Thursday, December 8, 2011

Redburn: His First Voyage

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Herman Melville writing a book about the travails of going to sea, what a shocker. Write what you know is the mantra and Melville does it, and does it a lot. But if you think you're going to get another Moby Dick, well, you're wrong my friend. While Ismael puts the reader through torturous never-ending descriptions of whales, Wellingborough Redburn is a more interesting narrator, yeah I said it. Redburn is a painfully naive kid from up the Hudson who decides it would be a great adventure to head across the Atlantic and see England. He comes from a formerly wealthy family and carries himself as such. Everything we see in Redburn comes through his inexperienced eyes. The picture of New York City in the 1840s is amazing. The thriving port is a living, breathing place full of characters, beautiful ships and not so beautiful goings on. After Redburn finds a job on the Highlander he's in over his head for the entire book.
The first thing I want to cover is the voice in this book. It's semiautobiographical and Redburn is a greenhorn. He looks down on the sailors for their manners and habits. Drinking and smoking and any other vice is not pooh poohed as much as it is looked on with shock and a desire to reform. He belongs to an anti-drinking club and an anti-smoking club back home and criticizes the non-stop smoking and drinking that happens ashore and on board. Now I'm not really sure Melville isn't poking fun as his younger self here. Redburn is so naive and innocent it seems like a put on at times. It is this wedge between Redburn and the rest of the crew that provides much of the conflict and humor in the book.
There are lots of great characters in Redburn, the contemptible Jackson, the weird and perhaps homicidal Barry and the immigrant Carlo. I think the book is most notable portion of the book is the tribulations of the immigrants on the passage from Liverpool to New York. The mostly Irish bunch, around 500, are housed in incredibly cramped and unclean conditions. They have one fire to cook over and only have a very rudimentary idea of the duration and hardships they're going to face. In many ways their experiences and surprise at the conditions mirror the feelings that Redburn has on the outward voyage.
Redburn might not be as deep and important as Moby Dick, but it's more consistently entertaining and paints a better picture of life ashore.

Rating 7.5/10: A fun fast-paced read with lively characters and interesting social commentary.

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