Academic journal article Leviathan

The Historical and Literary Sources of Redburn's "Mysterious Night in London"

Academic journal article Leviathan

The Historical and Literary Sources of Redburn's "Mysterious Night in London"

Article excerpt

Chapter 46 of Redburn, "A Mysterious Night in London," has long remained a sticking point in a number of critical evaluations of the novel. The story of young Redburn's traumatic overnight experience with his new friend Harry Bolton at Aladdin's Palace, a fashionable London gambling "hell," is, in the opinion of some commentators, a melodramatic excrescence in an otherwise compelling account of a teenage boy's initiation into the evils and injustices of the world. Hershel Parker, for example, argues that the scene is "lurid" and "unconvincing," an exercise in literary padding. Robert K. Martin similarly suggests the inadequacy of the same episode, adducing the author's attempt to depict an upper-class London gambling club and ostensible "male brothel" without actually having patronized these establishments. (1) Although the scene has defenders who point to its garish intensity and its revelation of the character of Harry Bolton, others agree with Parker and Martin that the events at Aladdin's Palace are too factitious and overdrawn to serve as an authentic picture of fashionable vice in what was intended as an upper-class counterpart to the depiction of lower-class misery in the port of Liverpool. (2) Moreover, despite its alleged artificiality, several critics assume, like Martin, that Aladdin's Palace hints at a male brothel as well as a gambling hell; but no one so far has attempted to substantiate this claim with relevant literary or historical evidence. (3)

In his informative study of Redburn, William H. Gilman first demonstrated that the experience described in "A Mysterious Night in London" could not have been based on the author's firsthand experience since during his stay in Liverpool in August 1839 Melville apparently had no time for a trip to London. As a result, Melville presumably relied on literary and historical sources for the conception and details of this chapter. Gilman notes the similarities in imagery between the luxurious furnishings in Aladdin's Palace and the lush setting of the second of Melville's 1839 "Fragments from a Writing Desk," both of them bearing the stamp of the popular Romantic Orientalism of the day, as found in Byron ("The Bride of Abydos," Don Juan), Moore (Lalla Rookh), and The Arabian Nights" Entertainments. In addition to these influences, Parker has also identified a melodramatic story, "The Gambler's Fate," published in the July 1837 Albany Microscope, as a revealing analogue. The unsigned story, which Melville may have read, tells of a young man named "Melvil" who accompanies a friend, Russell, to a London gambling hell, with disastrous consequences. Parker makes no claim for "The Gambler's Fate" as a source for the scene at Aladdin's Palace (or for Melville as the unacknowledged author of the story), but he effectively demonstrates that Melville's chapter might have a more varied literary ancestry than Gilman suggests. (4)

Given that Melville had no firsthand experience of a fashionable London gambling club at the time he wrote Redburn, the question remains, what other literary or historical sources could he have used for the creation of Chapter 46? In fact, the description of Redburn's and Harry Bohon's visit to Aladdin's Palace was almost certainly inspired by the most famous London gambling club of the era, Crockford's on St. James's Street, opened in 1828 and closed in 1845, membership to which was de rigueur for the contemporary man of fashion. By combining an examination of the visit to Aladdin's Palace in Redburn with the many evocations of the famous club in both fact and fiction, we can identify Melville's likely sources for Chapter 46 of Redburn and also make better sense of what actually happens at the luridly elegant "hell" depicted therein. We will also discover that the scene enacted at Aladdin's Palace bears a generic resemblance to scenes found in some of the fashionable "silver fork" novels of the era, while the character of Harry Bolton conforms to the type of elegantly dressed "dandy" who flourished in the early decades of the nineteenth century and often played a conspicuous role in silver fork fiction. …

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