We’ve been reading extracts from Herman Melville’s Redburn. The book deals with the first seagoing voyage of 19 years old Wellingborough Redburn between New York and Liverpool in 1839. Largely autobiographical and based on Melville’s own life, the middle sections of the book are based in Liverpool and describe the young merchantman’s wanderings therein, and his reflections. His father before him had made the return journey many times and Redburn brought with him a treasured guide to Liverpool his father had used. This would have been the 1805 edition of The Picture of Liverpool or Stranger’s Guide which was frequently updated. You can get a fascimile of the guide at the Liverpool History Society. At the time, as to some extent now, Liverpool was being torn down and rebuilt, and young Redburn was disappointed to find much of the guide referred to places already gone. He was astonished to that his imaginary childhood vision of Liverpool, coloured by his father’s tales and the engravings of fine buildings in the guide, proved to be so different. In particular he was struck by the appalling poverty he encountered. The chapters dealing with Liverpool are:
XXVII. HE GETS A PEEP AT IRELAND, AND AT LAST ARRIVES AT LIVERPOOL
XXVIII. HE GOES TO SUPPER AT THE SIGN OF THE BALTIMORE CLIPPER
XXIX. REDBURN DEFERENTIALLY DISCOURSES CONCERNING THE PROSPECTS OF SAILORS
XXX. REDBURN GROWS INTOLERABLY FLAT AND STUPID OVER SOME OUTLANDISH OLD GUIDE-BOOKS
XXXI. WITH HIS PROSY OLD GUIDE-BOOK, HE TAKES A PROSY STROLL THROUGH THE TOWN
XXXII. THE DOCKS
XXXIII. THE SALT-DROGHERS, AND GERMAN EMIGRANT SHIPS
XXXIV. THE IRRAWADDY
XXXV. GALLIOTS, COAST-OF-GUINEA-MAN, AND FLOATING CHAPEL
XXXVI. THE OLD CHURCH OF ST. NICHOLAS, AND THE DEAD-HOUSE
XXXVII. WHAT REDBURN SAW IN LAUNCELOTT’S-HEY
XXXVIII. THE DOCK-WALL BEGGARS
XXXIX. THE BOOBLE-ALLEYS OF THE TOWN
XL. PLACARDS, BRASS-JEWELERS, TRUCK-HORSES, AND STEAMERS
XLI. REDBURN ROVES ABOUT HTHER AND THITHER
XLII. HIS ADVENTURE WITH THE CROSS OLD GENTLEMAN
XLIII. HE TAKES A DELIGHTFUL RAMBLE INTO THE COUNTRY; AND MAKES THE ACQUAINTANCE OF THREE ADORABLE CHARMERS
XLIV. REDBURN INTRODUCES MASTER HARRY BOLTON TO THE FAVORABLE CONSIDERATION OF THE READER
The novel is very engrossing, often amusing, sometimes startlingly horrible in its depiction of human misery. The tremendous energy of the docklands comes across in all its force. It’s interesting to note too how small the city itself was then despite its magnificent buildings. Redburn recounts strolling up London Road to find himself soon out among fields where he encounters ‘three adorable charmers’.
One of the most memorable chapters in the book is 37, What Redburn Saw in Launcelott’s-Hey (now demolished). He heard from a grating he was passing in the ground a sound:
Once, passing through this place, I heard a feeble wail, which seemed to come out of the earth. It was but a strip of crooked side-walk where I stood; the dingy wall was on every side, converting the mid-day into twilight; and not a soul was in sight. I started, and could almost have run, when I heard that dismal sound. It seemed the low, hopeless, endless wail of some one forever lost. At last I advanced to an opening which communicated downward with deep tiers of cellars beneath a crumbling old warehouse; and there, some fifteen feet below the walk, crouching in nameless squalor, with her head bowed over, was 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.
I made a noise with my foot, which, in the silence, echoed far and near; but there was no response. Louder still; when one of the children lifted its head, and cast upward a faint glance; then closed its eyes, and lay motionless. The woman also, now gazed up, and perceived me; but let fall her eye again. They were dumb and next to dead with want. How they had crawled into that den, I could not tell; but there they had crawled to die. At that moment I never thought of relieving them; for death was so stamped in their glazed and unimploring eyes, that I almost regarded them as already no more. I stood looking down on them, while my whole soul swelled within me; and I asked myself, What right had any body in the wide world to smile and be glad, when sights like this were to be seen? It was enough to turn the heart to gall; and make a man-hater of a Howard. For who were these ghosts that I saw? Were they not human beings? A woman and two girls? With eyes, and lips, and ears like any queen? with hearts which, though they did not bound with blood, yet beat with a dull, dead ache that was their life.
At last, I walked on toward an open lot in the alley, hoping to meet there some ragged old women, whom I had daily noticed groping amid foul rubbish for little particles of dirty cotton, which they washed out and sold for a trifle.
I found them; and accosting one, I asked if she knew of the persons I had just left. She replied, that she did not; nor did she want to. I then asked another, a miserable, toothless old woman, with a tattered strip of coarse baling stuff round her body. Looking at me for an instant, she resumed her raking in the rubbish, and said that she knew who it was that I spoke of; but that she had no time to attend to beggars and their brats. Accosting still another, who seemed to know my errand, I asked if there was no place to which the woman could be taken. “Yes,” she replied, “to the church-yard.” I said she was alive, and not dead.
“Then she’ll never die,” was the rejoinder. “She’s been down there these three days, with nothing to eat;—that I know myself.”
“She desarves it,” said an old hag, who was just placing on her crooked shoulders her bag of pickings, and who was turning to totter off, “that Betsy Jennings desarves it—was she ever married? tell me that.”
He appealed to a policeman who was not interested. He went back the next day with some food and dropped it to them. Then they were gone, cleaned away. We spent some time discussing this episode, especially whether walking on by or ignoring the suffering was as common. Although we largely see things through the young Redburn’s eyes, the novel chapters are headed by a man looking back on his past, now more mature and able to reflect. He concludes this chapter:
Ah! what are our creeds, and how do we hope to be saved? Tell me, oh Bible, that story of Lazarus again, that I may find comfort in my heart for the poor and forlorn. Surrounded as we are by the wants and woes of our fellowmen, and yet given to follow our own pleasures, regardless of their pains, are we not like people sitting up with a corpse, and making merry in the house of the dead?
Another section we spent time on, especially in comparing then with now, and in the context of our considerations of this being the year of the City of Radicals, was Chapter 29 which describes the life of the sailor in Liverpool. A question Melville raises, as it was beginning to be raised throughout the nineteenth century – and continues to be raised – concerns the place of not only the world’s sailors perhaps:
There are classes of men in the world, who bear the same relation to society at large, that the wheels do to a coach: and are just as indispensable. But however easy and delectable the springs upon which the insiders pleasantly vibrate: however sumptuous the hammer-cloth, and glossy the door-panels; yet, for all this, the wheels must still revolve in dusty, or muddy revolutions. No contrivance, no sagacity can lift them out of the mire; for upon something the coach must be bottomed; on something the insiders must roll.
Now, sailors form one of these wheels: they go and come round the globe; they are the true importers, and exporters of spices and silks; of fruits and wines and marbles; they carry missionaries, embassadors, opera-singers, armies, merchants, tourists, and scholars to their destination: they are a bridge of boats across the Atlantic; they are the primum mobile of all commerce; and, in short, were they to emigrate in a body to man the navies of the moon, almost every thing would stop here on earth except its revolution on its axis, and the orators in the American Congress.
And yet, what are sailors? What in your heart do you think of that fellow staggering along the dock? Do you not give him a wide berth, shun him, and account him but little above the brutes that perish? Will you throw open your parlors to him; invite him to dinner? or give him a season ticket to your pew in church?—No. You will do no such thing; but at a distance, you will perhaps subscribe a dollar or two for the building of a hospital, to accommodate sailors already broken down; or for the distribution of excellent books among tars who can not read. And the very mode and manner in which such charities are made, bespeak, more than words, the low estimation in which sailors are held. It is useless to gainsay it; they are deemed almost the refuse and offscourings of the earth; and the romantic view of them is principally had through romances.
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