Book Review: REDBURN

redburn cover

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am a Melville nerd. I am a big enough Melville nerd that I have the last line of “Bartleby the Scrivener” tattooed on my arm. I am a big enough nerd that reading Moby Dick wasn’t enough for me–I followed it up with Redburn.

Here’s the thing: Redburn is an early effort that’s passable in its own right, but really doesn’t prepare you for the genius gamechanger it’s laying the groundwork for. You just don’t see anything like Moby Dick coming based on Redburn. Which is not to say Redburn isn’t a good book, or an enjoyable one, or one worth reading (especially if you, like me, are struck with an incredibly geeky urge to go all completionist and read everything Melville wrote). But it does mean that reading Redburn after reading Melville’s legitimately more famous and better-regarded books is a peculiar experience.

To just take the book on its own terms, devoid of context or history or knowledge of what comes after, Redburn is at its heart a tale of a boy just coming to terms with the fact that his view of the world, and in particular his understanding of it as a fair and just place, has been shattered. It’s a pretty standard story of innocence lost and adulthood gained, told in hindsight by an older version of Wellingborough Redburn himself (and isn’t that a hell of a name?*) who seems slightly embarassed at just how naive he was way back in the day. This theme is nested throughout the book, starting with the economic collapse of his father to the inherent unfairness of life on the sea, to the inherent unfairness of poverty he’s first exposed to in Liverpool. The scope of the book gradually grows, like going from the innermost matroushka doll to the outermost one, which is a neat little trick on Melville’s part and rings very true for anyone who’s grappled with forging his or her own worldview in adolescence.

And the writing is lovely. Here, like in Moby Dick or “Bartleby,” Melville is telling you a story through someone else telling you a story. And one thing that keeps me coming back to Melville time and again is just that: that he tells you a story. The writing here is intimate and immediate, like you’re sitting in a comfortably overstuffed armchair with Redburn and he’s recounting his youthful exploits to you — just you — over a cup of tea. In fact, it’s a little bit purer here in Redburn than in anything else I’ve read by him. It’s got more scope than “Bartleby” by virtue of its length alone and unlike Moby Dick, where Ishmael himself starts to fade in and out of the narrative, Redburn is always front and center. It’s Redburn telling Redburn’s story (as opposed to the rather elderly gentleman telling you about Bartleby or Ishmael telling you about the Pequod) and Redburn, luckily, has the wit and grace as a reflective narrator to carry it.

But if I’m being honest, I think the only people who would be willing to read Redburn and enjoy it are people like me who have already signed on for the Herman Melville Experience once and don’t mind coming back for more. And since that’s the case, the truth of the matter is that Redburn is most interesting to read in the context of Melville more broadly. In Redburn, you see what is essentially the first pass at themes and archetypes Melville will use to much greater and deeper effect later on. In particular, Jackson reads like a more malicious and less conflicted version of Claggart. And Redburn himself reads as a terribly naive and less observant version of Ishmael. Perhaps Ishmael ten or fifteen years before he set foot on the Pequod. Redburn, like Ishamel, is more educated and more refined than the others on his boat, and Redburn (like Ishmael) finds himself falling into very close, very fast (and very homoerotic) friendships with foreigners as soon as he gets the chance. As in Benito Cereno, Melville’s ambivalence towards America — its grandeur built on foundations of injustice, its insularity, its conformity that can (as far as Melville seems to be aware) only be escaped by shipping out to sea — becomes a dominant theme.

And more than that, Redburn gives a great deal of insight into Melville himself. If Ishmael is more or less an idealized version of Melville, Redburn is clearly who Melville thought he once was. The parallels between Redburn and Melville are striking (so striking that my copy of Redburn has an appendix which notes chapter by chapter aspects of Melville’s own first voyage that he fictionalized for the book). Redburn is a book about a young man whose education and experiences lead him to sea totally unprepared, one who has to adapt without any clear guidance, and who in the process finds life at sea both utterly freeing and constraining, and really that young man is Herman Melville and not Wellingborough Redburn. It’s not so surprising, then, that Melville was dismissive of Redburn. He wrote it fast and wrote it for the money and frankly, you can tell. It’s an overly long, highly digressive travelogue of a book where you find yourself sifting through random chapters about churches in Liverpool and Redburn’s father’s unusable guidebook before Melville eventually gets around to anything resembling a plot again. This technique works a lot better in Moby Dick, but even there people find it annoying.

But I can’t help but wonder if he was dismissive of it because it was a little exposing to him, too. Writing it that fast perhaps meant that it’s more raw, more reflective of parts of himself he wasn’t fond of, and when all is said and done that’s what will stick with me most about this book.

4 stars

* His name, despite what the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition of the book would have you believe, is actually Wellingborough Redburn and not Wellington Redburn. Shame on you, Penguin Classics, shame on you.

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