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For the village of Redburn, see Redburn, Northumberland.
Redburn His First Voyage.jpg
First edition title page
Author Herman Melville
Country United States, England
Language English
Genre Travel literature
  • 1849 (New York: Harper & Brothers)
  • 1849 (London: Richard Bentley)
Media type Print
Preceded by Mardi
Followed by White_Jacket

Redburn: His First Voyage[1] is the fourth book by American writer Herman Melville, first published in London in 1849. The book is semi-autobiographical and recounts the adventures of a refined youth among coarse and brutal sailors and the seedier areas of Liverpool. The book does make some social criticisms, including attacks on the evils of drinking alcohol. It contains one of the more notable examples of spontaneous combustion in literature.[note]

Melville wrote Redburn within ten weeks. While "arguably his funniest work,"[2] scholar F.O. Matthiessen cites it as "the most moving of its author's books before Moby-Dick."[3]


Unable to find employment at home and deciding to go to sea, young Wellingborough Redburn signs on the Highlander, a merchantman out of New York City and bound for Liverpool, England. Representing himself as the "son of a gentleman" and expecting comparable treatment as such, he very soon discovers that he is just a green hand, a "boy", the lowest rank on the ship, assigned all the duties no other sailor wants (like cleaning out the "pig-pen", a longboat serving as a shipboard sty). The first mate promptly nicknames him "Buttons" for the shiny rows of them that adorn his impractical, unseamanlike jacket. As his education at sea commences, he begins to understand the workings of ship politics. As a common seaman he can have no intercourse "behind the mast" where the officers command the ship. Before the mast, where the common seaman work and live, there is a man named Jackson, the best seaman aboard, and a bully who is feared by all. Uneducated yet cunning, with broken nose and squinting eye, he is described as "a Cain afloat, branded on his yellow brow with some inscrutable curse and going about corrupting and searing every heart that beat near him." With an iron fist, Jackson rules "before the mast". Redburn soon experiences all the trials of a greenhorn: seasickness, scrubbing decks, climbing masts in the dead of night to unfurl sails; life in the forecastle with its cramped quarters and bad food. They eventually land in Liverpool where he is given liberty ashore.

Launcelott's Hey, 1843

He rents a room and every day walks the city. One day in a street called Launcelott's Hey he stumbles on a sight that will haunt him for the rest of the voyage. From a cellar beneath an old warehouse he hears "a feeble wail" and looking into it sees "the figure of what had been a woman. Her blue arms folded to her livid bosom two shrunken things like children, that leaned toward her, one on each side. At first I knew not whether they were alive or dead. They made no sign; they did not move or stir; but from the vault came that soul-sickening wail." He notices the child lift its head and then the mother looks at him for a moment. A woman and two girls "with hearts which, though they did not bound with blood, yet beat with a dull, dead ache that was their life." He runs for help but everywhere is met with indifference. A ragpicker, a porter, his landlady, even a policeman who tells him to mind his own business. He returns with some bread and cheese and drops them into the vault; but they are too weak to even lift it to their mouths. The mother whispers "water" so he runs and fills his tarpaulin hat at an open hydrant. The girls drink and revive enough to nibble some cheese. Something compels him and he clasps the mother's arms and pulls them aside to see the most haunting image of all: "a meager babe, the lower part of its body thrust into an old bonnet. Its face was dazzlingly white, even in its squalor; but the closed eyes looked like balls of indigo. It must have been dead for some hours." Judging them too far gone for any medicine to help he returns to his room. A few days later he revisits the street and finds the vault empty. "In place of the woman and children, a heap of quick-lime was glistening."

On the docks he meets Harry Bolton, a dandy who claims to be a sailor looking for a job, and Redburn helps him procure a berth on the Highlander for the return voyage. They become fast friends and make a trip to London where they visit a luxurious gambling house. The ship soon departs for New York where Bolton's deficits as sailor become apparent. Redburn suspects that Bolton could never have been to sea before. He is persecuted and tormented by the crew. Jackson has been ill, not leaving his bed for four weeks. On his first day of active duty he climbs to the topsail yard but suddenly vomits "a torrent of blood from his lungs," and falls head first into the sea never to resurface. The crew never speak his name again. His death is their deliverance. At port Redburn and Bolton go their separate ways, the former to his home and the latter to ship aboard a whaler. Redburn later hears that Bolton, far out in the Pacific, had fallen over the side and was drowned.

Character List[edit]

  • Wellingborough Redburn (a.k.a., Buttons)
  • Redburn's elder brother (unnamed in the book)
  • Mr. Jones
  • Captain Riga
  • The Highlander Crew
    • The suicidal sailor
    • Jackson
    • Max the Dutchman
    • The Greenlander
    • Mr Thompson, the cook, aka, the Doctor
    • Lavender
    • Jack Blunt
    • Larry
    • Gun-Deck
  • The Liverpool Docks
    • Danby
    • Mary, Danby's wife
    • Bob Still, Danby's old crony
    • Townspeople, other foreign sailors, policemen, the poor, the beggars, the depraved
  • Harry Bolton
  • Miguel Saveda
  • Carlo
  • The O'Briens and the O'Regans
  • Goodwell

Development & publication history[edit]

The first known allusion to Redburn appeared in a letter to Melville's English publisher, in the late spring of 1849, in which he stated the novel would be practical rather than follow the "unwise" course of his heavily-criticised previous novel, Mardi.

This more commercial approach to writing came as Melville's working conditions worsened and his family obligations increased. Now living with him in the small house in New York city were his wife, child, mother, sisters, and his brother Allen with his wife and child. Melville later portrayed himself at this time as being forced to write "with duns all around him, & looking over the back of his chair—& perching on his pen & diving in his inkstand—like the devils about St. Anthony."[4]

The book is a fictional narrative based loosely on Melville's own first voyage to Liverpool in 1839. The manuscript was completed in less than ten weeks and, without any attempt at polish, was submitted to his American publisher Harper & Bros who published it in November 1849. The proof sheets, which came out in August, were checked by the author and sent along to Bentley for publication in England. The book actually appeared there six weeks before the American version. In 1922 it was published as a volume of the Constable edition of Melville's complete works. Since then it has been continuously in print in inexpensive hard cover editions and after 1957 in paperback.[5]


Melville referred to it and his next book White-Jacket as "two jobs which I have done for money—being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood".[6] After it was praised, Melville felt stung and wrote in his journal, "I, the author, know [it] to be trash, & wrote it to buy some tobacco with".[6] It was reviewed favorably in all the influential publications, American and British, with many critics hailing it as Melville's return to his original style.[note] The critics were divided along national lines when reviewing the scene in Launcelots Hey, the British dubbing it "improbable", the Americans "powerful". In 1884 William Clark Russell, the most popular writer of sea stories in his generation, praised the book's force and accuracy in print. He also sent Melville a personal letter where, among other items, he said "I have been reading your Redburn for the third or fourth time and have closed it more deeply impressed with the descriptive power that vitalises every page."[7] John Masefield would later single the book out as his favorite of Melville's works. Melville's disappointment that Mardi was panned while Redburn praised cannot be overstated. He would later complain "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."[8]

Elizabeth Hardwick judges many passages of the book as displaying a certain rhetorical brilliance. "Throughout Melville's writing's there is a liberality of mind, a freedom from vulgar superstition, occasions again and again for an oratorical insertion of enlightened opinion."[9] As example she points to this passage in chapter 33 where Melville describes the German immigrants preparing for their voyage to America.

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, should forever extinguish prejudices or national dislikes.... You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world.... Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.

Analysis and interpretations[edit]

There have been many different interpretations of Redburn but the most common approaches fall into two different schools. The first, usually called the biographical school, may be found in the books on Melville written in the twenties by critics such as Raymond Weaver, John Freeman, and Lewis Mumford. Typifying this school's approach is Mumford's statement that:

In Redburn, Melville went back to his youth and traced his feelings about life and his experience up to his eighteenth year. The book is autobiography, with only the faintest disguises: Bleecker Street becomes Greenwich Street, and the other changes are of a similar order.[10]

By the 1950s, a second school arose which might be called the "mythic" school. The most influential statement of this school is an interpretation found in Newton Arvin's Herman Melville:

The outward subject of the book is a young boy's first voyage as a sailor before the mast; its inward subject is the initiation of innocence into evil—the opening of the guileless spirit to the discovery of "the wrong," as James would say, "to the knowledge of it, to the crude experience of it." The subject is a permanent one for literature, of course, but it has also a peculiarly American dimension.[11]

This new approach to Melville interpretation appeared amid a much broader critical movement that sought to reinterpret American literature—Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Faulkner, and Hemingway—in the light of mythic quests and patterns.[12]


1.^ Along with Charles Dickens' Bleak House.
2.^ The reviews were nearly all anonymous although, through recent scholarship, many have been either determined or attributed.


  1. ^ The full title is Redburn: His First Voyage: Being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service. See the Library of America edition edited by George Thomas Tanselle. ISBN 0-940450-09-7
  2. ^ Blum (2011), 159
  3. ^ Matthiessen (1941), 396
  4. ^ Hershel Parker (ed.) (1969) [First published 1849]. "Historical Note". Redburn. Chicago: Northwestern-Newberry. pp. 318–319. ISBN 0-8101-0016-9. 
  5. ^ Parker, 345
  6. ^ a b Delbanco, Andrew: Melville, His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005: 111. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
  7. ^ Parker, 344
  8. ^ Parker, 323
  9. ^ Hardwick, Elizabeth (2000). Herman Melville. New York: Viking. p. 27. ISBN 0-670-89158-4. 
  10. ^ Mumford, Lewis (1929). Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision. New York. p. 71. 
  11. ^ Arvin, Newton (1950). Herman Melville. New York: William Sloane Associates, Inc. p. 104. ISBN 0802138713. 
  12. ^ Schroeter, James (November 1967). "Redburn and the Failure of Mythic Criticism". American Literature 39 (3): 279–297. doi:10.2307/2923295. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 


  • Blum, Hester. (2011). "Melville and the novel of the sea." The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Eds. Leonard Cassuto, Clare Virginia Eby, and Benjamin Reiss. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521899079
  • Matthiessen, F.O. (1941). American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Entry for Redburn @