I went into Reburn thinking I’d like it, but it exceeded my expectations. It’s no Moby Dick or The Confidence Man, but few books are. Here I see glimmerings of what will come in Moby Dick, but yet it is it’s own work.
It is narrated by Wellingborough Redburn, a greenhorn if there ever were one. His family has fallen on hard times, and, lacking better options, he takes a berth as a boy (referring to his rank as well his age) on a ship called the Highlander bound across the Atlantic to Liverpool England. Though he is poor, he has no idea how to function aboard ship. He is a pious young man. The early stages of the book are both his maturing/learning the ropes of sailing and a very funny satire that pulls the rug from under that piety and represents the skewering of society that Melville’s later books would perfect. It is not as boisterously multicultural as Moby Dick, nor as harsh on slavery as The Confidence Man. It is not as funny or openly proto-existentialist as those either, but it does represent an early instantiation of those themes.
Near the end, Melville takes a strong stance against the anti-immigration movement of his day; on the return voyage from Liverpool, the Highlander takes on a large number of Irish emigrants. The anti-Catholic immigration rhetoric of the 1840’s and 50s is a copy/paste away from fitting into current attitudes toward muslim and hispanic refugees. For whatever casual racism of the day that lingers in his language, Melville really understood these things, an insight that reading Typee gave me. I’m not arguing that Melville was “ahead of his time.” I have used that formation before, I know, but I’ve come to think it’s rooted in an wrongheaded view that progress is inevitable and easily understood. That said, Melville was on the right side of a lot of issues of his day.
Some of this is clearly rooted in his autobiography. It is an excellent coming of age story mixed with an equally effective seafaring adventure. While it’s clearly not as good as Moby Dick, it is very good, and I can see how this would be a bestseller. And the things that made Melville’s later work so special are here as well, if not quite so well developed. I will be rereading this, I’m sure. And I’m even more looking forward to White-Jacket and Pierre now.
Owned But Previously Unread 2021