American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

REDBURN: HIS FIRST VOYAGE (1849). Redburn, the third novel written by Herman Melville* (1819-1891), is based on Melville’s first sea voyage, a journey from New York to Liverpool in 1837. The novel’s narrator, Wellingborough Redburn, is an adolescent New Yorker whose middle-class family has fallen on hard times. Filled with romantic visions of seafaring, he joins an American merchantman as ship’s boy and is rapidly disillusioned through repeated encounters with the brutal realities of shipboard life.

On the voyage out, Redburn’s ideal of manhood is challenged by Jackson, a sickly, diabolical, and misanthropic slacker who corrupts the entire crew. During six weeks in Liverpool, Redburn encounters the inhumanity of the British class system as he helplessly observes an impoverished mother and three children starve to death in a basement. Harry Bolton, an aristocratic young Englishman, introduces Redburn to the vices of London and later dies on a whaling cruise. On his return voyage, Redburn describes how the Irish immigrants suffer from cholera, starvation, and other miserable conditions in steerage.

Although Melville considered the book a potboiler, it presents a vivid picture of transatlantic voyage* and a moving portrayal of a young man’s initiation into the moral complexities of a world governed by greed and commercialism.

Dennis Berthold