Sunday, July 27, 2014


I first read REDBURN: HIS FIRST VOYAGE by Herman Melville about 25 years ago. I had never read MOBY-DICK, and my strategy was to read REDBURN first before tackling the great white whale. Perhaps it was a good strategy, because I found REDBURN quite an intriguing and compelling read, and devoured it in just a few sittings. I had picked up this old paperback edition from Anchor Books, with a gorgeous cover by Edward Gorey. It was a most memorable read, although it was topped easily by my reading MOBY-DICK a year later (MOBY-DICK being my favourite book of all time, for sure). But I'm grateful to Edward Gorey for the sexy cover, which made me buy the book in the first place (probably at Avol's Books in Madison, Wisconsin) ... and grateful to myself for rationalizing it as part of my strategy to read MOBY-DICK without fear. I think it worked. It eliminated the intimidation factor, so that I sailed straight into MOBY-DICK with an open heart. Now, this weekend (ending 27 July 2014), I've just reread REDBURN for the second time, and it's amazing how it holds up just as well for me now as it did when I was younger. I absolutely adore this book, telling of a novice sailor's very first voyage, from New York to Liverpool (and with an exotic side journey to London) and back. Melville himself wrote it 'for the money' and rattled it off very quickly to help him feed his family; he considered it to be 'trash' and had very low regard for the finished product. Which only goes to show what poor judges authors can be of their own work. REDBURN is a real gem, totally unique (even among the annals of sailing literature), and is generous, open, and empathetic in its portraits of the sailors and others who young Wellingborough Redburn meets along the way. Even the evil sailor Jackson is drawn sympathetically, so that we understand as far as the narrator can what Jackson is about, even if we fail to comprehend why any human being could have such a foul nature. And there is the obvous gay subtext to Redburn's friendly relations with the effeminate dandy Harry Bolton, as well as his rapturous adoration of Carlo, the young Italian steerage passenger of exceeding beauty and charm. The realistic depictions of the horrors of an emigrant vessel, loaded to the brim with destitute Irish emigrants on the return voyage from Liverpool to New York, makes one realize that in the early 19th century, many emigrant vessels were barely more humane than a slave ship. For those of us whose Irish ancestors came over about this time (1830's or so), it's quite eye-opening to consider the extreme hardships of such a voyage. For lucky Wellingborough Redburn, the whole thing is an amazing adventure that helps usher him from boyhood to manhood and allows him to witness the very best and very worst of human nature in the microcosm of a humble merchant sailing vessel. REDBURN is a great novel, no matter what Melville thought. It's no MOBY-DICK, but then neither is anything else in this universe.