Herman Melville, “Redburn”: Workplace Cultures

Melville named Typee and Mardi after the places that the narrator ran to from the ship.  Omoo simply refers to the “wanderers.”  These three earlier novels talk about searching, discontent, and mobility.  Reburn (and later White-jacket) is named after the narrator.  Redburn is not about escape but about a young man coming to terms with disciplinary regimens, alien workplace cultures, and brutal indifference in a foreign land.  With Reburn, Melville stops discussing the libertarian urge for autonomy and about the real world that most of us live in – a life of work, crushing authority, discipline and alienation.  In this world, evil is not an exceptional event but it is intertwined in the structures of everyday life.  To quote C. L. R. James, Melville is beginning to describe “the World We Live In.”   With this post, I am beginning the second volume of the Library of America‘s collection of Melville’s work, containing RedburnWhite-jacket, and Moby-Dick.

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Background and Summary
Redburn emerged from Melville’s frustration with the poor reception of Mardi.  It did not sell and Melville needed money since he was now married with a son.  The novel was written quickly and drew heavily on his own experiences.  Redburn tells the story of Wellingborough Redburn on his first voyage on the merchant ship.  He sails to Liverpool, experiences that industrial city, and is spirited away to London for a night by a bit of a vagrant who be befriends.  He returns to the ship and sails home to New York, where he is denied a salary due to his “escape.”  The vast majority of the novel focuses on Redburn’s naivety  and his failure to come to terms with the workplace culture, his observations of the crew, his horror at what he sees in Liverpool, and his attempts to gain the respect of the officers of the crew.  It is a coming of age tale, and one in which maturity is the result of repeated failures.

Workplace culture
Redburn’s first struggle is to enter the workplace culture of the ship.  Entering the ship as a “boy” Redburn is not respected by either officers or crew.  He did not understand any of the unwritten rules of ship life: the proper way to interact with officers, the meaning of workplace slang, the use of tobacco and drink (Redburn starts the novel as an advocate of temperance, which he abandons by the end of the novel), and even the proper, “manly,” ways to deal with fear.  Through his failures, the narrator describes the tension between individualism and culture.  Although naive, Redburn starts as a fairly self-assured individual, confidently sailing on a ship, a strong believer in temperance, and with a plan to gain the friendship of the captain, within the first few chapters the failures of this individualism is apparent.  It fails because it did not account for the way the world of the ship actually functioned.  Without these unwritten rules, beliefs and practices, the ship could not have functioned.  He only earns some baseline respect from the crew when he learns to integrate himself into this culture.

Needless to say, this workplace culture is authoritarian.   It demanded more from Redburn than the disciplinary structure of the ship.  Resisting or reforming this workplace culture is not possible for someone in Redburn’s position.  This brings us to Redburn’s antagonist in the novel: Jackson.

Jackson
Jackson is one force on the ship that isolates Redburn more than any other.  He has a forceful personality and if in a position of command reminds us of Ahab or Wolf Larsen from Jack London’s Sea-Wolf.  He understands the pyschology of others and willfully manipulates his knowledge.  His dislike for Redburn helped enforce the narrator’s isolation and account for many of his frustrations and anxieties.  “He was a great bully, and being the best seaman on board, and very overbearing every way, all the men were afraid of him, and durst not contradict him, or cross his path in any thing.  And what made this more wonderful was, that he was the weakest man, bodily, of the whole crew; and I have no doubt that young and small as I was then, compared to what I am now, I could have thrown him down.  But he had such an over-awing way with him; such a deal of brass and impudence, such an unflinching face, and withal was such a hideous looking mortal, that Satan himself would have run from him.  And besides all this, it was quite plain, that he was by nature a marvelously clever, cunning man, though without education; and understood human nature to a kink, and well knew whom he had to deal with; and then, one glance of his squinting eye, was as good as a knock-down, for it was the most deep, subtle, infernal looking eye, that I ever saw lodged in a human head.”  (67)  According to C. L. R. James, for Melville, Jackson is the product of a brutal working class culture.  “Jackson is a worker whose evil character Melville attributes to the suffering and misery which society imposes upon the class to which he belonged. . . . Melville knew workers and workers are not people who in revenge wish to destroy the world.” (James, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, 76-77).  The problem in the workplace is not so unlike the problem in intentional communities.  While it can be a place of worker self-management, it is also easily dominated by people of strong personalities.  Perhaps Jackson is reflecting the authority structure of the ship.  Melville has much more to say about the impact of authoritarian structures on the sailors in White Jacket.

Europe
Redburn sees in Liverpool harsh inequalities.  If he is speaking for Melville, then Melville is continuing the old American critique of Europe, in particular England, as a realm of inequality, decadence, poverty, and oppression.  As nasty as the ship is for Redburn, the poverty and indifference in Liverpool are a shock.  That the return “cargo” is made up of emigrants to America is not a coincidence.  It is Melville’s celebration of the relative democracy and equality of America (even if not always actualized on the ship).  Redburn witnesses the making of America as a multinational republic.  The U.S. imperialism dominating so much of Melville’s, Pacific writing disappears as he engages in a bit of American myth-making.  “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own.  We are heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance.”

The only hope for Europe is found in the figure of Harry Bolton, a reckless liar and gambler.  It is him who is responsible for Redburn losing his wages, by whisking him off to London for a night (this was the justification for the captain withholding his wages).  He also lies about his maritime experience.  This lie will eventually  cost him his life when he dies on a whaling voyage, he was likely unprepared for.  Harry Bolton is Redburn’s friend and returns his meager wages to Captain Riga in response to Redburn’s being withheld.  This act of solidarity in the face of a duplicitous captain can be contrasted with the way the police of Liverpool deal with the poor and starving.

In one of the most memorable parts of Redburn, the narrator comes across a family starving to death in a cellar.  Redburn smuggles them food, but also informs the local police and some other local people about the dire condition of this family.  Redburn’s generosity is not enough to save the family, who died some days after he begins aiding them.

In a related event, even the impoverished sailors aid a wounded naval veteran who begs for coin on the docks.  This contrast teaches us that, as oppressive as the workplace culture can be to young sailors like Redburn, it is the working poor who can sustain real empathy.

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One response to “Herman Melville, “Redburn”: Workplace Cultures

  1. Pingback: One Year Anniversary | Neither Kings nor Americans

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