stories with embellishments here and there to the best of my understanding. They were critical and commercial successes, the only books Herman Melville wrote that you can say that about, at least while he was living. His readership, such as it was, identified him with these swashbuckling stories and seemed to enjoy them immensely, but many of them did not believe that the novels were based on real experiences.

For his third novel, officially titled Mardi: And a Voyage Thither, Melville set out to write about the South Pacific region again, but this time, his idea was to deliberately make up the story from start to finish, instead of basing it on his own real experiences. As he says in his very pithy introduction (the only pithy portion of the book!), he wanted to “see whether, the fiction might not, possibly, be received for a verity: in some degree the reverse of my previous experience.”

Aside from that, it’s pretty difficult to determine exactly what Melville’s intentions were for this strange, rambling, episodic novel. It almost goes without saying to point out that people certainly don’t write novels like this one anymore, but I can’t imagine many people even of that actual time really setting their teeth into this story and being enthusiastic about it – not the general public, anyway. One reviewer even said that the book contained “ideas in so thick a haze that we are unable to perceive which is which”, according to a book by Perry Miller called The Raven and the Whale from 1956.

That reviewer, it must be noted, had it about right, from what I can tell. Readers seemed to be expecting another rip-roaring adventure, but that’s not what this novel is. It springs from a fairly conventional set-up, where a young white man deserts his whaling ship with a Scottish companion, saves a Polynesian woman from becoming a human sacrifice, falls in love with her, and then tries to hunt her down when she suddenly disappears – a voyage that takes more or less the rest of the 550-page novel. But once the unnamed protagonist heads out to try to track down the woman, by searching the entire archipelago of small, wild islands that form the grouping known as "Mardi" one island at a time, the novel drifts further and further away from adventure and more deeply into lore, obscure tribal rites, primitive theology and philosophy.

One might have seen this coming if they were astute enough, or if, like me, they had read about the book previously somewhere. After all, the small group of men the narrator bands together with to seek out Yillah, the lost woman, all of whom are native “Mardian” islanders, consists of: a “minstrel” or a singing bard, a “demigod”/monarch, an historian, a midget-like outcast who says nothing, his fellow deserter (descended from Vikings!), and a philosopher. This rollicking circus, traveling by three canoes, flits from island to island, obstensibly searching for Yillah, but also encountering bizarre kings; strange rituals; a mining colony where the slave laborers do not have souls, according to their handlers; an “Isle of Cripples”; a troupe of gold hunters; blind prophets; banquet tables at which the corpses of dead kings are seated; warriors with missing limbs; one whole island where the population is controlled by means of frequent sessions of gladiator-like games designed to kill people off; savage men who “snarl like boars”; and other oddities.

While inbetween these places, the group engages in rather elevated, and sometimes sarcastic and utterly hilarious, dialogue about everything from why we are all here to the afterlife to the virtues of smoking tobacco to the opposite sex, and all and sundry subjects otherwise.

It all makes for a very colorful mosaic of a book, fascinating material for those inclined to contemplation or for those who enjoy 19th century-style novels in which writers could, and did, feel free to wax lyrical on anything and everything. Looks like I fit into both of those categories, somehow. You learn more about exotic islands and Polynesian life than you may have ever thought possible. But to explain what it all amounts to is a gargantuan job, and certainly not one I am qualified to take on.

As the novel goes on the tangents and the language both get increasingly enigmatic and ebullient. By the time I reached one of the final chapters, where the philosopher mentioned above, called Babbalanja, is attempting to describe a religious vision he has had, I was cracking up laughing because the language became so colorful, bizarre and over-the-top that it almost seemed to be some kind of parody. The philosopher, having experienced these visions, determines that he will remain on the island where he saw them; it would be pointless, from his perspective, to continue searching for anything else no matter what it is. Eventually, the group arrives on an island where a kind of witch/female demigod figure named Hautia, whose spectre-like image and voice have been haunting the protagonist throughout the novel, reveals what actually happened to Yillah, the woman he has ostensibly been pursuing for the entire journey. It comes as an anticlimax. The reader has accepted long before this point that the search for the lost woman is a ruse, a kind of flimsy set-up.

Set-up for what, is the question. And I’ve already stated that I can’t answer it. But I can make some observations in a broad way about this novel. It certainly did make for an intriguing way to open up this experiment, because it seems to be one of Melville’s most obscure and misunderstood works. Yet he did nothing to make this novel easy to understand!

It works best, I think, as a kind of bridgework to the great Moby-Dick, and I certainly am not the first to point that out. This is because it’s not the simple, straight-up adventure narrative that Typee is and they say Omoo is also (I’ll be reading that later this year). Melville had set his novel in that region, possibly because that’s what readers had come to expect of him, but it’s clear too that he also set out to expand the reach of his novel as far as themes and ideas go. He had greater ambitions in Mardi than in his previous books; he was going to go to places “average” readers would not necessarily follow. He stated before writing the follow-up novel Redburn that he was drawn to write novels that were “bound to fail”.

But it would be a while before he tried to write that type of story again, because Mardi was a commercial and critical flop, and Melville, with a new son and a young bride, needed to make good on his literary promise in worldly terms. His next two novels, Redburn and White-Jacket, were much more conventional narratives based on his experiences cutting his teeth as a young sailor. Indeed, Redburn (Book II in my experiment), is a completely different read (and a much less arduous one, it must be said). My next installment in this blog series will contain reflections on this coming-of-age story that Melville was already discounting when he went on to write Moby-Dick in 1849-1850.

Which, indeed, brings us to the masterpiece Melville produced after the two “commercial” outings mentioned above. There’s no way to understand Mardi better than as a first attempt to combine the thrilling adventure yarns Melville was known for writing out of the gate and the philosophical/moral/religious dilemmas he became increasingly interested in as he educated himself more and continued to explore, as the back of my copy of Mardi puts it, “man’s estate on earth”.

It’s indisputable that Moby-Dick was the novel in which Melville set out to, and thrillingly accomplished, morph these two artistic pursuits together into one towering, staggering work of fiction – probably the greatest produced by an American novelist. But he never could have done this had he not written Mardi first. You don't need to be an accomplished literary critic to figure that one out. So thank God for the latter novel; if for no other reason for siring the former.