Thursday, May 27, 2010

No less an authority than Herman Melville once declared Redburn: His First Voyage to be “trash,” a work of commerce & not art. It was the fourth of the eight novels that Melville wrote in an eight-year period of immense creative output stretching from 1846 through 1853. Written after the commercial failure of Mardi, the book recounts the travels of Wellingborough Redburn as he ships out on a voyage to Liverpool & back. In it we see less of the wide-eyed autobiographical memoir of his first two books – Melville certainly is not Redburn, a supercilious young prig buffeted by the lumpen of the ship’s crew – but don’t yet find the majesterial wanderings of imagination that feed into Moby-Dick.

It is, in fact, the seams that I find most compelling in this book, which I downloaded from Gutenberg & popped as a PDF file onto the old Palm Pilot I still use for such purposes. Melville teaching himself to write is the much more fascinating tale here & anyone who has read Moby-Dick knows that the digressions are not just part of the story, but very much its essence as well.

Digression, of course, is as old as Tristram Shandy, even Don Quixote. It’s baked into the formula of the novel itself, regardless of whatever Saul Bellow & the other advocates of the invisible text might think. More interesting, at least here, are the other seams, for example Redburn’s character, which Melville struggles to separate from himself. Redburn comes away as pompous in that defensive manner overly serious young men can take on. In turn, what it tells us is that our narrator is both young & uncertain of himself. This latter part is tricky, since the tale is told retrospectively. To what degree are we to read Redburn’s callowness as an index of his youth, and to what degree is this a character flaw inherent in the man? And do we ever spy Melville himself peering through the veils?

One place would appear to be a trio of mentions of John Milton scattered throughout the book. The first two mentions are the sort of passing allusions one might expect from Buttons, as the other sailors call him, who takes his rural New York sophistication seriously, for example, saying of the drone of a particular Liverpool beggar that

it produced the same effect upon me, that my first reading of Milton's Invocation to the Sun did, years afterward.

The second occurs in the most magical passage in the entire book, Redburn’s flight of fancy in response to the hand-organ music of his friend Carlo, which invokes – among many other things – a door that “like the gates of Milton’s heaven … turns on golden binges(sic).”

But the third takes places far more curiously in a brief chapter back on The Highlander, as Redburn contemplates the brooding menace that is Jackson, the ship’s second-in-command, who has repaired to his cabin for most of the return journey as the result of an illness that could be tuberculosis or, Redburn hints, is merely feigned. A figure who some critics take as a rehearsal for, or anticipation of, Captain Ahab just two years hence, Jackson is a petty tyrant. Trying to expand upon his malevolence leads Redburn / Melville into this lengthy moment of literary exposition, entirely unlike anything to be encountered elsewhere in this book:

I can never think of [Jackson], even now, reclining in his bunk, and with short breaths panting out his maledictions, but I am reminded of that misanthrope upon the throne of the world – the diabolical Tiberius at Caprese; who even in his self-exile, imbittered (sic) by bodily pangs, and unspeakable mental terrors only known to the damned on earth, yet did not give over his blasphemies but endeavored to drag down with him to his own perdition, all who came within the evil spell of his power. And though Tiberius came in the succession of the Caesars, and though unmatchable Tacitus has embalmed his carrion, yet do I account this Yankee Jackson full as dignified a personage as he, and as well meriting his lofty gallows in history; even though he was a nameless vagabond without an epitaph, and none, but I, narrate what he was. For there is no dignity in wickedness, whether in purple or rags; and hell is a democracy of devils, where all are equals. There, Nero howls side by side with his own malefactors. If Napoleon were truly but a martial murderer, I pay him no more homage than I would a felon. Though Milton's Satan dilutes our abhorrence with admiration, it is only because he is not a genuine being, but something altered from a genuine original. We gather not from the four gospels alone, any high-raised fancies concerning this Satan; we only know him from thence as the personification of the essence of evil, which, who but pickpockets and burglars will admire? But this takes not from the merit of our high-priest of poetry; it only enhances it, that with such unmitigated evil for his material, he should build up his most goodly structure. But in historically canonizing on earth the condemned below, and lifting up and lauding the illustrious damned, we do but make examples of wickedness; and call upon ambition to do some great iniquity, and be sure of fame.

By comparison, Moby-Dick is a far more polyglot work & is able to incorporate pretty much everything – including the kitchen sink of erudition on cetaceans – precisely because of this multi-morphic sense of itself. In Redburn, the paragraph above sticks out like a tumor. There is a thrill to it, in fact, precisely on the order of watching a smash-up at the racetrack.

So the seams show & they don’t resolve or balance out. And that has a lot to do with Redburn’s charm. At one level Redburn is a mélange of vignettes yoked together by the protagonist’s narrative: I went here & I went there & I came back again. There is, in the Liverpool section of the book – at once the most interesting sociologically for its depiction of the 19th century port city & the most turgid (not enough venturing here & there), a brief trip to London with Buttons’ friend Harry, a high-born young man on the outs with his family. Narratively, it serves only to set up one twist – albeit an important one – at the book’s conclusion, a lot of set-up for very little payback. But it also stretches the book out right at a moment when even the author appears to recognize that it’s slow going, giving the manuscript the weight to pass itself off as a novel & offering the reader hope that it will all get more interesting going forward. One senses such scaffolding pretty much everywhere here, tho it hardly matters. Melville on a bad day is still far livelier & more interesting than 99 percent of novelists on their very best.