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Redburn
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2001
There are those who read Moby-Dick and say they love it because they're supposed to, because it's marked as a classic American novel; and then there are those who love Moby-Dick because its miraculous prose, its Shakespearean characters and its spirit truly get inside them. Redburn is for the second group: any real fan of Melville's unique philosophy and thorough mastery of style will love this book. Redburn is, to be sure, no Moby-Dick -- it has none of the epic quality of that crowning jewel. But all of Melville's trademarks are here, in a plot which transcends its simple outline -- a boy from a formerly rich, now bankrupt family joins the crew of a merchant ship sailing to Liverpool and comes of age -- to reach the realm of genius. The poetically beautiful imagery and sparkling wit juxtaposed with profound melancholy jump out at the reader. But even more importantly, Redburn opens up a unique window on Herman Melville's soul. Elizabeth Hardwick, in her recent biography of Melville (which I also highly recommend), calls this his most personal work, and she's right -- where later works like Moby-Dick and Billy Budd hid Melville's real experiences behind an obscuring (if brilliant) curtain of fiction and the earliest novels like Typee and Omoo lacked depth in their rollickingly faithful accounts of Melville's sojourns among the Polynesians, Redburn has just the right balance of fact and fiction. It is in many ways a meditation on the author's once-illustrious father -- Allan Melville, who, just like Walter Redburn (the narrator's father) lost all his money and respect -- but it is equally a series of revelations about his youthful mind as he mulls over issues of time, the generational gap and social change. Read Redburn for a real glimpse of the man who would be the greatest American novelist.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2000
"Redburn" is a fantastic story. It is complex, funny and mysterious. Using Wellingborough Redburn as his persona and narrator, Melville writes of his first voyage overseas, when as a young man of 19 he signs on as a common seaman on board the "Highlander", a merchant ship bount for Liverpool, England. In the first few chapters Redburn seems to be mocking himself, using a tongue-in-cheek tone as he describes his romantic notions of sailing to distant lands and his ineptitude as a sailor during his first weeks at sea. The crew mocks him because he is such a poor seaman; they humiliate and tease him. As the story evolves, Redburn becomes more objective and contemplative. He becomes an acute observer in recording the harshness of a sailor's life and in describing the individual characteristics of the Highlander's crew, especially one Jackson, a malignant and powerful sailor who dominates the crew with his relentless venom.
In Liverpool, Redburn meets Harry Bolton, a young man who attracts and fascinates him. Harry is obviously a gentleman, and although he is muscular and well built, he exudes a feminine charm. Harry is evasive about his past. Harry intrigues Redburn. Redburn admires Harry although he suspects him of an indefinable evil. Despite his misgivings about Harry, Redburn helps him get a job on the Highlander which, with 500 immigrants who board the ship in Liverpool embarks for America. Melville, through his alter ego, Redburn, tells of the harrowing problems on board the Highlander on the voyage back to America. He describes his strange, ongoing friendship with Harry who proves to be a terrible sailor. And he describes in penetrating detail the awful, slow death of Jackson and its effect on the crew.
Some Melville aficionados have implied that Melville reveals homosexual longings in describing Harry Bolton and his attraction to him. But I feel that Melville, like the poet he is, transcends gender when he focuses on the sensuous nature of form, whether ugly or beautiful. "Redburn" is an exalting story of a young man's first voyage. It involves the reader both physically and spiritually.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2008
A tough initiation to sea life for the frustrated and angry young man from the suddenly impoverished family with the formerly wealthy background. His father has died, leaving the mother and several kids without means. Wealthy aunts and uncles do little.
He goes to sea, but starts on a wrong foot. The 'Highlander' takes him from New York to Liverpool as a 'boy', but based on the misunderstanding that he is wealthy and that his family is looking after him. Hence he has the whole crew against him.
He is excessively ill positioned: a non-drinker and non-smoker, a church-goer and book-reader, overdressed but without the means and the know-how to bring the right clothes and shoes, overeducated, but w/o any sea knowledge, and with conceipts of being a 'gentleman', who might be expected to call on the captain, underequipped (not even the cup and plate for taking his coffee and food rations), and with no instinct for the right kind of etiquette in the circumstances.
This is possibly Melville's most personal book, nearest the 'real' experience, much more so than the South Sea adventures, which stay strictly away from the inner world of the man. He exposes his own ridiculousness in a merciless way. He then talks down his literary effort as just work for money, but since when was that a proof of low quality?
Appropriately I started reading this treasure on August 1; which however was not a sheer coincidence, rather I read in my calendar that it was HM's birthday, so I thought, what better starting point for volume 2 of the LoA Melville.
Considering that this book was first published in 1849, one has to pay attention to the language. Though he was not entirely free from the mannerisms of the epoch, all in all the freshness and directness of the narration is overwhelming. The narrator has the lovely name Wellingborough Redburn, and he is clearly to a large extent modelled on young Melville himself.
As a typical American of his time, he thinks, like a majority would probably still think today , that Hamburg is in Holland, if at all anywhere outside the Golden Arches.
Young Redburn tries to read the Wealth of Nations, given him by his brother's friend before departure; this turns out to be a particularly lost cause. The encounter fails. It is misplaced in social strata as well as in age group. Maybe good for a Caribbean Cruise, hardly for a North Atlantic Crossing in mid 19th century.
While the ship docks in Liverpool, the young man spends some spare time looking around, and one gets the impression that it helps him growing up. He meets a new friend, the mysterious and tragic Harry, who remains a companion during the stay in England and the return trip.
The return is dominated by tragedy at sea. The Highlander takes a load of Irish emigrants to New York, boarding under lamentable conditions. When the ship runs into prolonged bad weather, there is famine and a cholera epidemic on board, with not a few casualties.
Melville's comments on the way this emigration business is done, together with his observations on poverty in England (reminiscent of Engels and Dickens) and his few comments on slavery and race relations make him sound far ahead of his time in terms of social enlightenment.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2010
Melville notoriously said that he wrote "Redburn" strictly to make money, this after the dismal commercial failure of his third book, "Mardi." Unlike that difficult and metaphysical work, "Redburn" was to be "nothing but cakes and ale" in its recounting of Melville's first voyage at sea. The story of 15-year-old Wellingborough Redburn (Melville himself was actually 20 years old on his first voyage) is indeed entertaining, and frequently very humorous, but it is certainly not a throwaway potboiler. It's a classic bildungsroman, the story of a naïve youth who is forced to grow up fast under trying circumstances. "Redburn" was written only two years prior to "Moby Dick," and Redburn strikes the reader as a younger Ishmael. Redburn, with little money in his wallet and no prospects on shore, becomes a hired hand on a ship, although this one is bound for England rather than on a doomed quest for the White Whale.

Melville brilliantly sets the stage for Redburn's rude awakening among the hardened and bullying crew. Redburn is completely ill-suited - literally and figuratively - for his first trip at sea. He's equipped with a completely useless jacket that ends up shrinking in the rain and pinching his skin. His sheltered background also provides him just enough education and snobbishness to get him into trouble with his crewmates. The early scenes in which he first meets up with the crew, including the hypocritical captain (whom you will truly grow to hate), are hilarious. Redburn also encounters the satanic Jackson, one of Melville's most grimly fascinating characters. His subsequent experiences provide some hard-earned lessons.

This is a highly accessible novel, with a more succinct and spare style than you will find anywhere else in Melville. But this is still Melville, and he couldn't write a strictly straightforward tale to save his life, and that's a good thing, for it means we still occasionally get his wise digressions on life, social issues and other matters. It also seems to be Melville's most personal story. You get the sense that Melville must've been shaking his head at some of the memories from his own youth as he describes the adventures and misfortunes of Redburn. This is a great and unforgettable coming-of-age story.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 1999
I'm one of those people who have read MOBY DICK a few times, so I may be biased towards Herman Melville, but I found REDBURN an excellent read.
Though it is an argueable point; many believe that REDBURN is based on Melville's first voyage. This may not be interesting to you if you are an adherent of NEW CRITICISM, but for any Melville fan or scholar this book sheds some light on Melville's persona.
I noticed some elements of REDBURN that would later surface in MOBY DICK and PIERRE -- as more developed themes. This book starts out as pretty straight forward adventure narrative, but leave it to Herman, by the middle of the book he goes off into his preaching, sermonizing, and editorializing . . . but I like that about Melville.
This might sound strange coming from a Melvillian 'scholar,' but Herman Mellville was not a good writer . . . he is an interesting author though, but he makes mistakes, and he often takes his stories through such long and twisted circumloctions that it is no wonder that many modern readers are turned off by him. However, if you love Melville despite his flaws then you will love REDBURN, because it shows the progress that Melville was making towards THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, MOBY-DICK.
Herman Melville did not much care for REDBURN when he wrote it. He wrote it quickly and for the money, and then he tried to distance himself from it. He felt MARDI, the novel he wrote just before REDBURN, was the better, but it was panned. On the other hand, REDBURN recieved good reiviews in its day much to Melville's suprise . . . I learned all this in the afterword of the Northwest-Newberry Edition. The detailed history of REDBURN included in that edition is pretty interesting reading in itself if you are a Mevillian, like me.
I apologize for any typos . . . but no spell-check.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2009
Herman Melville had quickly achieved renown as a writer with his first novel 'Typee' in 1846. Just over three years later, his success as a novelist hit a brick wall when his attempt at a more ambitious project (his third novel, 'Mardi') was a resounding flop, critically and financially. Once it was clear to Melville that his glorious experiment was a failure, he quickly produced another book to recapture his public. Written in a style that had more in common with 'Typee' and 'Omoo', Melville's fourth novel achieved little notice. In fact, Melville would never again enjoy even modest success as a writer.

This is unfortunate, because 'Redburn' is his best book to this point. Although his writing returns to the crisp style employed for his South Sea adventure tales, the focus has shifted to recount his experiences as a greenhorn sailor on a ship going from New York harbor to Liverpool and returning with a cargo of immigrants. Like 'Typee', Melville uses the story to alternately entertain, inform, and communicate a particular point. Unlike his colorful first novel, however, 'Redburn' is much darker in tone.

The protagonist, Wellingborough Redburn, is a young man of good birth who, due to reduced fortune, has decided to ship as a sailor. Redburn's sometimes florid expectations regarding etiquette, as well as his lack of experience with the sea, make him the perfect narrator for a modern reader who likely knows as little as he does. Melville's knowledge of sailing ships helps him set the stage as he shows how even in words, a greenhorn can get into trouble, and this also tinges the story with a realism that is bracing. I found myself very engaged with Redburn as a person, for he is easily Melville's most fully realized character to this point. Even when I could see poor Redburn was making a big mistake, I could relate to him as he tried to make the best of his situation. I keenly felt his homesickness, his loneliness, and especially his joy at the end of his voyage.

Melville also does a good job depicting an array of secondary characters which really come alive as people. There's the pretentious Captain Riga, ill-fated Harry Bolton, the sinister Jackson, and a romantically sketched Italian immigrant named Carlo. This helps color the tapestry of experiences Redburn meets on his voyage, including learning how to get by as a greenhorn, the rampant poverty he finds in Liverpool, seeing an Indian vessel, and the realities of immigration at this time. This last is most interesting as an eye-opening dose of reality about what it took for many of our ancestors to come to America. Not a pretty picture at all.

Melville has several themes that he explores in the pages of 'Redburn' although he does so without sacrificing his plot or without resorting to the pompous overwriting that sank 'Mardi'. First, there is the painful consciousness Redburn has of his former station in life and his current poverty. This flows easily into his experiences with the poor of Liverpool and the exploitation of immigrants. He is also sympathetic to the sailor's life, with some hair-raising episodes relating to the drinking and dissipation that overtakes many of them. Lastly, there is the coming of age of Redburn himself. At the start of the voyage, he is as green as green can be and a bit of a snob. By the end, he has a lot more common sense and is even a guide for his friend Harry. One definitely feels Redburn has learned from and even is glad of his adventures and that he will meet his situation in life with more success because of his sea voyage.

Altogether, 'Redburn' is Melville's tightest and most rewarding book yet. The darker tone does not depress or overwhelm the material, but rather renders the narrative more true-to-life and thereby enhances the dramatic tension of the story. Unfortunately, Melville couldn't appreciate his own creation and only reluctantly retreated from the pretenses of 'Mardi'. In his letters, he was quite open about how he only wrote 'Redburn' to make money.

This suggests to me that Melville's weakness as a writer was that he had no sense that simply written prose does not equate to simple-minded prose. Instead, he apparently linked pretentious, ornate text with art. If only he had realized the soul of a book is more important that the words it's wrapped in, he might never have ruined his career with 'Mardi' and maybe he could have better appreciated the excellent book he created with 'Redburn'.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I decided to celebrate this past Memorial Day by revisiting a classic American novel. I settled upon Herman Melville's "Redburn: His First Voyage" (1849).

"Redburn" was Melville's fourth novel and followed upon the visionary book, "Mardi". The author readjusted his course briefly to write a realistic, semi-autobiographical novel centering upon a sea voyage. Author's frequently are poor judges of their own work; and so, Melville spoke disparagingly of "Redburn".

The novel is both a coming-of-age story and a depiction of a changing United States. In its portrayal of a naive young man losing his innocence, the book reminded me of a later Huckleberry Finn and his journey down the Mississippi River. Wellingborough Redburn's journey was of longer scope: from New York City to Liverpool, England and back on a sailing merchant vessel, the Highlander. Melville makes much of names as a sign of change and character. Young Wellingborough is part of a distinguished once-wealthy family. His uncle had been a United States Senator and his family had been influential in Revolutionary days. With his father's bankruptcy, the family and Wellingborough fall on hard times. Wellingborough is a reader, a teetoler, and a churchgoer. Much of the force of the book derives from the rude awakening to life he receives both during his voyage and on land. The sailors quickly change the young man's name from Wellingborough to "Buttons".

Redburn tells his story in his own voice which gives the novel a degree of intimacy. But the chapter headings, such as the first, "How Wellingborough Redburn's Taste for the Sea was Born and Bred in him" all speak of the protagonist in the third person. Much of the writing in the book seems detached from the narrator as well. Thus the book also manages to convey a sense of distance. This combination of perspectives is one of many instances of studied ambiguity in this seemingly straightforward story.

Redburn is an innocent at sea, and Melville makes much of his dress, his character, and his tastes in contrast with the rough, lonely, brutal life of the American sailor in the 19th Century. Much of the book is in a bantering tone, but a great deal is also tragic. Here and in his better-known books, Melville is enigmatic.

Besides telling the story of Redburn's transformation, the novel shows a change in the United States from the genteel character of the hero's grandparents and parents to the raw, expanding nation in the decades before the Civil War. Some of the best scenes in the novel occur at land, in Redburn's wandering the streets and ports of New York City before and after his voyage. During the voyage and while in England, Melville is again thoughtful and many sided. The book portrays the possibilities of the United States with its oppenness to diversity, to settlement, and new ideas (as compared with much of what Redburn sees in England). It also points out the slavery, poverty, and hard laissez-faire economy (Redburn is a reader of Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations") of the young, growing United States.

The book is lengthy but reads relatively quickly. It is organized into 62 short chapters. The narrative moves smoothly and chronologically. The book can be divided into the following sections: 1. Redburn's life before the voyage and the considerations which led him to the sea; 2. the voyage from New York City to Liverpool; 3. Redburn's six-week stay in Liverpool; 4. the return voyage to New York City which features a storm at sea and an epidemic among the steerage passengers; 5. a short concluding section about Redburn in New York following the voyage.

The book proceeds largely in short scenes with characters moving in and out. Redburn himself is the central character. But other inividuals, including the lost, forbidding seaman, Jackson, Redburn's rakishly handsome and reckless young friend Harry Bolton, and the conniving Captain Riga of the Highlander receive strong portrayals. The best scenes in the book take place in Liverpool and London, in dives, docks, cheap saloons and gaming houses as Redburn receives an unforgettable exposure to life's cruelties.

In its portrayal of a changing American character and a changing United States, "Redburn" proved an appropriate choice for thinking about the Unite States over Memorial Day. I was pleased to have the opportunity to revisit Melville and to reread with more understanding a book I had read long ago.

Robin Friedman
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2005
Redburn refers to the main character of the novel Wellingborough Redburn, a young lad from New York who embarks on his first voyage to England as a member of the sailing crew. It is the story of lost innocence, breaking away from the comforts of home and country to experience life on one's own. Melville captures poetically, Redburn's journey, observations, feelings, and dark reality of life in pre-civil war America and England. If you have never read Melville before, this is a page turning introduction to a very much admired author. His style of writing is poetic, and clever and his narrative captures the feelings and thoughts of the time. I highly recommend it.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2005
"If journals interest you, than by all means this is an excellent book" Heck yes,journals interest me- especially sea journals. Though this may not be a book for literary snobs, i enjoyed it very much. The story is supposed to be fiction, but I could easily believe Melville was describing scenes that he had personally witnessed. It must have been like writing his own journal, with keen insights into strange human quirks and scattered with observations about social issues like poverty and immigration. Not every book has to be a masterpiece to be worth reading! I just finished reading Billy Budd, and it was heavy going compared to the simpler language of Redburn.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2010
Wellingborough Redburn is a 15 year old boy from a sheltered middle class background. He is determined to go to sea, to sail for England and enlists as a boy on the Highlander. Slowly his romantic illusions of seamanship are eroded by harsh realities and cruelties.In Liverpool his romantacised England is swept away...
Essentially a memoir of 'A First Voyage' based on Melvilles own experiences-and written for commercial reasons(Melvilles previous novel had flopped)-the sum total of 'Redburn' is so much more.It is an extremely important and enlightening social and historical documentation of early Victorian seafaring and trading, its social make up and paints vividly a (then) wealthy and important Liverpool that would be an invaluable aid to anyone researching that era in the City's life. Indeed, Melvilles account of the conditions of the emigrants on the return journey and the record of a ship bound plague were somehow very familiar. Books like O'Connor's 'Star of the Sea' most surely used 'Redburn' as a source!( I may outrageously suggest even Dicken's! His later books featured a 'spontaneous human combustion', and his last complete work 'Our Mutual Friend' well over a decade after 'Redburn' spoke of the hideous people who made a living from fishing corpses out of the river.)
And brooding just under the suface you feel 'Moby Dick' forming in Melvilles imagination; the ship as a microcosm of life; the inherent evils of men; the religious undertones and of course, mention of whaling.
'Redburn' is 100% accessible and an ideal read before embarking on 'Moby Dick' Indeed, I wish I had read this before 'Moby Dick', it illuminates so much of Melvilles thinking.
Its a shame people probably only read Melville for college courses or such like. 'Redburn' is a great novel to read at any time.
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