Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Work of Redburn: Melville's Critique of Capitalism

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Work of Redburn: Melville's Critique of Capitalism

Article excerpt

While Herman Melville claims that he wrote Redburn simply for money, very little attention has been paid to the novel's treatment of socioeconomic issues. Melville notoriously told his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw that the texts of both Redburn and White Jacket were "two jobs, which I have done for money--being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood" (Writings of Herman Melville, 138). Such a claim implies a certain level of authorial disinterest, yet Redburn seems to serve as an account of Melville's own life, especially his first ocean voyage. More importantly, given Melville's biographical and authorial history, Redburn serves as Melville's critique of capitalism, a critique that seems especially important during this time of worldwide economic crisis. In the same letter to his father-in-law concerning Redburn and White Jacket, Melville adds that "I have not repressed myself very much--so far as they are concerned; but have spoken pretty much as I feel" (138). This claim is particularly true regarding Redburn and Melville's clear disapproval of capitalism. Like many of my contemporaries currently struggling in our own contemporary economic climate, Redburn makes it clear that Melville views capitalism as an alienating force, a hindrance to the American Dream, and a cause of social injustice throughout the Western world.

At the beginning of Melville's bildungsroman it is apparent that Redburn is, although young and naive, already somewhat aware of the socioeconomic systems that shape his life and the oppression that these systems can cause. Redburn relates that "Sad disappointments in several plans which I had sketched for my future life" and the "necessity to do something for myself ... had now conspired with me, to send me to sea as a sailor" (3). While the sources of Redburn's "sad disappointments" are never alluded to directly, it is implied that these disappointments are economic ones, probably related to the death of his own father sometime prior. As Jonathan L. Hall asserts, "The past has failed him" (4), and it can be added that specifically, Redburn's economic past has failed him. Economic forces create a need for Redburn to leave home and seek work at a young age, showing one of Melville's chief concerns with capitalism. It is also for economic reasons that Redburn's older brother gives him a shooting-jacket and a fowling-piece, the jacket to keep him warm on his first sailing journey and the rifle to exchange for capital in New York. These articles will prove to be central symbols in Melville's critique of capitalism, as Redburn begins his journey without the pieces of material culture necessary for him to compete and participate fully in a capitalist society.

Although Redburn is at first driven out into the working world by economic need, it becomes clear early in the novel that he lacks a compulsory understanding of capitalist processes. Redburn is attracted to an idealized notion of sailor life, and one of the key reasons for this attraction is his misunderstanding of capitalism. Perusing an advertisement in a New York newspaper, Redburn imagines a ship's cargo as consisting of romanticized "musty bales, and cases of silks and satins" that would make him feel "contempt for the vile deckloads of hay and lumber, with which my river experience was familiar" (4). Redburn here mistakenly imagines an exchange and circulation of commodities that empowers him with a status above his previous labor. He further shows his misinterpretation of capitalism when he notes that the Redburn household contains "several pieces of furniture ... which had been brought from Europe," causing him to examine them "again and again, wondering where the wood grew; whether the workmen who made them still survived, and what they could be doing with themselves now" (6). Clearly, Redburn's naivete has blinded him to the conditions of such workers and the conditions that will shape his own life as he grows and becomes one of these workers. …

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