His First Voyage
Being the Sailor-boy
Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman,
in the Merchant Service.
Who, where why?:Is a fictional/biographical book by Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 - September 28, 1891) who only 16 years at the time sailed for Liverpool, England as a seaman. Redburn was not published until 1849 and in the time between Herman had worked as a teacher in Lansingburg, Massachusetts (USA), a whaler and as an office clerk in Honolulu, Hawai. His travelings came to an end in 1847 when he got married to Elizabeth Shaw but he still had to work. So it is that Redburn was written for money, in a personal letter1 he said of it "I hope I shall never write such a book again". The poor fellow needed not abase himself so for as far as I am concerned it is a most enjoyable book. Although to think that the author himself thought of it as a potential $ takes away a part of the charm. The book is dedicated to his younger brother Thomas.
Remember that this is the 19th century whence there were respectable ladies and men who wore wigs. Redburns full name is Wellingborough Redburn but it was rarely used, his fellow seamen called him "Buttons". The fascinating aspect of his story is not the storyline nor its charachter sketches, they are simple to grasp and straight-forward. There is no murder mystery, emotional attachment nor missing nuclear sub.
Is there a plot to speak of?: To get to the sea, Redburn had to leave his small hometown to arrive at New York, from there Young Redburn sails to Liverpool where the ship docks for a while. Redburn found it hard to cope and harder still to impress the Russian Captain Riga. He is an adventurous fellow who sets about sight-seeing, meeting all sorts of people. Not having any known relatives or freinds in Liverpool and being alien to his shipmates he quickly passes from one thing to the other. He does make freind of a Brit, Harry, who takes him on an eventful two day trip to London. After having taken on supplies and passengers (very catholic immigrants) the ship returns carrying Redburn back home.
I have a few pages left and I'm not telling you how it ends. The story reminds me of, and yet is very unsimiliar to, Franz Kafkas The Trial. For the destinies of Josef K in it and Redburns are not important. To speak nothing of what I appreciated about Josefs imminent judgement, Redburns captivates me with it's narrative style. The sixtytwo chapters have naive titles like "Chapter 12 - He Gives Some Account of One of His Shipmates Called Jackson", "Chapter 41 - Redburn Roves About Hither and Thither" or "Chapter 55: Drawing Nigh to the Last Scene in Jackson's Career". Curious isn't it?
1: ... I hope I shall never write such a book again -- Tho' when a poor devil writes with duns all round him, & looking over the back of his chair -- & perching on his pen & diving in his inkstand -- like the devils about St: Anthony -- what can you expect of that poor devil? -- What but a beggarly Redburn!
--Letter to Evert Duyckinck, December 14 1849 | http://www.melville.org/hmquotes.htm