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Melville in Love

Jackson’s end comes on the return voyage when the ship is off Cape Cod. He orders “haul out to windward” and with a torrent of blood gushing from his lungs falls into the sea. Melville has imagined this ruined man with a visual and moral brilliance, shown his repellent body with an awful precision, and yet consider his concluding feelings about the miserable Jackson:

He was a Cain afloat, branded on his yellow brow with some inscrutable curse, and going about corrupting and searing every heart that beat near him. But there seemed even more woe than wickedness about the man; and his wickedness seemed to spring from his woe; and for all his hideousness, there was that in his eye at times, that was ineffa-bly pitiable and touching; and though there were moments when I almost hated this Jackson, yet I have pitied no man as I pitied him.

Jackson’s woe, Ahab’s “close-coiled woe,” and Melville’s woe in his youth. Redburn was written ten years after the first journey, after the publication of the three previous books. It is a return to his voyage on the St. Lawrence, but he has made Redburn a boy, a lad, a shabby waif even though when he himself set sail he was nineteen years old and there is no reason to believe he came on in tatters like the men prowling the waterfront, homeless, illiterate, and wasted. Still when Melville looked back he did so as a writer and magically created Redburn for the purposes of a kind of fiction and for his memories of Liverpool, his first foreign city. The personal accent of the opening pages of grief and forlornness are so striking that they may be read as a memory of the twelve-year-old Melville, the time of his father’s death. Redburn carries his father’s out-of-date guide to Liverpool and walks the streets in a mood of filial homage. “How differently my father must have appeared; perhaps in a blue coat, buff vest, and Hessian boots. And little did he think, that a son of his would ever visit Liverpool as a poor friendless sailor-boy.” What Melville’s eye perceives and how his intelligence judges it were quite apart from the conventional sightseeing of the charming dandy, his father. Instead, on a Liverpool street called Launcelott’s-Hey, among the dreary, dingy warehouses, Redburn hears a feeble wail that leads to a searing dirge.

In a cellar beneath the old warehouse, he sees a figure who “had been a woman.” On her livid breast there are “two shrunken things like children.” They have crawled into the space to die. The sailor inquires about the terrible sight, questions ragged, desperate old women in the alleys. The old beggarly people, destitute themselves, are contemptuous of the ghastly family group who have had nothing to eat for three days. A policeman shrugs; the lady at Redburn’s rooming house refuses help; the cook, when asked for food, “broke out in a storm of swearing.” Redburn snatches some bread and cheese and drops it down the vault. Frail hands grasped at the food but were too weak to catch hold. There is a murmuring sound asking “faintly [for] something like ‘water”’ and Redburn runs to a tavern for a pitcher, refused unless he pays for it as he cannot. In his tarpaulin hat he draws water from Boodle Hydrants and returns to the vault.

The two girls drank out of the hat together; looking up at me with an unalterable, idiotic expression, that almost made me faint. The woman spoke not a word, and did not stir…. I tried to lift the woman’s head; but, feeble as she was, she seemed bent upon holding it down. Observing her arms still clasped upon her bosom, and that something seemed hidden under the rags there, a thought crossed my mind, which impelled me forcibly to withdraw her hands for a moment; when I caught a glimpse of a meager little babe, the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor, but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead some hours….

When I went to dinner, I hurried into Launcelott’s-Hey, where I found that the vault was empty. In place of the woman and children, a heap of quick-lime was glistening.

The scene of tragic extremity is composed with a rhetorical brilliance: the dying children with “eyes, and lips, and ears like any queen,” with hearts which, “though they did not bound with blood, yet beat with a dull, dead ache that was their life”; and the dramatic insertion of pushing the mother’s arm aside to reveal yet another being, a dead baby; and the return the next day to find the hole filled with glistening quicklime. Here we have the last rites, a gravestone offered for a street burial, a requiem for a hole in Launcelott’s-Hey—the majestic reverence of Herman Melville.

Redburn visits the noted sights of Liverpool, hears the Chartist soapbox orators, street singers, men selling verses on current murders and other happenings; pawn shops, the impoverished dredging the river for bits of rope, the rush of life that brings to mind Dickens and also Mayhew’s study of the obscure populace in London Labour and the London Poor. Throughout Melville’s writings there is a liberality of mind, a freedom from vulgar superstition, occasions again and again for an oratorical insertion of enlightened opinion. Note a side glance in Liverpool, written in the year 1849:

Three or four times, I encountered our black steward, dressed very handsomely, and walking arm in arm with a good-looking English woman. In New York, such a couple would have been mobbed in three minutes; and the steward would have been lucky to have escaped with whole limbs. Owing to the friendly reception extended to them, and the unwonted immunities they enjoy in Liverpool, the black cooks and stewards on American ships are very much attached to the place and like to make voyages to it…at first I was surprised that a colored man should be treated as he is in this town; but a little reflection showed that, after all, it was but recognizing his claims to humanity and normal equality; so that, in some things we Americans leave to other countries the carrying out of the principle that stands at the head of our Declaration of Independence.

Sentiment and agitation for the emancipation of the slaves was common enough in the Northeast at the time, but Melville’s “reflection” was a stretch of opinion to include the right of a black man and a white woman to mingle as they wished socially and, he seems to be saying, sexually. When the Civil War arrived, Melville followed it with some distress of spirit about the slaughter. Around the conflict he wrote, in Battle-Pieces, the finest of his poems.

In the docks Redburn observes the emigrants crowding into the ships to make their way to America. Again Melville speaks:

There was hardly any thing I witnessed in the docks that interested me more than the German emigrants who come on board the large New York ships several days before their sailing, to make everything comfortable ere starting…. And among these sober Germans, my country counts the most orderly and valuable of her foreign population…. There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled, that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes…. You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world…. Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world;…we are without father or mother.*

2.

The last pages of Redburn introduce the ineffable Harry Bolton, a young Englishman met on the Liverpool docks. Bolton is perfectly formed, “with curling hair, and silken muscles…. His complexion was a mantling brunette, feminine as a girl’s; his feet were small; his hands were white; and his eyes were large, black, and womanly; and, poetry aside, his voice was as the sound of a harp.” A warm friendship develops and in the fiction Redburn and Bolton go from Liverpool to London for a curious bit of private tourism. In London there is a remarkable visit to a male brothel—a strange, fastidiously observed, rococo urban landscape unlike any other dramatic intrusion in Melville’s writings or in American literature at the time.

Some commentators speculate that Melville’s dislike of Redburn was owing to his subsequent realization that he had exposed his own homoerotic longings. Whatever his unconscious or privately acknowledged feelings may have been, Melville was innocent of the instinct for self-protection on the page. The readers of his own time, the publishers and booksellers do not seem to have paused before the enthusiastic and relishing adjectives surrounding male beauty. Hershel Parker’s monumental biography has gathered the reviews, and the complaint about the Harry Bolton pages is that they are an unsuitable “intrusion,” largely for reasons of fictional crafting. Parker quotes an odd mention of the alliance between Redburn and Harry Bolton: “A dash of romance thrown in amongst a cluster of familiar and homely incidents” is the quotation; impossible to parse except as an instance of the relaxed language and hasty reading of reviewers for the press.

In Redburn, the boat is in the Liverpool harbor and the crew is free to roam the city, and Melville is free to have his young hero meet the intriguing person named Harry Bolton. Bolton is lifelike as a certain type of frenzied, melodramatic young homosexual down on his luck and as such he is as embarrassing and interesting as life itself. Redburn, that is, Melville at his desk, is both accepting and suspicious of Harry, but there is everything about the encounter as told that seems to reveal either a striking innocence of heart and mind or a defiance in offering the scenes to the public. Nothing in the early parts of the novel would lead us to anticipate the extravagant, interesting, sudden dive into a richly decorated underworld.

The two meet on the streets of Liverpool and Redburn is immediately attracted. Harry is not a dumb, deadened fish in the human pool of the seamen; he is a friendly stranger, an English youth, fluent in self-creation. It is difficult to imagine how this handsome youth with the perfectly formed legs and so on, this “delicate exotic from the conservatories of some Regent-street,” came to the “potato-patches of Liverpool.” In a bar, Harry will be chatting about the possibility of going to America and thus the friendship with this “incontrovertible son of a gentleman” begins. Harry will tell his story: born in the old city of Bury St. Edmunds, orphaned, but heir to a fortune of five thousand pounds. Off to the city, where with gambling sportsmen and dandies his fortune is lost to the last sovereign.

  1. *

    Philip Rahv, in a collection of essays, Discovery of Europe (Houghton Mifflin, 1947), reprints passages from Redburn and comments about the description of the German emigrants: “An extraordinarily moving celebration of the hopes lodged in the New World and one of the noblest pleas in our literature for the extinction of national hatreds and racial prejudice.”

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