Social History and the Politics of Manhood in Melville's 'Redburn.'

By Rowe, Joyce A. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Social History and the Politics of Manhood in Melville's 'Redburn.'


Rowe, Joyce A., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Among the many conflicts which characterize American culture, few are more deeply rooted than that between the claims of free enterprise and those of social justice. Few contending claims are more difficult to reconcile and also more prone to political smoothing over through rhetorical recourse to "middle-class" values. Perhaps, then, this is the time to look back at the Jacksonian era with a view to suggesting the degree of family resemblance between nineteenth-century entrepreneurship and twentieth-century corporate capitalism. Certainly, the two seem to share a common ideology and a reluctance to consider the psychic cost of economic survival in bourgeois society.

No American thinker or artist in either the nineteenth century or up to the present brooded longer or to greater effect upon the tragic paradoxes of American individualism that did Herman Melville. Perhaps because his own coming-of-age was just a step behind that of the nation in the Jacksonian period, Melville was particularly sensitive to the way that the interaction of capitalism and democracy--those bitterly entwined historic siblings--shaped middle-class male identity in America. Redburn (1849), a fictional autobiography set in the Jacksonian era, was his first attempt to explore these issues in a realistic setting, making this work particularly relevant for an understanding of the problems that continue to plague Americans today.

Melville intended Redburn to be a "plain, straightforward, amusing narrative" (qtd. in Leyda 306) that would win back the popular audience he had lost with the creatively venturesome, but allegorically turgid Mardi. Recently married and with a first-born son, Melville felt a pressing need for cash. The book that was to help meet the demands of fatherhood is, tellingly, the story of a genteel adolescent boy, Wellingborough Redburn, whose father died a bankrupt (as had Allan Melvill when Herman was twelve) and who, therefore, must leave home and go to sea as a common sailor. Taking the form of a first-person retrospective by the adult Redburn, the novel chronicles the boy's experiences among his illiterate shipmates and the wretched poor of Liverpool, but its emotional center lies in the loss of the father and the role played by Redburn's memory of him in his uncertain sense of place in the world.

The deep interconnection in Melville's work between identity formation and sociopolitical consciousness has not gone unnoticed by various critics (see Bercovitch, Rogin, Tolchin). In particular, Michael Bell's "Redburn: Initiation and Authority" focuses on Redburn's struggle with failed authority figures and his ensuing sense of betrayal and isolation. Building on Bell's attention to the problem of manhood in post-Revolutionary America, but grounding my interpretation in recent work by social historians of the Jacksonian period, I wish to argue that the plight of Melville's protagonist is designed to be not merely a moral judgment on the era but a complex response to survival anxieties produced by contradictory pressures within the emerging culture of bourgeois capitalism.

Redburn's "First Voyage" (the subtitle emphasizes the initiatory aspect) takes him from his village home in upstate New York to Liverpool and back again. Although the journey motif suggests the typical movement from innocence to experience, this rite of passage is at best equivocal, since the lesson of the voyage is the connection between isolation and self-preservation in a world in which individual survival is ultimately dependent upon an arbitrary fate. As the older narrator asserts at the end of the novel, "But yet, I, Wellingborough Redburn, chance to survive..." (312; emphasis mine). Indeed, Redburn's premature exposure to a heartless world enacts an extreme version of a pattern of filial separation and class dislocation which appears to have been widespread among Jacksonian youth.

Joseph Kett has shown that in antebellum America (sources are largely focused on the northeast), leaving home had become a rite of passage for girls and boys at all social levels, many of whom would later meld into the new middle-class culture forming in towns and cities. …

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